One thing for sure, Tiger still at golf's center

Tiger Woods makes a statement at the Sawgrass

Tiger Woods makes a statement at the Sawgrass Players Club in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. (Feb. 19, 2010) (Credit: AP)

There was so much criticism about Tiger Woods stealing attention from the Accenture Match Play Championship by making his long anticipated statement Friday that he might actually have given the tournament more attention.

Golfers at the big event in Arizona were not pleased about the distraction, but their comments did get extra air time for the sponsors whose logos they wear. It only proved that Woods creates a greater impact with his absence than anyone else does with their presence. And it is obvious that even after Woods' serial affairs caused his personal life to hit bottom, he still is king of the hill in golf.

Woods knows how much the sport depends on him and how much it wants him back. He also likely realized that any announcement about his return would have completely upstaged his own apology. So he was deliberately vague, saying only that he has not ruled out a comeback this year.

That, in turn, left golf hanging. As Nick Faldo said on Golf Channel right after the statement, "We're back to square one."

An appearance in the Masters seven weeks from now seems questionable, given that Woods said he was heading back to rehab. "It's a little bit harder than making a swing change," his Stanford buddy and fellow pro Notah Begay said to pool reporters at Woods' heavily covered event in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

The consensus is that Woods will come back when he is good and ready, and that, no matter how tarnished his aura might be, he still is and will be the most dominant golfer on Earth.

"I think if there's anything about Tiger Woods that's been evident over the last 14 years it is that when he sets his mind to something, and he brings the attention and focus that he can to do something, he has been successful," PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said during a news conference Friday.

John Ondrush, a Long Island golf fitness specialist who works with local pros and who worked with tour pros during the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black last year, said, "The thing I tell everybody is they have to remember this is Tiger Woods. He is the best golfer ever. His drive, his determination, his focus are second to none, even if his moral judgments were horrible."

That Woods allowed himself to be photographed jogging and practicing golf this week, decked out in his Nike gear, means he is on the way. "Tiger is doing all he needs to do, physically and with his game," Ondrush said. "The only thing he is not able to do is get himself mentally ready to compete in a tournament."

Woods was rusty after a hiatus to mourn his father in 2006. He missed the cut in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. He wasn't at his peak when he returned from major knee surgery last year, at the Accenture. But it didn't take him long to bounce back either time. He won two majors in 2006 and six PGA Tour events last year.

"Obviously I don't have a crystal ball, but knowing Tiger, he probably will be dominant right of out of the chute. He will not tee it up unless he knows he is putting well and he is kicking butt," NBC golf analyst Johnny Miller said on ESPN radio in Chicago.

The more fundamental golf question is how the game will manage until Woods' return. Finchem acknowledged how much the No. 1 celebrity means to the tour, but added that, with television and sponsorship contracts in place, "there aren't any direct implications in the short term, and when I say short term, I mean the next year or two."

Finchem said Woods' step toward returning in 2010 "pleases us a great deal."

Faldo, who has endured three divorces and had an ex-girlfriend trashing his Porsche with a golf club, suggested that Woods have his family travel with him at all times, which would be good for marriage repair and for the tour.

In any case, it seems that even as Woods is trying to restore his own shattered world, the golf world still is in his grip.

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