AUGUSTA, Ga. -- As the large clutch of spectators moved slowly toward the ninth green, with everyone trying to get whatever glimpse they could of Tiger Woods, a sole golfer was on the nearby 18th green, working on his short game almost completely unnoticed.
Who was that anonymous man, practicing putting from the fringe with his driver? It was merely the current No. 1 player in the world, Luke Donald. That just showed who really is No. 1 in golf, even after the personal scandal and injuries that have kept Woods from winning a major since the 2008 U.S. Open.
"This has a bit of a buzz about it," said Graeme McDowell, one of 13 golfers to have won the 14 majors since Woods won at Torrey Pines on a broken leg (Padraig Harrington is the only two-time winner in that span). McDowell had a front-row seat to Woods' resurgence two weeks ago, playing with him in the final group at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and losing soundly.
Many of the best players are at peak form heading into the tournament that starts Thursday (though Dustin Johnson withdrew with a back problem), with one particular golfer at the top of that peak. "Obviously, Tiger is the guy who pushes the needle the most," Donald said, adding that Rory McIlroy, seen as the potential next great golfer and rival for Woods, "gets a lot of attention now. But for me, that's probably a good thing. I can kind of go about my business."
The golf business does seem to do well when Woods is in contention, and it might do even better when he is perceived to have a rival. Right now, that appears to be McIlroy.
Woods never will receive the unanimous praise he once did. Parts of a new book by his old coach, Hank Haney, are unflattering. A report on ESPN.com Tuesday said that Woods has been out of touch with a half-brother who has serious health and financial issues.
Still, Woods is the golfer who people want most to see. That didn't change with that one-car crash in Orlando. Television ratings indicate that the public likes seeing him excel.
"You know, I think I have more shots than I did in 2000," Woods said, referring to the year he won three majors. Plus, he is back to the spot where he has won four times. "This is my 18th year, so I've spent just about half my life playing this tournament," he said.
But McDowell pointed out that other pros have grown in the past 3 ½ years. They now believe they can win and it is a mistake to assert that this is a one-man show or a two-way match between Woods and McIlroy.
"You know, Rory has never won here. Tiger has not won here since 2005," Lee Westwood said. "So I think everybody in this room would have to be naive to think it was a two-horse race, wouldn't they?"
Among favorites, Phil Mickelson is a distant third. "I'm cool with it," he said.
In the words of three-time Masters champion Gary Player, who will join Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus as an honorary starter Thursday, "You know, when Tiger Woods is playing his best, there's nobody better than Tiger Woods."