Purgatory over, Woods seeks redemption in Australia
“He still looks the same, still smiling,” one spectator said.
But there is, of course, a lot less to smile about.
Last year, Woods was No. 1, and practice-round spectators in Melbourne were numbered in the thousands rather than hundreds. Days later, a car crash and claims of marital infidelity presaged a world — and a game — about to fall apart.
In the year since New York party girl Rachel Uchitel was snapped checking in to his Melbourne hotel, the victor of 14 majors has been through a divorce, not won a tournament and has slumped to 42 in the earnings league.
“It’s pretty simple: He’s had a rotten year,” local golfing commentator Mark Allen said. “There’s no doubt people are looking at him differently now, but once he starts winning tournaments again, that’ll change pretty quick.”
Betting agency Sportsbet, which last year earned itself some publicity by paying out punters their wagers on Woods before the red-hot favourite had even begun his final Masters round, has again installed the American as the most likely winner.
The metrics suggest otherwise. By this time last year Woods had won five tournaments of the 16 he had completed. This year, Woods is winless after 10 and has only finished in the top 10 twice, including a share of sixth in Shanghai last week.
If the 34-year-old loses in Australia, he would lose his last title. Getting back his primacy — he was No. 1 for five years — will seem an even bigger challenge.
Rivals are keen to see his career revive — not least because having him back to his best would increase prize money and make playing more lucrative for all professionals.
“I think there’ll be periods for the rest of his career where he’ll dominate like he has before,” Australian player Geoff Ogilvy said. “He may not win any majors by 15 shots or nine shots, but he’s going to be the No. 1 golfer in the world for a lot more weeks over the next 10 years.”
Woods, who has changed his coach since he was last in Australia, said he was confident of being able to keep his corporate jet despite earning just 1.2 million dollars on the tour so far this year.
“People keep asking me how I’m doing, and I have to say it’s night and day from how I started the season,” he said on his website, where discounts were offered on Tiger-branded 2010-edition T-shirts.
Ogilvy reckoned work with fresh coach Sean Foley would rekindle a once-peerless swing.
“It seems he really has got something going on,” Ogilvy said, predicting that Woods is “two or three tournament wins away” from being back to his best.
The opening shot Woods played in his practice round Wednesday on the 233-meter par-four first hole, came to rest beyond the green. He still finished in three, but it was an inauspicious beginning at a tournament where the stakes are high for both himself and his paymasters.
The Victorian state government has matched last year’s appearance fee, meaning Woods would get 3 million U.S. dollars regardless of how well he plays.
“You sometimes have to spend money to make money,” Victoria Tourism Industry Council head Todd Black said, noting that last year 100,000 spectators snapped up tickets for the Masters in four minutes.
Unless Woods sets the greens on fire this week, a big purse to return in 2011 was unlikely.