The best kind of bailout for the sport is on the way.
Tiger Woods is coming back.
With Woods’ announcement Thursday that he will make his return to golf to defend his title next week at the Accenture Match Play Championship after eight months off recovering from reconstructive surgery on his left knee, the buzz is back in a game. A sport that badly needs a jolt with TV ratings sagging and corporate sponsorship questions looming over a sour economic climate couldn’t have received better news.
The fact Woods picked the Match Play Championship at Dove Mountain outside Tucson, Ariz. — which begins Wednesday and will be broadcast on NBC next Saturday and Sunday at 2-6 p.m. ET — tells you all you need to know about the readiness of his knee. Woods is faced with the possibility of playing 126 holes next week, as many as 72 on the weekend if he makes a run all the way to the finals. The Ritz Carlton Club will offer a physical test nestled at the foot of a mountain range. The weather can turn surprisingly cold for morning matches.
If Woods had any doubts about his knee’s health, the CA Championship at Doral in three weeks would have offered a safer first test in Miami’s warm weather and on Doral’s flat terrain.
But by all accounts, Woods’ knee looks strong and stable.
That’s the word from Tiger pals John Cook and Mark O’Meara while covering the Allianz Championship in Boca Raton, Fla., last week.
“He looks unbeatable to me, untouchable,” Cook said about playing with Woods on three consecutive days at Isleworth Country Club in Windermere, Fla., a little more than a week ago. “I’m just glad I’m playing the Champions Tour now and don’t have to play against him.”
Cook said the only reservation Woods expressed to him was how his knee would stand up over 72 holes. Woods must have answered that this week. You know he isn’t teeing it up at the Accenture to test the knee. He tees it up in tournaments for one reason, and that’s to win.
“Tiger is hungry,” O’Meara said. “I think the break is the best thing that could have happened to him. It gave him eight months away from the game, a chance to connect with his daughter (Sam) and see the birth of his son.
“He handles the press just great, but being out of the public eye might not be a bad thing for him. I think he will come back better than ever.”
Corporate sponsors looking for the most eyeballs they can lure to watch their tournaments aren’t the only folks who have missed Woods since he last teed it up, winning the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines last June.
“Do I miss Tiger? Unbelievably,” Hall of Famer Lee Trevino said. “Golf still interests me. I love it, but I don’t watch a lot of golf. Late at night, when there’s nothing going on, I’ll put on The Golf Channel, but when Tiger’s playing, I’m watching. As soon as I get home from wherever I’ve been, I turn on the television to see how he’s doing. I’ve done that ever since he started playing his first year as a pro. I think we all miss Tiger. I think television misses him, I think all fans miss him, whether they like him or not.”
Woods isn’t going to single-handedly turn around golf’s economic challenges with so many car companies and financial institutions signed on as title sponsors, but he gives golf a fighting chance. His return couldn’t come quick enough. While hardcore golf fans have found storylines to interest them, golf has disappeared from the attention span of mainstream sports fans.
You can rest assured a lot of folks who don’t know a birdie from a bogey will be paying attention when Woods tees it up next week.
“He’s the draw, the stud, the marquee player, he’s the top dude and without him there’s a vacuum,” Tom Watson said. “I watch more when he’s playing, just like everyone else.”
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
“I talked to Tiger right after he hurt himself, and I told him that nobody wants his records to be broken, but I certainly didn’t want him not to be able to break my records because he wasn’t healthy,” Nicklaus said. “I said, ‘If you’re healthy and don’t break my records, that’s one thing. But if you’re not healthy and don’t break them, that’s not good.’
“Tiger’s work ethic is so good, he works so hard at things, he’ll come back and be fine.”
O’Meara and Cook think he’ll be more than fine. They believe he might be better than he’s ever been.
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