Because opposites attract, a smart young PGA Tour type sought me out in Tucson when the sky fell. "Just as well Tiger Woods didn't win," he suggested. "He's gone eight months with an injury, then comes back in his first start and beats everybody? What kind of message would that be about the competition out here?" An interesting take, to be sure, and certainly a salve for those who freaked after Tiger lost to Tim Clark, who lost to Rory McIlroy, who lost to Geoff Ogilvy, who lost to nobody in the WGC-Eccentric Match Play Championship. Long before he prevailed Sunday, a record number of media mongrels abandoned the sumptuous free buffet and blew town, leaving only a few stragglers, including representatives from Al Jazeera, the fair and balanced network that generally monitors weightier matters in distant deserts.
Galleries immune to post-Woods stress syndrome at the Ritz-Carlton GC also were on the thin and ruly side, which is unfortunate because, for all the abstruse nature of the format, Ogilvy is all-world. If you don't enjoy watching him amble around a course while dissecting it, you're missing out on craftsmanship. Besides, his Scottsdale neighbor—Jim (Bones) Mackay, famous caddie for Phil Mickelson—says this amiable Aussie is a hell of a guy. Cerebral without college pampering, confident yet not immersed in self. Ogilvy looks like he's walking the dog while he's shooting 66. His final foe, fellow Whisper Rocker Paul Casey, is no slouch either. Also, Woods' premature exit created room for story lines. How do you not like McIlroy, a 19-year-old whom Ernie Els tabs as a future No. 1? McIlroy stayed up until midnight in Arizona to ring his girlfriend, Holly, at home in Northern Ireland. "Her wake-up call," he said, "to get up and go to school."
On Black Thursday, when Tiger bowed, local kids had no school because of the annual rodeo, would you believe. When I asked a native about the fascination with such calisthenics, he jabbed, "unlike golf, the calf-roper pays an entry fee." Touché. At least, the cowboys and their horses were a reminder of Uncle Sam. Don't worry about Woods. He'll win something big, and we don't mean Comeback Player of the Year. But only 16 other Americans comprised the starting field of 64. On Wednesday, just one pairing (Steve Stricker vs. Dustin Johnson) featured dueling Yanks, equal to the number of all-Swedish and all-South African twosomes.
At least the new venue at Dove Mountain requires no passport. It is true red, white and blue Jack Nicklaus, with seriously curvaceous greens that brought out the Gary Player in several competitors. Asked to appraise the layout, they gave it the old politically correct "the finest of its kind." Stray from the grass, and you're on your own. Mobile medical crews carry tweezers, the most useful tool in removing intransigent needles from jumping cholla cactus plants. (Tweezers, however, aren't much good against snakes.)
On Wednesday, the announced crowd for the Colorado Rockies' Cactus League opener was 3,327. For Tiger's reappearance, it felt as though there were at least that many bodies donning official credentials to get up close and personal—writers, bloggers, photog-raphers, security, more bloggers and, of course, honorary observers. The traffic maven on local TV, Big Al, warned of gridlock, but he meant on the roads, not inside the ropes. Tiger started fashionably late, because Stewart Cink and Richard Sterne played through on No. 1 to settle their match in overtime. Eight minutes tardy, Tiger launched his first tee ball since June at 12:10 p.m. local time. He registered his first fist pump at 12:32 upon stiffing his approach at No. 2.
Woods' opening meal, Brendan Jones, could have become instantly famous. Instead, his name went directly into the trivial-pursuits vault along with Mike Bacsik, who served up Barry Bonds' record 756th home run. However, comma, when Woods fell to Clark Thursday, it was as though someone yelled "FIRE!" in the immediate vicinity. (After Mickelson bowed Friday, the byword was "EARTHQUAKE!!") If only New Orleans had cleared out as rapidly when Katrina forecasts were issued. According to the Nielsen system for tracking TV eyeballs, ratings during Woods' absence dropped 47 percent. Above Dove Mountain, the air went out of the MetLife blimp and down below, Big Al was spared from broadcasting further alerts to motorists. But the man from Al Jazeera hung around to interview the worthy champion. "Hmm," deadpanned Ogilvy. "I didn't know they covered golf."