The pros, most of them, play in cones of silence, cellphones off, heads down. Some will get basketball scores from marshals while waiting on the tee of a par-3, but that's about as much news as they want. Watching Doral at home on Sunday, you maybe knew that Tiger Woods changed from black shoes to white ones at the turn, but the players wouldn't know or care, and why would they? So here's the striking thing. On Sunday player after player finished his round, learned in the scorer's room that Woods had withdrawn after his tee shot on 12, and pretty much said the same thing: What a shame. I hope he'll be back for Augusta.
They like Tiger. And even if they don't, they know what he does for golf.
The winner of the Cadillac Championship, the underrated, underappreciated Justin Rose—a tall, broad-shouldered Englishman living in Orlando, like Nick Faldo before him—learned of Tiger's latest health-related WD when it came up in a question in his postvictory press conference.
"Didn't know Tiger WD'd," Rose said. Under the tutelage of Sean Foley, who also works with Woods, Rose has now won four times in the last 21 months. Woods is looking for his first Tour victory since the BMW Championship in September 2009. "Why did he?" Rose asked.
March 19, 2012
"Achilles," came the answer.
Rose squinched his nose as if smelling Friday's fish and said, "That's not good news. Hopefully he's holding himself back for the Masters and doesn't want to do more damage."
He had it exactly correct. Woods said he felt tightness in his left Achilles while warming up on Sunday. In a statement released by his camp, Woods said, "After hitting my tee shot on 12, I decided it was necessary to withdraw. In the past I may have tried to continue to play, but this time I decided to do what I thought was necessary."
Woods was playing with Webb Simpson, five groups ahead of the Bubba Watson--Keegan Bradley finale. Bubba's shot into 18—from damp rough, past waving palms, into a gusty wind, over a man-made pond and with a four-iron—could have earned a permanent spot in the alltime Doral highlight reel, depending on the outcome of his nine-footer. But a wise man once said that good shots must come in groups of two, and Bubba's putt, sadly, slid by on the low side. Rose won while standing on the driving range.
Woods was long gone by Sunday's witching hour, leaving the players' parking lot in a Mercedes at about 5 p.m., rolling down his window briefly to give Chris Reimer, a Tour official who chased him down, a two-sentence health report. Last May, you may recall, Woods left the players' parking lot in a Mercedes at the Players Championship after playing nine holes in 42 shots and tweaking his surgically repaired left knee.
Fifteen minutes earlier, at 4:45 on Sunday, things were so different. Not that Tiger was exactly in it. He had shot rounds of 72, 67 and 68 at the so-called Blue Monster, nine under par. Through 11 holes on Sunday, he was three over for the day. As he walked to the 12th tee, he looked some clapping kids in the eye and gave them a nod. The new Tiger.
He had the honor on 12, a downwind, 600-yard par-5. He tees it lower now than he used to and smashed a hold cut drive that went well over 300 yards. But he flinched at impact and grimaced as if Floyd Mayweather Jr. had just clocked him. He limped off the tee and down a slope, toward a row of mango trees where he was nearly out of view. His face was contorted in pain. Without consulting anyone, Woods approached Simpson, shook his hand and said, "I have to go in." The man is nothing if not decisive. A marshal waved in a cart, the crowds parted, and Woods slipped away.
What a difference 24 hours made. When Woods was asked on Saturday how his body was holding up after playing three straight weeks, he said, "Oh, it feels great." There was no reason to doubt him.
After holing out on the 18th green, playing with his good buddy Steve Stricker, Woods had smiled broadly and given Stricker such a long, heartfelt hug that Stricker himself was surprised and moved. He sensed how happy Woods was to be playing tournament golf again.
Woods spent late Saturday afternoon on the range, sipping from a 16-ounce bottle of Diet Coke—so not like Tiger—and spending far more time chatting with the young, affable Jason Day than hitting balls. Standing only a few feet from spectators, Woods showed Day video of his three-year-old son's swing. It was Tiger as one of the guys, thoroughly relaxed. What a pleasure to watch. Being No. 18 in the world almost seems to suit him.
The new No. 1, Rory McIlroy, is coming to play, every time out. In the last three weeks he lost in the final of the Match Play, won Honda with Woods breathing down his Northern Irish neck and finished two shots behind Rose. As he came out of the scorer's room on Sunday, McIlroy slapped his thigh so hard it had to hurt.
The man sang a long time ago, "You don't need a weather man to know which way the wind blows." Playing behind Woods, McIlroy saw Simpson march off the 12th tee and Woods go in another direction. In time, he learned what happened. "It's a shame," McIlroy said. "I hope he's back for the Masters."
Why? Why would Rory McIlroy possibly want Tiger Woods, a man with four green jackets and an uncanny ability to contend at Augusta, to play next month?
Because, McIlroy said, "he can spark interest in golf that no one else can. I'd love to have a lot of battles with him down the stretch, and it would be great to do that at Augusta." What a great and generous thing to say.
Tiger will heal. The game is doing the same.
IT WAS TIGER AS ONE OF THE GUYS, THOROUGHLY RELAXED. WHAT A PLEASURE TO WATCH.
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