Tiger Woods still gets everyone’s attention

So many people surrounded the first tee that it was hard to see

who was playing. The gallery stretched down the entire length of

the 461-yard opening hole and wrapped around the back of the green

on a sun-baked Sunday at Bay Hill.

Now on the tee, Tiger Woods.

He was in a tie for 29th. He was 10 shots out of the lead, no

serious threat to win.

About four hours later, the final group of Martin Laird and

Spencer Levin approached the fifth green with under 100 fans

tagging along.

This is nothing new.

A few weeks earlier at Doral, the PGA Tour decided to group

players based on their world ranking. Someone estimated the gallery

at 85 people for the ”Big Three” of Martin Kaymer, Lee Westwood

and Luke Donald. On the other side of the course, there were too

many fans to count in the group of players ranked 4-5-6 – Graeme

McDowell, Woods and Phil Mickelson.

During the FedEx Cup playoffs last year at Ridgewood, thousands

of fans crammed behind the ropes on both sides of the fairway at

Ridgewood Country Club to watch Woods, who was in 20th place and

going nowhere.

One reporter was thinking too hard as he searched for the

meaning of it all.

”I get it … but I don’t get it,” he said as his eyes scanned

the size of the crowd. ”The guy is in 20th place. Why wouldn’t you

go watch someone who is actually playing well?”

The answer: They were there to see Babe Ruth.

Even at his worst – and there are plenty of numbers and

statistics to back that up – Woods remains the most compelling

figure in golf. It was like that at Bay Hill. It will be that way

next week at the Masters, even as Mickelson tries to join him with

four green jackets, or Kaymer goes after a second straight major,

or Westwood tries to regain the No. 1 ranking, this time without

having to explain why.

Never mind that Woods is meandering through mediocrity at the

moment.

Wednesday will mark 500 days since his last victory at the

Australian Masters, his last tournament before the car crash

outside his Florida home and the revelations of affairs that

followed and broke up his marriage.

He has played 20 tournaments since, not including the Ryder Cup.

In his only chance to win, at the Chevron World Challenge, Woods

coughed up a four-shot lead in the final round to McDowell, the

first time in his career that Woods was leading by more than three

shots going into the last day and didn’t win.

Woods has earned $265,465 in five tournaments this year. He

earned more in his first five tournaments as a 20-year-old pro.

In 16 starts on the PGA Tour since he returned last year, Woods

has three top 10s.

One longtime British golf journalist might have summed it up

best last year at The Players Championship. He wandered onto the

TPC Sawgrass to watch Woods for a couple of holes, then walked back

in. ”It’s nothing special,” he said.

So why the special treatment?

Because Woods is approaching an important anniversary.

It’s not the one-year anniversary of his return to competition

at the Masters, where he played off memory and somehow tied for

fourth at Augusta National with a performance that raised false

hopes.

It’s the 10-year anniversary of his greatest feat.

Woods won the Masters in 2001 to become the only player to hold

all four major championships at the same time. It took him 294 days

to achieve something that might never be done again. There was no

one close to him in the game back then.

There remains no one close to him in interest level now.

That’s why he draws the biggest crowds. That’s why television

can’t resist showing him.

A few years ago, Sean O’Hair was in rough on the 14th hole of

the North Course at Torrey Pines, and Woods was on the adjacent

hole. Spotting a reporter, O’Hair playfully asked why he was always

watching Woods. Then came a question to O’Hair: ”If you had this

job, who would you be watching on Thursday?”

”Tiger,” O’Hair said with a laugh.

Woods was more interesting to watch when he was winning 40

percent of his tournaments, when he looked like a special player.

Now he is interesting in a nostalgic sense. They remember how he

once performed and wonder if he ever will play that way again.

Will he reach, let alone surpass, the benchmark of 18

professional majors won by Jack Nicklaus?

Can he be golf’s best player again?

Not even Woods knows the answer.

All anyone has at the moment are memories of how he once played,

and they are strong enough to hold the interest.

In times of parity – which is what Woods’ demise has brought –

come reminders of how hard it is to win, and how often Woods won.

Consider this: Before turning 30, Woods already had 46 wins on the

PGA Tour and 10 majors.

Until someone else comes along – probably not in Woods’ lifetime

– everyone will want to know about Woods, good or bad. Some watch

because they are eager to see him dominate again. Some watch

because they delight in his failure. Others are just curious.

But they’re watching.

At the 1999 Masters, when Woods was rebuilding his swing and was

no longer No. 1 in the world, he was in the middle of the pack and

headed for Amen Corner on Saturday with a dozen or so media close

behind. A radio technician looked at the approaching mass with

disdain, shook his head and said, ”Why are you guys following

Tiger? He’s not even the story.”

That’s when someone posed a question.

If Nicklaus had called Augusta National that day, he probably

would have asked who was leading the tournament.

What would his next question be?