The first big tournament of the year is upon us and there is no Tiger Woods, or Phil Mickelson. The two biggest drawcards in golf are on the sidelines for personal reasons, and that is a shame when you have such a talented field of 64 players.
Some of the stories making headlines aside from the absent "big two" make for great reading.
Steve Stricker is just shy of his 43rd birthday and the new world number two ahead of Mickelson. Rory McIlroy is a huge hit among the fans. The Molinari brothers from Italy are making their World Golf Championship debut. The Japanese press corps following Ryo Ishikawa makes you wonder whether Elvis just walked in the building, and of course it helps when he likes to dress the way he does.
There is plenty more to watch this week as well, but let’s get back to Tiger for just a moment because he is to golf what Elvis was to music.
I did manage to chat with his former coach Butch Harmon, who let fly the rather bold prediction that the world number one won’t be back on the scene this year. “People think I am crazy for saying it, but I really think we won’t see him until next year,” he explained.
“Inside the ropes, Tiger is a different person. He’s so competitive that it really is intimidating. Off the course he is a different person, and I should know because I spent so much time with the kid.
“He’s not that confident and sometimes struggles to look you in the eye. I think he would be really struggling to cope with the beating his image has taken, and feeling quite vulnerable.”
Butch’s last point came with the explanation that everything around Tiger was manufactured and controlled, especially with media interviews. “Now all bets are off and he knows he won’t be given any slack anymore. That’s what he has to come back to - not easy,” he said.
Enough about Tiger for now. The first of five days of terrific match play golf got underway Wednesday with the Aussie Geoff Ogilvy defending the title. He has an extra spring in his step after becoming a father for the third time just a few days ago and it’s only his third tournament this season.
Picking a winner, though, at Dove Mountain is a real lottery. It’s a knockout competition that culminates with a 36-hole shootout on Sunday. Anything could happen.
On a freezing cold day in London, standing out the front of the Royal Courts of Justice, it wasn’t the nip in the air that bit hardest but the reality of football’s financial problems.
Aside from some harsh facts being laid bare over Portsmouth’s sorry financial state, and their battle for survival, there were two other football clubs in court on Wednesday in a similar position on the Companies Court Winding Up List.
English second-division side Cardiff City and another club from a lower league, Southend United, faced lawyers from Britain's tax-collecting body who are chasing millions of dollars in owed money. All clubs had their hearings adjourned or delayed.
It must surely raise alarm bells across Europe and indeed the world, that hearings in court on Wednesday for three clubs across three leagues could signal the start of a greater financial crisis in soccer.
The collective debt of English Premier League clubs amounts to some $5 billion - despite the fact it is arguably the most lucrative and successful in the world.
On a Europe-wide scale the mountain of debt racked up by clubs employing a free-spending policy in the transfer market must surely be astronomical.
Already this year we have seen Dutch side Haarlem go bust with $2.75 million worth of debt and there have been others in Portugal and Russia.
Refinancing debt in the past used to be pretty easy for football clubs but since the global recession, money is much harder to find, especially with banks tightening their purse strings.
And finding suitable buyers with pockets deep enough to cope with paying outstanding debts and then investing in buying more players must be harder after the global economic problems.
Living off debt was a major factor in causing the global recession and surely the same must apply to football.
There is good reason to think the days spent standing at the front of a courthouses for sport reporters across Europe could become more regular as football’s financial crisis continues to bite.
If a professional golfer is going to publicly accuse another of cheating he’d want a rock solid argument, given the impact on the image of the player and the game.
Scott McCarron, an 18-year veteran on the tour, should have known better than to accuse the world number two Phil Mickelson of cheating because he managed to find an interpretation of the rules that allowed him to use a 20-year-old Ping wedge.
Golf’s governing bodies have introduced new rules this year to reduce the amount of control players have on the ball with the shape of the grooves on their irons and wedges. These are new rules and will no doubt be tweaked – as have all rules in golf over time.
Mickelson hasn’t cheated at all and McCarron has since apologized for his comments. A cheating scandal is never a welcome guest in any sport. Golf is reeling from the impact of Tiger Wood’s transgressions so to make such accusations, especially without foundation, was foolhardy.
Some time ago players managed to find a way of interpreting the rules that allowed the use of belly or long putters to help them improve their game. Some players have argued, and many still do, that the longer putters offer an unfair advantage and should be outlawed.
Tell me a sport where teams or individuals don’t look for ways to gain an edge by finding a loophole?
Mickelson might be guilty of bending the rules but the rules are bent in every tournament. Players gain questionable free drops because they convince on course marshals to work in their favor – they know the rules and they know how to work them.
I have watched Tiger look inside his opponent’s bag on the tee to work out what club he is using on a par three and then use the information to his advantage, however small.
The rules state that you aren’t allowed to ask or tell your opponent what club is being used but there is nothing to say you can’t look in the bag. It’s running close to the edge of the rules but not going over.
Mickelson is a fine example of a professional player who doesn’t need to cheat to win and that should be respected unless there is clear cut evidence.
Anyone who thinks Michael Schumacher is going to win the drivers’ title next year in Formula One is either German and blinded by patriotism or have allowed the festive spirit to cloud their judgment.
He’ll be aged 41 when he hits the grid for Mercedes at Bahrain in mid-March and most of those drivers around him will be nearly half his age.
It’s a massive factor, even if you have the experience of winning seven drivers’ titles and have your old boss, Ross Brawn, back at your side.
New rules come into play; no scheduled pit stops next year means that the physical demands on the drivers has been cranked up a few notches. Only the youngest and fittest will survive and Schumacher will be neither.
Let’s not leave out the fact that Ferrari and McLaren will be back to their best after throwing away the last third of last season to develop their 2010 cars. They won’t get caught asleep by Brawn like they did this year.
And both the Italian and British teams boast three former world champions between them who desperately won’t want Schumacher to steal their glory.
Throw in a few more technical rule changes coming Formula One’s way next year and testing for all teams can’t start until February 1 and Schumy has a mountain to climb.
He won’t have the technical advances over other teams like he did at Ferrari as well as the bigger budget or the bigger team.
The greatest thing for Formula One through his new deal is that it offers the best build-up to the start of a season in recent memory. Even throughout the year there will be some great battles involving the former champ.
Picture this: It’s Silverstone and McLaren’s all English driver set-up takes on Germany’s Mercedes team with Rosberg and Schumacher in the cockpit. A mouth-watering battle; let’s just hope it doesn’t rain or Schumy’s got it in the bag.
His decision comes at a time when the sport desperately needs a boost after the ugliest and most controversial season in 2009 in living memory.
Car makers have dropped out and so too many sponsors. Schumacher will bring attention to the sport on track for all the right reasons and current sponsors of the sport will be jumping for joy. Potential sponsors might now decide to put pent to paper.
There are many reasons to welcome Schumacher's return but there's more chance of bumping into Rudolph the red nose reindeer than another title going the way of the legendary German.
Nike's decision to stand firmly beside Tiger Woods while others like Accenture and Gillette move away should come as no surprise.
Unlike Woods's tie-up with Accenture, which comes in the form of a comprehensive advertising campaign, Nike's deal with the world number one pretty much carries their entire investment in the golf equipment market. He is their golf industry all in one.
When I interviewed Nike Golf President Bob Wood in 2007 and discussed the relationship with Tiger on the back of another seven-year-deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars, here's how he summed it up:
"[When] you go back to the beginning. We had made shoes and some apparel for about 12 years before we signed Tiger. But I can pretty much say today and I've said it to him, I don't think we'd be in the golf business if it wasn't for Tiger," he explained.
You can see why Nike Chairman Phil Knight was on the front foot on Monday backing their prized asset and indeed hoping the scandal surrounding his off-course movements prove to be a “blip.”
"I think he has been really great. When his career is over, you'll look back on these indiscretions as a minor blip, but the media is making a big deal out of it right now," he said.
It’s not just right now that everything to do with Tiger is a “big deal.” When you are the biggest marketing tool the game has ever had - Woods time as a professional has seen the USPGA Tour prize money grow from $80 million annually to this year's total of $280 million - then the risk of losing him becomes a massive deal.
When he stepped away from the game to recover from knee surgery there was not so much panic but real concern for the health of everybody involved in the industry, not just Nike. Interest in the game fell sharply, especially on U.S. television where numbers dropped by as much as 60 per cent.
Nike’s decision to enter the challenging equipment market about seven years ago, to go head-to-head with established brands like MacGregor, Titleist, Callaway and Cobra came with spending hundreds of millions of dollars on research and development, design and distribution.
Tiger was key, and still is, to their marketing because he brought not just exposure for the brand but credibility to the design of the clubs and balls. “Sometimes you get asked 'how much do you sell because of Tiger?' and it's like I just sort of attribute us being as serious as we are and as important as we are to the relationship we have with him,” Bob Wood said to me in 2007.
“It's kind of a fact of life at Nike that when you have somebody that is that important, when you consider yourself a product company and a sports company, you're making product…you know we make the stuff he makes his living with. And we can't make bad product.”
By the time Tiger comes back to playing he will more than likely be still world number one so it will take a lot more than a few personal demons to scare Nike away from Tiger Woods with so much on the line.
Tiger and his people have been masterful in keeping his private life well away from the media glare.
But given what has emerged over the past week it’s fair game now that his life outside of golf will come under closer scrutiny. The fact that he chooses to confess his sins and transgressions behind the curtain of his web site is quite frankly pretty weak.
Bryan Hyland hit stardom in 1962 with his hit romantic single "Sealed with a Kiss" and I was wondering whether Tiger Woods might want to release his own version: “Sealed with a Crash.”
Wow! did he seal his fate when he drove his SUV into a tree and fire hydrant in front of his home in the earlier hours of the morning last Friday.
The kiss-and-tell stories that have emerged after the mysterious circumstances leading up to the crash have taken many by surprise and whipped up a media storm.
The perceived rock-solid surroundings of everything to do with Tiger have been shaken to the very foundations, the man who was a model of control has become a character of chaos.
That's one of the main reasons why there is such intrigue and interest in the world’s most recognizable and yet private sportsman.
The confession of transgressions – see even the lyrics would rhyme for Tiger’s tune – and letting his family down have certainly damaged his image for ever.
Pro golfer Jesper Parnevik has been the most outspoken yet and he would be for good reason. Parnevik introduced Tiger to Elin Nordegren when she was a nanny for the Swedish Parnevik family.
"I really feel sorry for Elin, since me and my wife were at fault for hooking her up with him," said Parnevik.
"We probably thought he was a better guy than he is. I would probably need to apologize to her and hope she uses a driver next time instead of a three-iron."
Like most of the story, I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions in relation to Parnevik’s reference to a driver.
The Swedes take great pride in putting the family unit at the core of their culture; it’s something we have covered on Living Golf extensively. So you could imagine that when Tiger leaves everyone to draw their own conclusions when he admits to “letting his family down” Parnevik had a couple of good reasons to hit boiling point.
I should imagine at some point there will be a well choreographed interview with Tiger when he and Elin decide it’s time to talk about the controversy.
Until then Tiger will have to hide from the firestorm and plan his next comeback tournament appearance. Could you imagine the media frenzy that will surround that?
Tiger has done a lot of rebuilding over his career – from his swing to the strength in his knee after an operation. On every occasion his game has suffered but he has managed to come back stronger and a better player.
This time he’ll need to convince his family, sponsors and spectators that when he comes-back he is a better person and the crash didn’t seal the end of his value to the game. That song would not be a good one for golf right now.
Lee Westwood is almost in the veteran stage of his career, having been on tour for 16 years and experienced the game at all levels.
His round on Sunday to win the Dubai World Championship was one of the best I have ever seen from a professional and his persona all week spoke volumes of where his game is right now.
He has learnt so much over the roller coaster years. One of the keys to success that he has unlocked and so many find hard to grip is the ability to intimidate. Ali, Jordan and Schumacher come to mind as great examples.
If you are at the peak of your game, stand tall, impress on others your advantage and watch as the opposition crumble into submission.
Tiger is the finest example on the planet at the moment and he uses his presence in every tournament. Simply put, Tiger’s expressions say something like this: “I’m the best. You want me come get me if you think you are good enough.”
It doesn’t make the whole field go weak at the knees but some do, and that is a handy advantage to have before you even make to the first tee.
That’s exactly how Westwood carried himself this week and he knew it was working when Race to Dubai leader at the time Rory McIllroy finished his opening round with Westwood and declared: “I couldn’t wait to get away from him.”
It referred to just how well Westwood was playing but it was a compliment that showed McIllroy’s hand.
“He should never has said that and he will learn from it. You never give away that fear factor,” Westwood said.
It meant that Westwood’s intimidatory approach was working and he had the measure of his 20-year-old stable mate after day one when McIlroy was the man to catch.
The Englishman says McIllroy has some weaknesses in his game and I think he was not really referring entirely to his ability on course but some things he needs to learn when speaking publicly and the mind games seasoned pros play with the media at their disposal. He would do well to learn from Tiger the master.
It was a good lesson for the young Northern Irishman before he heads to the lions den that is the US PGA Tour next year and Westwood’s brutal assessment was aimed to help McIllroy not humiliate him.
Westwood just needs to bottle his approach over the holiday period and unload it next April at the Masters in Augusta. He may struggle to intimidate Tiger, in fact no one can, but the 36-year-old at least has an extra club in his bag that the rest of the field won’t have – it’s called intimidation.
Tiger Woods made a brief appearance in Dubai this week, not for the Dubai World Championship, but to inspect his course which has four completed holes.
Its construction is on hold for the moment.
I wonder what discussions took place. It was very much an under-the-radar visit on his way home from winning the Australian Masters and I only found out from some players and agents I know quite well.
He’s gone home now so we can all focus on the season-ender for the European Tour and the sprint to grab the loot in the $15 million Race to Dubai.
I hosted the pro-am prize giving and opening celebration at the Atlantis on Tuesday night where all the players and their families attended.
They are all in a great spirits as they love coming here and making the top 60 to qualify for the richest event must be an awesome feeling.
The facilities around the course for the players and public are excellent, even if on the way out here the course appears from a landscape covered with ugly construction sites.
Lee Westwood, who has reached number five in the world after collecting a bucket of top ten finishes, is my pick to win the tournament and thus overhaul Rory McIlroy in the Race to Dubai standings and collect the $1.5 million bonus.
Lee’s only won once this year but I think we are going to see him break through with a major next year because he’s getting back to his best after months of hard work in the gym and on the practice range.
It’ll be a fitting finale if Lee and Rory battle it out to win the Race to Dubai as they have been the most consistent in Europe all season.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Rory is only 20-years-old because he carries himself as if he has been on tour for 10 years instead of only being in his second.
His level of maturity is part of the reason why he copes so well with the pressure of competing at this level and the growing of expectation of him from the public and the media.
It’s been a long year for all the players like Rory and the organizers of the Dubai World Championship so I hope we get an exciting finish come Sunday.
I am a Melbourne boy at heart - the southern Australian city was where I as born and learned to play golf.
And like thousands of Melbournians I am thrilled that Tiger Woods is paying a visit to play in the Australian Masters. Sadly I am writing this from London and not from the media center at the course but I am still excited for Australian golf fans.
There will be thousands more spectators paying a visit to the magnificent Kingston Heath just to catch a glimpse of the world number one in action and many more watching on TV.
He hasn’t paid a visit down under for 11 years and he has achieved a lot since then and is now the biggest sports star on the planet.
He brings local and global attention like no other sportsperson and arguably movie star - remember he makes appearances all week and not just a one off on the red carpet.
With that in mind, it will prove to be a great investment by the Victorian Government and some corporate sponsors to pay Tiger’s $3m appearance fee.
My father is the Managing Editor for Rupert Murdoch’s Herald and Weekly times in Melbourne and he says that Tiger is bringing just as much excitement to the city as the Melbourne Cup horse race –- and that’s a big statement of interest in Tiger.
Nothing has ever come close to overshadowing the adrenalin surrounding the Melbourne Cup!
It also means those who don’t really follow golf are interested too.
But horse racing is much bigger in Australia right now than golf and hopefully Tiger will help spark the interest in the sport like Greg Norman did during his heyday.
The top prize for winning the Masters is just AUS$270,000 ($250,000) - part of the reason why top global pros don’t make the long journey down under for the event.
It seems odd that one player is getting 12 times the money of the winner’s cheque for just showing up but that debate is for another time if you ask me.
While Australia doesn’t have a Shark to boost the game it will have to settle for a pricey Tiger.
There was a time when Tiger Woods, by comparison in the build-up to his appearance in stroke play events, never really rated a mention as a big threat in the Ryder Cup –- his performance was always below par in team events.
The discussion was mostly about why he hadn’t clicked in the team format.
Not anymore! He whacked the Internationals in the Presidents Cup by pocketing maximum points – or going 5 and O as they say at the bar in the clubhouse.
I was at a Ryder Cup "Year to Go" function in October at the Celtic Manor where European captain Colin Montgomerie and USA captain Corey Paven shared some time together to asses the course.
They spoke a day after the USA retained the Presidents Cup and of course Tiger’s name came up.
“Yeah that’s great news for us that he’s finally worked out the team game,” Monty said with a wry smile.
“It’s not a good thought when you know that they have to get 14 and a half points to win and Tiger already has 5 in the bag before you tee off.”
You might take that as a defeatist attitude but I think Monty will be happy to let everyone focus on talking Tiger up, while I don’t think he’ll be too concerned for several reasons.
Even if Tiger is in top form the circumstances at the Celtic Manor will be vastly different than the set up in San Francisco for the Presidents Cup.
The obvious is the crowd – we know it will be in favor of Europe, that’s a big factor on its own. From what I have seen the layout of the Celtic Manor will make for a cauldron atmosphere because of the elevation around various holes. The crowd will have a bigger hand in this result than other European Ryder Cup venues.
Throw in more variables like many European players knowing the Celtic Manor course as its featured as a venue for the Wales Open before.
And then throw in a dose of some Welsh weather. In October next year it will be cold, often very cold and probably wet, not something US players generally deal with or like a lot.
It takes a lot to tame Tiger, Monty knows that, but he also knows he’s got a few more things going in his favour being on home soil.