This time, Tiger off mark

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:03 AM ET

Let me see if I have this straight.

Tiger Woods is going to miss the Mercedes Championship, which kicks off the PGA Tour schedule in January. He's tired, he says. And, sure enough, if you look at his schedule, it's no surprise.

Ever since the Tour Championship in mid-November, Woods has been logging more miles than most astronauts. He has played in China, Japan, Hawaii and, last week, in California at the Target World Challenge, which he hosts.

Now, isn't this the same Tiger Woods who often has complained about the length of the PGA season? The same guy who has been counselling PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem to shorten said PGA season? Only Phil Mickelson complains about the length of the season more than Woods.

This is also the same Tiger Woods who picks and chooses his PGA tournaments carefully, seldom playing more than 20 per year. If it's not a major, there's a good chance he'll be taking a pass. In his defence, these are competitive decisions, designed to give him the best chance to be fully prepared for the important events. He's hardly alone on that.

But the Mercedes is considered one of golf's premier events. For starters, only tournament winners are invited, limiting the field to about 30. Beyond that, it always has been one of those can't-miss events where the performers and their families are treated like royalty. Problem is nowadays, most of them think they are royalty.

Mickelson has blown off the Mercedes every year since 2001 and now Retief Goosen and Padraig Harrington have decided to stay home as well. The field at Kapalua, normally star-studded, is going to have just three players from the top 10 -- Vijay Singh, Sergio Garcia and Jim Furyk.

"I haven't had an off-season," Woods said, "and I need one. This has been a long stretch. I've been playing a lot of golf, putting on a lot of miles. My battery is just running a little low."

Doesn't it seem odd that, at a time when Finchem is trying to pull together a new schedule for 2007 that will not only appeal to the sport's dwindling fan base, but also to players and sponsors and TV executives, that the world's best player is blissfully indifferent?

Don't misunderstand. We don't begrudge Woods his time off. Golf is a mental grind and he knows better than most that to keep a sharp edge when he needs it, he must have some balance in his life. But, if that's the case, why would he have set up such an intense off-season schedule?

Finchem is negotiating golf's next television contract, which takes effect in '07, the same time as the new schedule which will feature a three-tournament playoff system leading up to a mid-September Tour Championship finish.

This new, shorter schedule is designed to give the top players the off-season break they've asked for. But the new TV contract may turn out to be for less money than the previous four-year $1-billion US deal that expires after the 2006 season. If that doesn't actually scare the players, it should make them pause for thought.

Finchem is going to need all hands on deck -- and especially the charismatic Woods -- to make this work. If guys like Woods decide to use their "off-season" to load up on appearance money in Asia and Africa, then beg off when the PGA starts up again, it will send entirely the wrong message to fans, sponsors and TV people who will have invested plenty in the new format.

Oh, and don't expect Tiger at a Canadian Open near you any time soon. There is an expectation that the 2006 Canadian Open will attract a better-than-average field because it's back at Hamilton Golf and Country Club in Ancaster, where the pros were seriously impressed in 2003.

Woods, however, is planning to go to the HSBC World Matchplay Championship in England Sept. 14-17, then on to the Ryder Cup in Ireland and, finally, to the American Express Championship in London. The Canadian Open is played the week before the World Matchplay, so there's little chance that Woods will be playing in Ancaster.

That's just unlucky for the Canadian Open. But if Woods decides to turn his European vacation into another exhausting-but-lucrative world tour, then blows off the Mercedes again? Well, he'll just have to do without our sympathy.


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