Tiger's Return

KEN FIDLIN

, Last Updated: 9:42 AM ET

Four days before Christmas, Tiger Woods, sans limp, walked out onto the 18th green at Sherwood Golf Club, just over the Santa Monica Mountains from Malibu, to hand Vijay Singh his trophy for winning the Chevron World Challenge.

"Tiger, take your time," cautioned Singh. "Don't come back too early. In fact, take a year off."

Singh got a hearty laugh from the crowd and a smile from Woods but nobody, not even Singh, wants that to happen. With professional golf squarely in the crosshairs of a world-wide recession, the last thing the sport needs is another season without its No. 1 drawing card. Faced with the same gloomy economic outlook that has the workaday world in its ominous grip, the 2009 PGA Tour begins play this week with the Mercedes Championship in Hawaii. Woods, of course, won't be there but he has given notice that he'll be working hard to be back in the thick of competition, hopefully by late February.

Woods has spent more than a half a year recovering from major reconstructive surgery on his left knee, the same knee he dragged around Torrey Pines for 91 extraordinary holes last June to win the United States Open, his 14th major title, in a stirring performance both by himself and runner-up Rocco Mediate. He only just recently started swinging his golf clubs and cautions not to expect a quick return. He has the Masters in his sights but he's making no promises.

"That's always been the intent but as far as reality, that's two different things," he said at Sherwood.

"I haven't hit full shots with my entire bag yet. As far as coming back, I don't know. I don't know how it's going to respond, with repeated practice days and long days of practice trying to get back, and ultimately playing my way into shape. That's obviously going to take a little bit of time."

Forced into the role of golf observer, Woods was impressed by the emergence of several of the game's young stars last summer. Anthony Kim, Camilo Villegas and Sergio Garcia all stepped up their games. Kim and Villegas each won two tournaments and Kim was an integral part of the American win in the Ryder Cup. Garcia won nearly $5 million and grabbed the prestigious Players Championship title.

"You knew that was coming, because of their talent," he said, speaking of Kim and Villegas. "That was just a matter of time before they broke through and won events.

While the golf world awaits the return of its star, the economy is going to be a major story moving forward. The Tour is especially vulnerable because at each tournament site, the make or break point involves corporate participation, perhaps not as title sponsors, but in complementary roles.

The PGA Tour itself is on a good footing, at least for this year because all their title sponsors are already on board.

But the Tour is only as strong as each individual tournament and each of those tournaments will be living or dying on the strength of the economy, whether it's ticket sales or selling space in the tented corporate villages or filling pro-am fields at $5,000 a pop. And if the recession deepens, many of the Tour's title sponsors, on the hook for about $7 million a year, will have to make hard decisions about future involvement.

To that end, Tour commissioner Tim Finchem has sent a video to the players in which he asks them to consider expanding their schedules to help tournaments that have had historically weak fields.

"Yes, we are feeling it on the PGA Tour, there's no doubt," said Woods, who has had the final year of his five-year contract with Buick nullified, costing him $8 million. "Individual players are feeling it, as well. We're not immune to it at all, and hopefully we'll all get through this and everything will turn around and be positive in the future."

That said, it's unlikely Tiger is going to expand his own schedule, given how carefully he is going to nurture his renovated knee, even after he has made his return. Right now, he is trying to manage his own expectations, as well as his own trepidation, though he refuses to talk about the "fear" factor that many pro athletes feel after major surgery.

"It's not fear for me because no one is going to be hitting it," he said.

"It's a little different than Tom Brady coming back and 350-lb. guys are falling at his feet.

"Is there hesitancy? Yes, there's doubt. As I've progressed through my shorter clubs, hitting fuller shots, you remember what it was like when you hit a full shot, and for me the last time I really hit a full shot was at the Open. It didn't feel very good. And it's something that everyone has to overcome and has to go through.

"It is frustrating from that standpoint because I want to look forward to something, but I just look forward to day by day, and I've had to learn how to process that and just kind of focus on what I have to do today, instead of looking at, OK, in a few months I want to be able to do this or I want to play this event. I've had to narrow down and be more short-term and goal-oriented.

"Long-term the greatest thing that could have happened is to go in there and reconstruct it. Now it's better than it's been in over a decade."

Another factor on the horizon for Woods is the impending birth of his second child. Elin Woods is due to give birth in February.

Having been forced to step back and withdraw from the game for the first time in his life, Woods says the time away has granted him clarity.

"I could totally understand walking away from the game," he said. "I don't want to play when I know I can't play at the highest of levels. I couldn't stand it. If you wanted me to go out there and play right now, I couldn't stand to go out there and not be able to fully compete against these guys and not really give them a run for their money.

"That definitely gave me a better appreciation for my future and leaving the game of golf competitively. I have a better appreciation for when that day comes."

Nobody in the game even wants to contemplate that day. He drives the bus and, at 33, still has many miles to go.

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CAREER MONEY WINNINGS

1. Tiger Woods

$82,354,376

2. Vijay Singh

$82,354,376

3. Phil Mickelson

$50,522,901

4. Jim Furyk

$38,809,826

5. Davis Love III

$37,325,550

Others

12. Mike Weir

$23,860,124

20. Fred Couples

$20,121,480

41. Stephen Ames

$15,591,077

50. Greg Norman

$14,473,229

89. John Daly

$9,109,268

139. Anthony Kim

$6,539,527

157. Jack Nicklaus

$5,734,031

313. Arnold Palmer

$1,861,857

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PGA TOURPURSES GROW

1925 $77,000

1950 $459,950

1960 $1,335,242

1970 $6,751,523

1980 $13,371,786

1990 $46,251,831

1996 $70,700,000

2000 $157,000,000

2006 $255,000,000

2007 $272,300,000

2008 $278,950,000

2009 $280,000,000 est.


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