Tiger Woods' absence overshadows glitzy field at Sony Open

Baltimore Sun

HONOLULU - Spend a few minutes at the practice range here at Waialae Country Club, and you will come away thinking that all is dreamy on the PGA Tour.

Ernie Els smiles after launching balls into an island breeze.

A few spots over, Luke Donald chuckles with his new caddie, John McLaren. Shigeki Maruyama does a double-take after spotting John Daly, who has been a walking advertisement for lap-band surgery. (Daly shed the equivalent of a Chinese gymnast in five months.)

"Johnny, good shape!" Maruyama remarks, sliding his hands from his shoulders to waist.

A glitzy field will play the tour's first full-field event of 2010, the Sony Open. Familiar faces have crossed the Pacific, such as Vijay Singh, Steve Stricker, Davis Love III, Stewart Cink, Tom Lehman, defending champion Zach Johnson and Justin Leonard, who hasn't teed it up here since 1995 but decided: "I wanted to start the year out in some warm weather."

The ideal conditions, though, contrast with the cold reality of a tour that's overshadowed by the non-presence of Tiger Woods, whose indefinite leave could affect sponsorship and pending negotiations for TV deals.

"It always helps for the No. 1 player to play more," Love said. "We've been dealing with that (issue) for a long time, whether it's Fred Couples or Greg Norman or Jack Nicklaus.

"What's going to be important, like when Tiger was out for eight months (following knee surgery), is that people say: 'Hey, last week a guy (Geoff Ogilvy) shot 22 under par and it was fun to watch.' We have to bank on that not only this year, but the next five years and the next 50 years. The NBA went on after Michael Jordan. We'll continue on; we just have to continue to improve our product."

Other players have amplified the theme that the tour does not revolve around Woods, who played just 17 of the tour's 47 events last year.

"The game is bigger than any one person, absolutely," Lehman said. "It's bigger than Tiger, it's bigger than Jack, than Arnie, than Hogan."

Said Donald: "There are great players out here, but Tiger will be missed for sure. The people who sponsor the tour love it when Tiger's here and I personally love Tiger in the field.

"If you're able to beat him, you know you've beaten the best in the world."

Woods won more than $10.5 million on PGA Tour last season despite not winning a major. Stricker came in second, pocketing about $6.3 million. Thanks largely to Woods, PGA Tour purses climbed from $66 million in 1996 to $277 million this year, a slight drop from 2009.

"It is a big year, as with any business in our country right now," Love said. "Will we continue to see the 10- and 15-percent gains? No, we won't, not for a few years. But we're hanging in there, which is a testament to the game and that the tour works literally seven days a week to keep it going."

Three PGA Tour events have lost major sponsors: the San Diego Open (formerly Buick Invitational), the Bob Hope Classic (Chrysler) and the St. Jude Classic (Stanford Financial). The Greenbrier Classic (Classic? Really?) in West Virginia replaced the Buick Open in Michigan.

And the company Waste Management has replaced FBR in Phoenix. (It's appropriate considering the number of fans who get trashed during the tournament's party atmosphere.)

Still, the tour has a 46-event schedule, quite a contrast to the 2010 LPGA Tour, which will have just 13 domestic tournaments and 24 in all. That's down from 34 in 2008.

"We're in good shape," Love said. "We need to be thankful that we're not hurting."

Not much, anyway. At least not yet. And the tour does have time to gain momentum, as its TV deals with CBS and NBC won't expire until 2012.

Two-time U.S. Open winner Retief Goosen surprised some pros when he recently called for Woods to emerge after weeks of reports about his philandering.

"He's hiding," Goosen said, "which I don't think is the right way to go about it. I think we need to see him come out there and apologize."

Others are determined to give Woods his space.

"I think 'hiding' is the wrong term," Lehman said. "I say let Tiger do what he has to do with his wife and his kids.

"Human beings are more important than golf tournaments."


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