Woods Tries To Pull Himself Up Down Under

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA | Tiger Woods’ return to defend his Australian Masters title brought down the curtain on a winless year outside the U.S. for him and perhaps marked the end of an era of domination by the most talented golfer the world has seen. Rather than last year’s triumphant march in front of 100,000 adoring fans at Kingston Heath, his appearance at Victoria was more reminiscent of Frank Sinatra’s visit down under in 1987. On a previous trip, 13 years earlier, Sinatra found himself grounded because he referred to some women journalists as “buck-and-a-half hookers” and the men as “bums and parasites.” The transport unions took umbrage and would not allow the refuelling of his Las Vegas casino-owned private jet until he apologised a couple of days later. Late in life, he returned to sing at the opening of the Arnold Palmer-designed Sanctuary Cove course in Queensland for a fee of $1 million. True Sinatra fans put up with a 30-minute, sub-par performance in which the ageing crooner read his lyrics from auto-cues on the stage floor and was outshone by his supporting acts. Both Woods and Sinatra were seeking atonement. Woods tried to play his best, said all the right things, signed autographs and, like Old Blue Eyes, charmed a captive audience. The room lit up when he smiled, literally, because it caused the massed press photographers to fire their flashes in unison. Non-golfers, however, were not as forgiving. Last year the only criticism of his visit was the government of Victoria paying half of his $3 million appearance fee. Total prize money for the event is only $1.5 million. Such fees are not allowed on the U.S. PGA Tour and resented by many here. A vocal opponent is five-times British Open champion Peter Thomson, who says “appearance money is like bribery in that it corrupts both the giver and the receiver.” State Premier John Brumby justifies the fee by claiming Woods’ appearance last year brought $34 million to the local economy. Opposition leader Ted Baillieu disagreed. “Victorian families are desperately short of hospital beds, police and trains and taxpayers’ money should be spent on these urgent needs rather than appearance fees for golfers,” he said. The fans and the media have been remarkably silent on the imbroglio of Woods’ personal life, which began its downward spiral when he was sprung with Rachel Uchitel in a hotel-casino here a year ago. Fans, warned by officials that they would be thrown off the course if they heckled Woods, gave him only applause. The media ignored what was quaintly referred to as the elephant in the room and acted as if there had been a death in the family. One exception was a report in a small circulation tabloid newspaper which is given away free to train commuters. “The serial adulterer jetted into Melbourne today (Tuesday) to defend his Australian Masters title – 12 months after his Jekyll and Hyde double-life was exposed,” it reported on the front page. “He’s now disgraced, divorced and dethroned as golf’s world No. 1.” The only other public mention was when Woods was interviewed with former Australian cricketer Shane Warne during the tournament dinner at the same casino. The interviewer, English television commentator Mark Nicholas, referred to the pair sharing “nocturnal interests” and got a cheap laugh from the audience. Much of Warne’s brilliant career was clouded by similar, serial indiscretions while a husband and father and even usually irreverent Australians thought it too soon to be making jokes, at least in public. Only the Chevron World Challenge next month remains on Tiger’s 2010 schedule and as he looks to 2011 there is little evidence in his play to suggest things are likely to change any time soon. His fellow players keep saying a victory is not far away while the man himself puts it down to a swing change he is undertaking with the guidance of a new coach, Sean Foley. It is his fourth change since he turned pro and it almost beggars belief that he ever started tinkering with something so wonderful and successful in the first place. He could do worse than look to the example of Karrie Webb, who occupied the world No. 1 spot for a long time before Annika Sorenstam came along. Webb was coached by a paraplegic amateur confined to a wheelchair. His name is Kelvin Haller. He refused payment and he was the only coach Webb ever had until recently when his health deteriorated and he sacked himself. Could the writing be on the wall for Woods? In Thailand last Monday, he finished last in a skins match with Paul Casey, Camilo Villegas and local pro Thongchai Jaidee. Thailand is the birthplace of his mother and the golf was staged to honour ailing King Bhumibol to mark his 84th birthday and 60th year on the throne. His Majesty was too ill to receive Woods, who called at the hospital and signed the get-well book. His message in Thai, “Song phra charoen,” had a prophetic ring. In English, it means “Long live the king,” but in England it is traditionally uttered after the announcement, “The king is dead.”


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