ABU DHABI: Tiger Woods may be back in the mix but, although his return is welcomed by the men who replaced him at the top, there is no sense of trepidation among them.
The 36-year-old American is hoping in the next 12 months to return to the forefront of the sport after a nightmare year of injuries and personal problems stemming from the sex scandal that wrecked his marriage.
And such is the durability of his crowd-pulling appeal that he is top of the bill at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championships, commanding an appearance fee reportedly in excess of two million dollars.
For Germany’s Martin Kaymer, it means there will be less of a spotlight on himself as he strives to pull off the rare feat of winning an EPGA tournament three times in a row. “I think there’s less focus on me now,” the former world number one said.
“I know that people will want to see Tiger, the number one in the world (Luke Donald) and Rory McIlroy, so that’s a great group to watch. “And I think that (Lee) Westwood, Sergio (Garcia) and me, we are a little bit under the radar, which is fine by me. It always adds a little bit if Tiger Woods is here.”
The Europeans — Donald, Westwood, McIlroy and Kaymer — currently fill, in that order, the top four positions in the world ranking and they are acutely aware of all the talk that Woods is back to full fitness and set to win big again.
But while there is general agreement that his return is good for the game, the sense of awe that used to paralyse his rivals has long gone. At 22, McIlroy for one believes that the time just two years ago when he felt nervous just teeing off with Woods is a thing of the past.
“The first time you play with him — you’ve watched this guy on TV your whole life, winning majors and doing things that no-one thought was possible — so you are going to be awestruck,” he said.
“I suppose once I got to spend a little time with him and maybe have lunch with him a few times and everything, you can sort of break the barrier down a little bit and it’s fine from there. I feel quite comfortable being around him.”
Sergio Garcia, who once had a shot at demoting Woods from the top spot a few years back before his own game went into a slump, was even more categoric about the new buzz sounding around Woods.
“To me it doesn’t bring anything,” he said. “Obviously to the people who come and watch it, it does. But if he wasn’t here, it wouldn’t change my schedule.”
Woods himself is reticent to be too specific about what his goals are for this year, restricting himself to stock answers of working on his swing changes and getting a few wins under his belt. But with his fitness apparently restored and the furore over his personal life that beset him last year diminished, Woods sounds fully engaged. “I’m looking forward to this year,” he said