Tiger Woods casting a shadow larger than ever

MEXICO CITY — Tiger Woods is bigger than ever in golf, and he already was plenty big when he was winning at a rate never seen.

The Honda Classic broke its attendance record last week with a confirmed 224,624 spectators over seven days. The tournament attributed the record increase to the return of Woods and the drama of a sudden-death playoff won by Justin Thomas.

It could have stopped after Woods. Not even Thomas would argue with that.

Television ratings for the Honda Classic were up 43 per cent from the previous year, when Rickie Fowler won.

No surprise there, either.

Woods no longer moves the needle in golf. He is the needle.

Even when he finishes 12th.

What made Woods so compelling at PGA National was that he was only four shots behind going into the weekend, and that on the toughest course of the season — more than a full shot harder than the next one — Woods never shot worse than 71.

He still finished eight shots behind and was never closer than four shots of the lead over the back nine. The possibilities were there, just not the performance.

Not yet, anyway.

And perhaps that’s why coverage of the Honda Classic — video, digital and print — touted results by Woods that were impressive, promising and everything in between, almost to a point that Thomas winning in clutch style was an afterthought.

Woods was pleased with how he played, all things considered, and there is a lot to consider — three back surgeries in a span of 18 months, and not knowing five months ago if he’d ever be able to compete at a high level, and playing against a full PGA Tour field for only the third time this year.

He also knows how to keep score.

And that might explain the text message Woods sent to Thomas on Monday: “Don’t worry about it. You’re still the one holding the trophy.”

Thomas was not the least bit surprised, nor concerned, about such an intense focus on Woods. He could hear it from the third green Sunday when he was looking over a short birdie putt and a burst of cheers came through the trees from the eighth green where Woods made birdie.

The walk to the fourth tee goes across the tee box at No. 9, where Woods had just teed off. The gallery with Woods — perhaps four times the size that was following the last group — stretched all the way to the clubhouse. Thomas couldn’t help but notice of his fans peel off to watch Woods.

Why not?

“I’d do the same thing,” he said. “I’d go watch Tiger Woods. I was out there trying to win a golf tournament. The fact people want to go watch Tiger Woods doesn’t bother me. I don’t blame them. He’s earned that.”

It’s really nothing new. Stewart Cink once told of the time he played in the Junior World Championship in San Diego. When his round was over, his mother would go back onto the course and watch Woods.

Golf is in a different place than when Woods picked up his 79th victory on the PGA Tour in August 2013, his most recent victory. Thomas had just turned pro. Jordan Spieth had just earned a full PGA Tour card. Jon Rahm was going into his sophomore year at Arizona State. Since then, five players have taken turns at No. 1 in the world.

During his longest stretch out of golf with his bad back, the refrain was that golf needed Tiger Woods. When he was on the verge of returning at the end of 2016, the talk was that golf was in a good spot and Woods could only make it that much better.

For the first few tournaments of his return, it has become Woods and everyone else.

The question leading to the Masters, and possibly beyond, is whether the rising tide lifts all ships or sinks them.

But it’s early. Woods finished seven shots behind in a tie for 23th at Torrey Pines. He finished eight shots behind in 12th place at PGA National. In between, he missed the cut at Riviera, a course that never was kind to him even when he was at his best. Next up is most likely Bay Hill, where he has won eight times.

Different about Woods this time is that he has lowered his expectations. He was playing to win, sure. This time, he has accepted a new body he had to learn after fusion surgery on his lower back, and that it might take time to get back into the game. Three starts in five weeks is the most tournament golf he has played since August 2015.

“My expectations have gone up,” Woods said.

So will the hype. That probably won’t change until he wins.

Thomas, and no doubt others, are fine with that. Thomas is approaching $20 million in career earnings, and even though he has played in only 11 PGA Tour events with Woods, he knows who to thank for it.

Meanwhile, Thomas will try to win his first World Golf Championships title this week in Mexico. Dustin Johnson is the defending champion. Woods has been out of golf too long to be eligible.

For the mainstream fans whom Woods brought to the game, will they even notice who wins?

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