SAN DIEGO — The player who walked toward the first tee at sunrise on the North Course at Torrey Pines was not accompanied by a security detail. Maintenance workers did not gather on the pro shop balcony to watch him tee off.
This was Nicholas Thompson, not Tiger Woods.
And that’s why the “indefinite break” from golf that Woods announced two months ago didn’t really start until Tuesday.
It has been 53 days since golf’s biggest star announced he was stepping away to sort out a private life that has run amok through tabloids and gossip magazines because of his extramarital affairs.
Truth is, little has changed during his absence.
At least so far.
The PGA Tour is only three weeks into its new season, three events that Woods usually doesn’t play. Besides, not as many people watch golf during those weeks, from behind the ropes or on the sofa. Not when the tournaments are played on two islands in the Pacific or four courses in the California desert. Not when they are held the same weekend as NFL playoffs.
Torrey Pines, however, is different.
It’s the first tournament on network television. It’s where Woods and his chief rival, Phil Mickelson, typically start their seasons.
How much will the PGA Tour miss Woods? Now is the time to start keeping score.
This is a big week for Tom Wilson, the tournament director of what now is called the Farmers Insurance Open. This might be the only PGA Tour event in history that had four names in the span of one year — the Buick Invitational, the Century Club of San Diego Invitational, the San Diego Open and the Farmers Insurance Open.
General Motors filed for bankruptcy, knocking out Buick as the title sponsor. The tournament only found a replacement last week, and Wilson is optimistic that Farmers will be interested in signing on for more than just this year.
It would have helped to have Woods around this week, bringing the energy and crowds that once accompanied him.
Woods has only missed this tournament once when healthy, in 1997 when he was playing for appearance money overseas and won the Asian Honda Classic by 10 shots over Mo Joong-Kyung. He had to skip last year while recovering from knee surgery, although he still managed to steal some headlines by announcing hours after the final round that his wife had given birth to their son, Charlie.
Now is the time to start measuring TV ratings, which traditionally spike when Woods is in contention.
The final round last year earned a 2.0 when Nick Watney birdied two of the last three holes for a one-shot victory over John Rollins. That was down from a 4.2 in 2008 when Woods won by eight shots over Stewart Cink.
Torrey Pines has become the tour’s signature stop on the West Coast Swing, awarded the prime spot on the calendar between the NFL’s conference championship games and the Super Bowl. It’s no surprise that its TV ratings has dwarfed everything else on the West Coast, helped in part by Woods winning five of the last six times he played.
The difference now, of course, is not only what’s keeping him away but the uncertainty of when he will return.
By now, players have accepted that Woods is on leave and that his personal life is a wreck. There really is nothing else to say beyond the daily dose of gossip. What really happened that night he drove his SUV over a fire hydrant and into a tree? Is he really at a sex addiction clinic in Mississippi? Did his wife participate in the program? Does their marriage have a chance?
The bigger question, which no one can answer, is when he will return.
Rocco Mediate is back at Torrey Pines for the first time since that 19-hole playoff loss to Woods in the 2008 U.S. Open. Mediate missed last year with a knee injury, which largely went unnoticed. He went to the putting green Monday and told his caddie, “A little different here.” Missing were thousands of fans surrounding the green, a practice range on the North Course, grandstands galore.
Missing was his adversary that day, Tiger Woods.
“Yeah, that’s really different,” Mediate said. “Any time he’s not in the field, it’s obviously not the best field we have. You always want your best guy. It always makes it what it’s supposed to be, especially (since) he’s won here 712 times. So it’s hard to beat that guy here.”
A year ago, Woods missed only Torrey Pines as part of his regular schedule.
His absence will continue to capture attention if he’s not at the Match Play Championship (where he returned a year ago) or another World Golf Championship at Doral the second week of March, or at Bay Hill.
Watney was reminded of his victory last year, when hours after he left Torrey Pines with the trophy, word leaked that Woods had become a father again. So if Watney were to win again, could history repeat itself with another announcement from Woods? And what would the announcement be?
Watney laughed at the possibility.
“I hope it would be that he’s coming back,” Watney said. “Because we need him.”