Unknown Aussie is Tiger’s first match play foe
MARANA, Ariz. ” Tiger Woods announced his return to golf, and phones began ringing from Arizona to Australia.
The Accenture Match Play Championship usually attracts journalists from various parts of the world, and 473 media had requested credentials to come to high desert of Tucson. Then came Woods’ statement that “I’m now ready to play again,” and 105 more requests poured in. Three television satellite trucks were expected. Now the number is 11.
And in Australia?
Brendan Jones, the last man to qualify for the 64-man field, was home with his family when he heard the news. Jones is no math major, but he knew the No. 64 seed plays the No. 1 seed in the opening round, and he knew who was No. 1.
“I got a few chills up the back of my neck,” Jones said.
The trick will be getting them to go away when he meets Woods on the first tee of The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club at Dove Mountain on Wednesday.
Jones has played in five majors and three World Golf Championships. He spent two years on the PGA Tour without much success, but has won eight times on the Japan Golf Tour.
He was quite the celebrity on Monday.
He was stopped twice for pictures with fans as he walked off the 18th green. When he stepped into the media center, he found 30 reporters staring at him, along with eight television cameras at the back of the room.
Jones is curious, like everyone else, about how Woods will perform in his first tournament since winning the U.S. Open on one good leg. Wood had season-ending surgery a week later to reconstruct the ligaments in his left knee.
Jones is being realistic about his opening match.
“I’ve come a long way,” he said. “If I get beat by anybody, I would like to get beat by Tiger.”
Historically, he is aware that three of Woods’ six losses in this fickle tournament have come at the hands of Australians ” by Peter O’Malley in the first round, by Nick O’Hern in the second round twice.
“I’m an Australian, so I got some sort of chance,” he said.
And then there is the unconventional plan to beat the world’s No. 1 player, which friends in Australia have recommended.
“Pretty much everybody has said, ‘If things don’t go your way, just take out his knee,”‘ Jones said. “I hope it doesn’t get to that.”
Woods was not expected to play the Jack Nicklaus-designed course until Tuesday, and he might be in for a surprise. It is nothing like The Gallery course a few miles down Dove Mountain, which allowed for plenty of birdies and had par 5s ” even a par 4 ” that most of the players could reach in two.
This course measures 7,849 yards from the tips, with the shortest par 5 at a mere 574 yards. As for the greens, most of them have so many slopes they resemble potato chips.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen greens like this, to be honest with you,” Rory McIlroy said.
Woods’ caddie, Steve Williams, walked the course with a yardage book in hand. The boss was practicing out of state.
Woods was to play a practice round Tuesday morning, followed by a press conference that the PGA Tour is making available live via satellite and through the phone lines.
His opening match begins at 2:02 p.m. EST, which is two minutes after the telecast begins. Wednesday always is among the toughest days for a golf producer, with 32 matches on the course. Tommy Roy, the executive producer for NBC Sports, said the plan typically is focus on matches that are ending.
“We’ll still do that,” he said. “But the focus is not on that. We’re going to show every shot he hits.”
The Golf Channel, which broadcasts the first three rounds, figures to get some of its highest ratings ever. In the booth will be a reunion of Nick Faldo and Paul Azinger, a tandem for ABC Sports and opposing captains at the Ryder Cup, calling the shots together for the first time since the British Open last summer. This happens to be one of the few events when Azinger is doing TV work.
“It’s nice to have Tiger schedule his comeback around me,” Azinger said with his usual dose of sarcasm.
The question is how long Woods will stay.
Even he is curious about an eight-month layoff, for while his game might be sharp on the range, it is different when every shot counts. He is a three-time winner of this volatile format, but even last year, when he was in the middle of a winning streak that would reach seven events around the world, he needed a ferocious rally simply to escape the first round.
A big advantage for Woods is the circus-like atmosphere his return is sure to bring. This is what Woods sees all the time. For Jones, it will be an experience like no other.
“One of the most anticipated comebacks in any sport, really,” he said. “And to have a front row seat to all of it … it’s a great honor.”
Jones was asked where he would put his money if he were a betting man.
“I would probably put the house on Tiger,” he said with a laugh. “But I didn’t fly all this way to try to lose. I’m here to try to beat him. And there’s been some funny things happen in sport. I’m up against it, but I’m hoping that I’ll put in a good effort.”