Talk of Tiger buzzing at tournament

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) — His interview over, Padraig Harrington was leaving the media center at the Chevron World Challenge when he passed Lee Westwood and offered some help.

"Would you like to know what questions are being asked?" Harrington said.

Westwood smiled and said, "I imagine there's only one."

Tiger Woods' presence is larger than ever, even if he isn't coming to his own tournament. As most players were getting ready to practice Tuesday, TV sets were tuned to a press conference in Florida, where state troopers declared the investigation into his Nov. 27 early-morning crash was over and that Woods would be cited for careless driving and fined $164.

Then came an Us Weekly story with a woman claiming to have text messages and voice mails from an affair with Woods that began more than two years ago. That magazine cover story comes less than a week after the National Enquirer published a story alleging that Woods had been seeing New York nightclub hostess Rachel Uchitel, who has denied it.

"There's lot of questions that we're never going to get the answers to, and the fact that he is the No. 1 sports star in the world means that there is going to be a higher profile to those things," Harrington said. "It is what it is because of how good he is, and he'll have to deal with it. I don't know exactly what the truth of it all is, and the thing is, I don't think anybody is ever going to know exactly what's gone on. And that's probably a good thing.

"But it won't stop people from guessing and questioning things like that," he said. "That's human nature. We're intrigued by other people's lives."

Most players, even those who are close to Woods, have not heard from him and don't know what to think, much less say.

"I haven't talked to him," said Mark O'Meara, who took him under his wing when Woods turned pro at age 20 in 1996.

Steve Stricker went undefeated with Woods as his partner at the Presidents Cup, and their wives walked together in some of those matches. He usually gets a quick answer when he sends a text message from Woods. This time, not a peep.

"Since I haven't heard back, I imagine he's in - I don't know the right word - a lot of pain," Stricker said. "And I don't even know what that means. I don't know what it's all about. I just feel bad for the guy. He's getting hammered in the media."

The tournament has taken a supporting role to the drama being played out inside the gates of Isleworth, where Woods crashed his SUV into a fire hydrant and tree, and in celebrity magazines.

NBC Sports will be televising the tournament this week, and executive producer Tommy Roy said he could not say how the network will cover Woods' absence.

"We'll have to see what further happens in the story," Roy said. "Between now and when we come on the air Saturday, that's a lot of time. We have a golf tournament to cover. It's too early to determine what we'll do."

Along with drawing big crowds when Woods plays, tournaments typically double their TV ratings when he is in contention. When he didn't play last year because of knee surgery, Woods still spent time in the broadcast booth.

Greg McLaughlin, president of the Tiger Woods Foundation and tournament director, said sponsor Chevron would have liked Woods to be part of the tournament, "but they respect his decision, they support his decision."

Asked if he had spoken to Woods, McLaughlin paused and said, "It's not appropriate for me to talk about Tiger."

The players don't want to talk, either, although they anticipated such questions when they came to California.

"It's difficult for me to comment, because I only know what you know - probably less than what you know," Westwood said. "I was shocked when I heard it was a serious accident, then relieved to here he had been released from the hospital. Other than that, the rest is speculation and people putting their own assumption to things. I have no time for all that, and I don't want to be part of it."

Even in such an individual sport, there is a camaraderie that exists - Americans and Europeans, the No. 1 player and No. 120 player - because ultimately, the competition is between the player and the course.

British Open champion Stewart Cink pointed out that it still can be a lonely game, far different from football and baseball teams.

"It's hard when you don't have that built-in framework of the team, when you can sort of absorb yourself into a jersey," Cink said. "Out here, you're an island. When you play great, you're an island. When you play poorly, you're an island. And when you have some attention off the course that you'd rather not have, then you're an island."

Woods is not likely to play again until the San Diego Invitational at Torrey Pines, which starts Jan. 28. Some players still have the Shark Shootout next week in Florida, others will open their season the first week of January in Hawaii.

Chances are, Woods will remain a topic of conversation.

"When you're the biggest sports star in the world, that goes with the territory," Harrington said. "You create these stories, and in six weeks' time, it might be somebody else's story. We'll have to wait and see what evolves. But the one thing that's for sure, we'll all be watching. As I said, that's human nature."

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