Tiger Woods finished tied for third in his most recent event, the HSBC Golf Championship in Abu Dhabi.
Nikhil Monteiro / Reuters
By Alan Shipnuck
Thursday, February 09, 2012

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- As always, it’s all about Tiger.

This week the enigmatic Mr. Woods returns to the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am for the first time in a decade, giving us a chance to take stock on where he’s been and where he’s headed.

(LIVE BLOG: Follow Tiger's opening round.)

Pebble Beach was Woods’s private playpen around the turn of the century. His thrilling back-nine comeback at the 2000 Pro-Am foreshadowed his record-smashing U.S. Open victory there four months later, which may  be the most perfect golf ever played.

Woods’s self-imposed exile from Pebble Beach was mostly about whopping appearance fee money from Dubai, which had a conflicting date on the calendar. He did return for the 2010 U.S. Open, just a couple months removed from re-entering public life after his sex scandal. During an otherwise ho-hum performance, he summoned an electric back-nine 31 on Saturday, stirring old ghosts.

That kind of tantalizing tease is all Woods has given us over the last two years, during which he’s failed to win a meaningful tournament. The trend continued in his first and only start of the 2012 season, in Abu Dhabi, where he led going into the final round but shot a scratchy 72 to let another one get away.

On Tuesday in Pebble Beach, the man who used to be the most ruthless closer in sports history tried to put a positive spin on that disappointing finish, saying, "Even though I lost, I was pleased with the way that was my bad day of ball-striking. If I can have that as my bad ball-striking day, we’re looking pretty good.”

Woods also noted his improved course management and made the point that after a series of serious injuries and related setbacks, he’s finally able to work on his body and swing without limitations. It all sounds encouraging, but for a guy whose mantra used to be “second place sucks,” the endless optimism will continue to ring hollow until he wins.

Is this the week? There are a couple of things working against Tiger. Unlike other Pro-Am regulars, he’s never played Monterey Peninsula Country Club in competition. That’s not too big a deal; a bigger challenge to overcome is the tourney’s loosey-goosey vibe. Woods prefers to exist in a carefully controlled bubble, but the Pro-Am’s celeb-centric mirth and leisurely pace of play make that almost impossible. His hand-picked partner, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, is a good stick and a longtime friend, so that helps. But Romo has his own rabid fan base, and the galleries are guaranteed to be full of stargazers furtively snapping photos. Throw in the potential for spiked-up greens, and Woods’s equanimity will be tested.

Tiger may be the week’s biggest story, but he’s not the tournament’s leading man. That would be one Bill Murray, the, ahem, defending champ. Last year's victory in the pro-am portion of the event by Murray and his unlikely straight man, D.A. Points, was pure Hollywood drama. For all the insouciance he projects, Murray was deeply moved to finally get a little crystal after two decades of trying. His defense is certain to be entertaining. Not too long ago he texted Points,"Hey knucklehead, how about we do this thing one more time?"

Other notable celebrities include hard-luck NFL royalty Aaron Rodgers, Bill Belichick and Jim Harbaugh, each of whom had surely envisioned winging into Pebble days after a Super Bowl triumph. Hollywood is pretty well represented with Andy Garcia, Chris O’Donnell, Don Cheadle and Anthony Anderson, whose most important role is as host of Golf Channel’s “Golf In America.”

For the hardcore fan, Pebble offers an intriguing subplot: this is the last week to qualify for the Match Play Championship by sneaking into the top 65 in the World Ranking. (Phil Mickelson, on hand and looking for his fourth Pro-Am title, has already said he won’t play.)
 
Among the bubble boys teeing it up at Pebble are Jim Furyk (59th in the world), Kevin Na (63rd), Ryan Moore (65th), Rory Sabbatini (68th) and Spencer Levin (72nd). In the old days the last guy into the field was pretty much guaranteed a first-round match vs. Woods, who spent a decade entrenched at No. 1 in the World Ranking and was thus the Match Play’s top seed.

In a week full of intrigue, Tiger’s quest to get back to where he was remains the top story.

 

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