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Tiger's return infuses Bridgestone Invitational with energy and excitement

Tiger Woods
Carlos M. Saavedra/SI
Tiger Woods returns this week to an event he has won seven times.

AKRON, Ohio — Tiger Woods is playing golf this week. Maybe you've heard?

The return of His Eminence has infused the Bridgestone Invitational, a World Golf Championship normally overshadowed by being the warm-up act for next week's PGA Championship, with a sudden dose of interest, excitement and, to be honest, healthy curiosity.

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There are a lot of questions about Tiger that we're waiting to have answered. And after his meet-the-press moment, we're still waiting for answers. Woods excels at not giving up anything resembling privileged information, so his press conference was typically uninformative.

The questions will persist for at least a few more days. Everyone is looking forward to seeing whether Tiger is, in fact, healthy or whether there's a hint of a limp; whether he is hitting quality shots as he says he is; and whether he can contend.

Remember, this is a guy who, despite all of his problems, could've won the Masters if he'd made a couple of short putts in the final round.

It's not just the fans and the media who have questions; Tiger's fellow players do as well. Count defending Bridgestone Invitational champion Hunter Mahan among those wondering how Tiger will fare. It sounds like the guys in the locker room don't know much more than the guys in the media room when it comes to Tiger.

"He's so secretive," Mahan said. "We know how much of him is back. Is his leg good? Is it not good? You just don't know. This week was the cutoff point for his year, either he was going to be healthy and play here or... it was going to be a long time before we saw him."

Mahan, 29 , a three-time winner on tour, shares the same teacher as Woods, Sean Foley. So maybe he's got a little more insight into the potential state of Tiger's game. Or maybe not.

"I'm sure Tiger is eager to get out there and see what he can do on the golf course," Mahan said. "I'm sure he's somewhat curious, as everyone is, to see what he's going to do. I think he's confident in his abilities right now and that's good. It's great for us to go play against him because he was the standard. I'm biased with Foley, but I think Tiger has the perfect teacher and they're going to work on the right things.

"They both have an incredible work ethic. Tiger is going to work harder than anyone to be the best player ever and Foley is going to work as hard as he can to be the best teacher ever," Mahan said.

The biggest factor, Mahan believes, is Tiger's motivation. After missing eight weeks — and two major championships, Tiger likely will be as motivated as he's ever been, Mahan said..

"Tiger is one of those guys like Jordan, he takes every single thing that someone says and it's like gas on a fire that he's got burning right now," Mahan said. "I don't think he has to prove anything. I think he's ready, man, to go out there and start playing some good golf. A motivated Tiger who has a challenge in front of him is a good thing for him and it's a good thing for us. We all want to play against the best in the world and he's in that category."

The return of Woods, who will tee off at 1:40 p.m. Thursday in a twosome with British Open champion Darren Clarke, means that he'll get most of the spotlight. That may take a little pressure off Mahan, who has enjoyed a bit of an odd year. He talked about his inconsistent 2010, where he still popped up and won twice, while this year he has played much more consistently but hasn't won. He just hasn't been able to get all parts of his game to fire at the same time, he said.

If this year seems like a bit of a downer for Mahan, it's mainly because he hasn't put himself in position to win going into the final nine holes on a Sunday very often. He's had a moderately successful year but it's been a quiet one.

"It's been disappointing in the majors but I haven't played that bad," Mahan said. "My game is not far off. I need to get rid of expectations and as boring it as it, play one shot at a time. I need to start enjoying the game and get into the process instead of the result. The parts are there, I've just got to put them together."

It's been such a quiet year for Mahan that he's probably got more attention for doing a silly music video with his golfing pals Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler and Ben Crane, than for his play. They showed up in assorted costumes, including Bubba in denim overalls, and called themselves "The Golf Boys."

It was all in good fun, of course. With Woods back in action this week at Firestone, the Bridgestone Invitational might be guilty of being fun, too.

The other tournament
Life is tougher when you're second-string. The Reno-Tahoe Open was always going to be a distant No. 2 when the world's best golfers are assembling in Akron, Ohio, at the same time, but throw the return of Tiger Woods into the mix and suddenly second fiddle seems like a lofty goal. Hence this headline on the Reno Gazette-Journal's website: "Tiger's in the news so RTO won't be." As the story points out, "The RTO has forever been relegated to the ticker on SportsCenter broadcasts."

The RTO actually has a better field than usual, with 10 former major champion winners, including John Daly, David Duval, Shaun Micheel and Jose Maria Olazabal.

Reno-Tahoe Open executive director Jana Smoley said she didn't expect Tiger's return to have a negative effect on the tournament.

"For Tiger to be back is just good for golf," she said. "We have a lot to be proud of and a lot of good energy and a lot of good names here."

But just no CBS and a national television audience.

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