The honeymoon is over. Tiger Woods was back to work last week, zipping around Isleworth CC in his golf cart with instructor Hank Haney, playing with Mark O'Meara and John Cook, telling his buds that he was ready to rejoin the tour, starting at this week's Tour Championship.
The road back to No. 1 begins in Atlanta.
"I know he didn't like it when David Duval passed him in 1998," O'Meara said, noting that Duval's run to No. 1 helped motivate Woods to produce the greatest stretch of golf in his career, a five-year accumulation of major championships (seven), victories (32), Player-of-the-Year titles (five) and Vardon Trophies (five). Rested and focused -- now that the wedding is behind him -- Woods has four tournaments remaining in 2004, but only one that counts on the PGA Tour. The Tour Championship represents the last official chance Woods has of winning a stroke-play event this year.
"I like what I'm seeing -- and hearing," said Cook. "Whether that translates into a 'W' next week, I don't know. But I like his attitude. I like his freshness. And I like his swing. He's done what Jack Nicklaus did, eliminate one side of the golf course. I think he's in a good spot. No matter what government studies say about marriage, he's not done."
Woods is unaccustomed to playing the role of spoiler, but in a way that is what he could do to Vijay Singh, who goes into East Lake GC as a sure bet for PGA Tour Player of the Year and has a second-straight money title locked up. Singh has finished first, second and tied for third the three times the tour has finished the season in Atlanta. "I've had great success there," Singh said two weeks ago during a T-2 finish at Disney. Only a playoff loss to Hal Sutton in 1998 and a bad final round in 2000 stand in the way of a Vijay sweep at East Lake, the home course of Bobby Jones notorious for its barbed-wire Bermuda rough and a 245-yard closing par 3. In 2002 he took the third-round lead at East Lake for the third straight time and shot 67 on Sunday to beat Charles Howell III by two strokes.
Thirteen victories later, Singh has passed Woods atop the World Ranking and spent last week at the Chrysler Championship methodically shooting four rounds in the 60s to win for the ninth time this year, and become the first player in tour history to surpass the $10-million mark in season earnings.
"When I came to work for him last year at the U.S. Open at Olympia Fields, he had already made $3 million," said Singh's caddie, Dave Renwick. "I thought if he could make another $2 million that would be fantastic, and if he makes another $3-4 million this year it would be good. He's more than doubled it."
Motivation, not money, is Phil Mickelson's problem. The Masters champion admitted at Innisbrook that he is looking past the Tour Championship to next year. Since the PGA Championship, Mickelson has completed only two tournaments and not finished better than T-43 at the WGC-NEC Invitational. He missed the cut at Innisbrook in his first appearance since withdrawing from the Michelin Championship with a reported case of food poisoning. These two latest episodes followed his nightmare week at the Ryder Cup, where he changed equipment just before the event and only won one match.
"I'm looking at this week and next week more as getting ready for next year," Mickelson said after shooting 76 Friday. "In all honesty [the Tour Championship] is not overly important [because] Vijay has the player of the year wrapped up, and he has the money title wrapped up. There's really nothing that will change for next week."
Ernie Els might beg to differ, but it's hard to say where he'll be physically and emotionally at East Lake. The South African arrived in Orlando Friday, shot two commercials on the weekend at Lake Nona, worked with David Leadbetter on Monday and was scheduled to fly into Atlanta Tuesday for a meeting with PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem over his membership. The hand injury that caused him to withdraw from the Chrysler Championship is healed. Coming off wins in two of his last three events, Els views this as an opportunity to move up on Singh, and keep some distance from Tiger.
"One thing about Ernie, he's able to cast things aside," said Leadbetter. "I don't think [tournament releases] will be a distraction. I think it's something he and management will work out. He hasn't come back here just to make up the field, I'll tell you that."
Hal Sutton, trying not to sound bitter, returned to the PGA Tour and said he is looking past the criticism he received as a Ryder Cup captain. "It's time to move past that," Sutton told the Tampa Tribune last week at the Chrysler Championship. Meanwhile, Phil Mickelson was asked what positive memories he had of Sutton at Oakland Hills. After five seconds of deliberation, Mickelson said, "The most positive memory I have of the Ryder Cup is having Jackie Burke as vice captain." The big chill is a result of Sutton being critical when asked about Mickelson's equipment change just two weeks before the matches. Mickelson's thinking is that, no matter what the circumstances, a manager, coach, or captain should never throw a player under the bus.
Mathias Gronberg did better than anyone dealing with the pressure at last year's Q-school, earning medalist honors for full playing privileges on the PGA Tour in 2004. What he couldn't handle was the last three months of the season. Seemingly safe for '05 with $565,000 in earnings, he consulted with the tour and it was suggested he had earned enough money to keep his card. Ten straight missed cuts later, Gronberg was outside the top 125. At 132nd on the money list, he'll have to settle for the 15-20 events he'll play as a non-exempt tour member.
Tim Rosaforte is a senior writer for Golf World magazine