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BILL DWYRE

Tiger Woods' comeback is bigger than the game

Hype machine will be going full force as world's top player announces he will return at match-play event.

February 20, 2009|BILL DWYRE

The leader in the clubhouse was Phil Mickelson. The story of the day was 3,000 miles away.

Mickelson shot an eight-under-par 63 at Riviera's Northern Trust Open on Thursday. Tiger Woods, at home in Florida, typed on his website.

He's back. Eat your heart out, Michael Jordan. Your return was huge. His is gigantic.

Less than an hour after Mickelson turned Riviera into Rancho Park from the red tees, the buzz began. Tiger, out since last June 16 when he won in a playoff on the 91st hole of the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines and limped off to have reconstructive knee surgery, would return to play in an event next week near Tucson. That's the Accenture Match Play, which was won last year by . . .

You guessed it. A man named Eldrick.

This could be the biggest thing to hit Arizona since the taco.

Neither the return of Jordan, nor that of Woods, needed verbal flamboyancy. Jordan used two words: "I'm back." Woods prattled on for six: "I'm now ready to play again."

Poor Mickelson played for five hours, turning in some of the best golf of his life on one of the most demanding courses the pros play. Then he answered questions from the media for about 20 minutes.

And he got upstaged by six words.

It is difficult to articulate how huge Woods is.

The media doesn't just report. It drools.

The Golf Channel, which has rights to portions of the telecast of the Accenture, delivered the news with glee. It almost giggled. Tiger was back. Their meal ticket had returned. The planets were back in alignment, as well as their ratings.

"This is the comeback the world has been waiting for," intoned one expert who was interviewed.

Former star Lee Trevino analyzed for viewers what a solidly repaired knee might mean for Tiger's game, concluding that, if it is sound, "The rest of you guys out there are in more trouble."

A sports psychologist discussed the news in predictable psychobabble and there was medical conjecture that put Tiger's health at 95% when he came back.

What, not 96%?

For hours, we saw shots of Tiger swinging, Tiger fist-pumping, Tiger limping. It was All Tiger, All the Time. And it will be, for the foreseeable future.

Nor was it only TV, although it almost always wins in the race for mindless excess.

Newspapers editors now had a headline that people actually might read, website editors got the manna from heaven that justifies their existence, and clueless columnists got a clue. All was right again with the world, except for a few mortgage problems and bankers flying around in private jets.

There is no denying that Woods has gone beyond superstar status into a heretofore unvisited strata. Certainly in golf. Maybe in sports in general.

His U.S. Open heroics truly were. A terrible knee, two fractures in the same leg, a rough so deep at Torrey Pines that they are still looking for two short spectators who walked in and were never seen again, and none of it stopping Tiger. He conquered all, to deserved rave reviews and received elevated respect in the world of sports. Not to mention the world.

He was the limping lion, and his stature, huge before, went off the charts.

Then, if anything, it grew. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, especially for sports fans.

It has been eight months. The media had temporarily stored its gushing and, once unleashed, as it was Thursday, there will be no turning back.

At Riviera, above the hallowed 18th hole, where finishing players sign their cards and chat with inquiring reporters, the questions were almost all the same: Tiger is coming back. What do you think? Or some version of that.

The answers were all polite, all politically correct, all with the understanding that the man being asked about has contributed greatly to everybody else's bank account.

But occasionally, the body language spoke volumes too. As in: Is anybody going to ask me about my game today?

As the sun went down and the temperatures started to dip, a 46-year-old man named Rocco walked slowly up the hill to the 18th green, two-putted for par and finished the day tied for 53rd with a one-under 70.

When he was done, Rocco Mediate hobbled up an even bigger hill to the clubhouse and was interviewed by a small gathering of reporters. He was of special interest because he had been the foil for Tiger in the U.S. Open, the likable player who battled him to the end, before sticking to the script and losing.

He said all the right things, including a prediction that Tiger would very likely win his first tournament back.

Eventually, having served his purpose as a vehicle for Tiger quotes, Mediate headed out, probably to have the fluid drained from a knee that was arthroscopically repaired 17 days ago, so he can play again today.

His 70 had heroics of its own -- competing 17 days after surgery, after an infection that set in immediately, a temperature of 103 degrees, a week without eating solids, and a total of 15 holes of practice coming in, riding in a cart for six of them.

Nobody had bothered to ask about that.

--

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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