Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Golf

Tiger Woods again skips PGA Tour event at Innisbrook

With his decision this year to play the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens for the first time, it could be concluded that Tiger Woods has something against Tampa Bay.

Or Innisbrook. Or the traffic on U.S. 19.

Whatever the reason, Woods hasn't played a pro tournament round on Innisbrook's Copperhead Course in Palm Harbor since 1996. That's when he teamed with Kelli Kuehne to finish in a tie for second at the mixed-team JCPenney Classic.

Remember that? Probably not.

Since the Innisbrook event became a full-field PGA Tour tournament in 2000, Woods has been a no-show at it. Even since it earned a slot in the tour's March Florida swing, Woods has avoided Palm Harbor like the paparazzi.

This year Woods has played at last weekend's Honda Classic and this weekend's World Golf Championships Cadillac Champion­ship at Doral near Miami.

He will play in the two-day Tavistock Cup, an exhibition matching touring professionals from Lake Nona and Isleworth in Orlando, on March 19-20, then go to the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando.

In other words, Woods will play in every pro event he can in Florida except the Innisbrook tournament, now called the Transitions Championship, which begins Thursday.

"That's a lot of golf for anybody,'' said Kevin Krisle, a tournament director involved in the PGA, LPGA and Champions tours for the past 16 years and in his first year as Transitions tournament director.

"Even if you're a young player, it's a lot. So it's really just where we're placed in the schedule. But there is no doubt having Tiger in the field adds another element to it.

"When he shows up somewhere for the first time, there is a different buzz. We've seen that in the past couple of years. Having seen it up close in person, it's really something.''

The tournament draws a nice crowd without Woods. But with Woods in an event, crowds swell, and TV ratings rise.

"Certainly, the first thing you notice is that there's a buzz,'' said NBC golf analyst and Tampa native Gary Koch, who was in Palm Beach Gardens for the Honda Classic. "There's an energy level that he brings. It's just totally different.

"The gallery following him is enormous. It's very easy to find Tiger. Just look for the people. And he has a huge impact on the community.''

•••

Woods was a rookie when he played in the JCPenney Classic at Innisbrook in December 1996. The news was greeted immediately with increased ticket sales and changes in logistics.

Additional parking lots were opened. A then-record crowd of more than 25,000 attended the final round.

Woods was only 20 years old, but his amateur career and brief stint on the PGA Tour already had made him a fan favorite. He had won his first two pro tournaments earlier in the year.

Woods was mobbed after his first round as he tried to get from the 18th green to the clubhouse. After the second round, he was surrounded by security guards to ensure that didn't happen again.

"That was a situation where not many good things can happen," Woods said at the time. "There were pens in my face, magazines clipping my eye, my hat got knocked off. It was just a tough situation.''

Woods and Kuehne tied for second with Missie McGeorge and Joel Edwards. He said after the final round he would return to the tournament in '97.

He didn't.

•••

The tournament has always attracted a respectable field, and as a PGA Tour event, it has some marquee-worthy past champions: Retief Goosen, Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk, Mark Calcavecchia, K.J. Choi.

This year Luke Donald, the No. 2-ranked player in the world entering this weekend's play, is entered. So is No. 6 Webb Simpson, No. 7 Jason Day and No. 9 Charl Schwartzel.

Other recognizable players include Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, Stewart Cink, Padraig Harrington, Matt Kuchar, Nick Watney, defending champion Gary Woodland and former Gator Camilo Villegas.

If that's not enough, follow John Daly and see what kind of trouble he can get into.

The four-year contract of title sponsor Transitions Optical runs out after this year, and it will not renew. Does the company wish Woods would have come to Palm Harbor just once?

"While the draw of Tiger is appealing, it doesn't make or break this tournament,'' chief operating officer Dave Cole said. "We get a great field every year. No matter what, it's a great platform for us.

"Of course it would be nice to have the draw. But it's a great tournament in and of itself.''

And for potential title sponsors who think Woods might show up in the future, don't hold your breath.

"It's just a scheduling issue,'' Koch said.

"You got the two World Golf Championships (events in March). You've got Bay Hill, which he has won several times and it's Arnold's event. And now that he's moved down to Jupiter, it sounds like (the Honda Classic) is going to be a normal stop for him in order to endear himself to the people in the area.

"The chances of him coming to Innisbrook are not very good.''

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