Tiger Woods will be challenged by one of the strongest fields assembled for this week’s Australian Open as he attempts to break a two-year tournament drought at The Lakes in Sydney.
The former world No. 1, who has been marooned on 14 Major titles since his last success at the 2008 US Open, has slipped out of the top 50 in the world rankings for the first time in 15 years to a current 58.
His last tournament victory came at the 2009 Australian Masters, but he faces a difficult test to break through against four of the world’s top 10, with another four from the top-20 along with six Major winners.
American Dustin Johnson is the tournament’s top-ranked player at No. 5 in the world ahead of Australian rising star Jason Day (7), compatriot Adam Scott (8) and American Matt Kuchar (9).
Woods, who lost his golfing aura following lurid revelations about his private life which saw him go into rehab, has been distracted in the tournament lead up by a slur from his former caddy Steve Williams that triggered widespread condemnation.
Williams, who was Woods’s caddy for 13 of his 14 Major titles before being sacked earlier this year, referred to the former world No. 1 as a “black arsehole” during an awards dinner on Friday night in Shanghai.
‘Stevie is not a racist’
Woods said Williams had apologised to him for the comments when they met at the course on Tuesday and while the remarks were hurtful, he denied his ex-caddy was a racist.
“Certainly, Stevie is not a racist, there’s no doubt about that. I think it was a comment that shouldn’t have been made and certainly one that he shouldn’t have meant,” Woods said.
Woods is ambivalent about his spiral down the world rankings, saying he has been through it before.
“I’ve been here before, I changed my game in ’97. I just won the Masters by 12 and decided to change my game and it took me two years,” he said.
“Then I didn’t get it until ’99 and I think I had a pretty good run after that. So hopefully this will be very similar … I think I need tournament time. I haven’t played a lot of tournaments this year, now I need to keep playing more tournaments.”
It is Woods’s first Australian Open since 1996 where he opened with a 79 and rallied to tie for fifth in only his ninth tournament as a professional.
Day, a runner-up at this year’s Masters and US Open and making his first appearance in Australia for four years, said he no longer looks at Woods as the man to beat.
“There’s a bunch of good young players coming up and the competition is only getting tougher,” said Day, nominating Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer as his main rivals for the top ranking going forward.
“Tiger’s Tiger. He can still hit those shots that not many people can,” he said.
“Looking back the last couple of years, I think he’s lost it a little bit but, when he’s on a roll like he was at the Masters on the front nine, people knew where the roars were coming from.”
Greg Norman, who is also playing this week, has nominated 23-year-old Day to emulate him and become Australia’s second-ever world No. 1.
Johnson is in Australia for the first time but doesn’t believe he will be at a disadvantage to the local contenders.
“We’re going to have a great field this week, especially with the Presidents Cup being here [in Australia next week],” Johnson said.
“It’s been a while since I played an event. I’ve come out and been working hard so we’ll see how things go.”
Australian Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 US Open winner, is the defending champion, winning at The Lakes last year by four shots. — AFP