By WIL BARNES
The last time native Los Angelino Tiger Woods teed it up at Riviera CC in the Northern Trust Open was 2006 when he shot 69 – 74 and withdrew due to the flu. In 2005 he missed the cut. And now for the last seven years the World’s #2 has stayed away from a course and an event that he has never won on and it begs the question why? After all he grew up in Cypress about 30 minutes south, on a good day, and it is the tournament that first awarded him entry into a PGA Tour event when he was 16 and a junior at Western High. He missed the cut that year and the following. His best finish was in 1999 when came to the 72nd hole needing a birdie and from the middle of the 18th fairway, fanned a 5-iron into the concession tent on the 10th tee box and made double bogey to tie for second behind winner Ernie Els. It’s worth noting that the great Jack Nicklaus never won at Riviera either. But as I was reminded by my friend Alex Miceli of the Golf Channel, “We’re not talking about Jack. They’re two entirely different animals.”
So then Alex why doesn’t the best player that Southern California has ever produced play here? “I think that because he has never won here and for the first two days of the week that is all he would be asked about and he doesn’t want to deal with it.” Point well taken! Still, why play from 1993 through 2006 in your home town where they invited you when you were a relative no one and then suddenly just turn your back on them? He hasn’t returned to Phoenix since 2002 when a mentally unstable fan refused to stop screaming his name and when finally wrestled to the ground was found to have a handgun in his backpack. I recognize that is a serious breach of security so not returning to crazy Scottsdale is understandable. It should be noted that the Waste Management Open doesn’t need Tiger Woods. They really don’t care. But at the Northern Trust Open where getting fans to come out and watch pro golf is about as useless as turning on your cruise control on the 405. But if the hometown hero were to grace the tournament with his presence it would be a magnanimous gesture, one that would be wholly supported by his followers. But I think he knows that.
Searching for answers I felt it best to seek out some other members of the golf media but started with the tournaments Executive Director, an LA icon, former Lakers great Jerry West. “I’m not really sure,” said the former Bel Air CC club champion. “Personally I have the utmost respect for Tiger and admire him for what he does. I visit with him at Sherwood each December and I told him I was tired of wearing out me knee pads begging him to play. I was kidding of course.” As the conversation went on it was easy to see he feels snubbed. “Everyone has their own life to live. I was a pro athlete so I am well aware of the pulling and tugging that goes on.” In the most recent years, excluding ’08 and ’09 when injury and scandal caused him to miss, Tiger has chosen to play overseas in Dubai and Abu Dhabi where he received a handsome appearance fee somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million. This year he missed the cut in Abu Dhabi and wasn’t offered the largesse fee for Dubai. So why not play Riviera? “I’m not going to get into any controversy about where he plays or his schedule,” he said with a grin. “He has his own event in Thousand Oaks and his fans go see him play there. I am sure those fans would love to see him play here too. Who knows, maybe next year we will get lucky and he will finally say yes.” I guess that’ it. Maybe we’ll get lucky.
Asking players doesn’t really get you any answers albeit a few were willing to chime in. almost all in concert with, “You’d have to ask him.” So then it was time to retreat to the only place where opinions fly as free as Andy Dufrain, the media center. Jeff Rude of Golfweek quipped, “First, he never had success here. If you notice Tiger plays courses that he has won multiple times on so why come get beat up at a place where he’s had none.” This is very true. “If you look at the number of wins Tiger has, two thirds have some about six courses,” crowed Miceli, back in. Woods has won 8 times at Torrey Pines, 7 at each Bay Hill & Firestone and 6 at Doral.” Woods has won 4 at Augusta and Pebble Beach. His last green jacket came in 2005, two years before his father Earl passed away. That too is perplexing. Why hasn’t he won at the Masters in his last 7 attempts, a place where they nervously scrambled to “Tiger proof?”Maybe if he wins at Augusta he will return to Riviera, sort of a reverse winning privilege.
This year when you consider he had played exactly one tournament in the U.S. after 7 weeks, which by the way he won, the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, it just seemed senseless to dismiss home. “Well now he plays in the Honda Classic,” said Larry Dorman of pgatour.com, formerly of the NY Times. “He lives in Jupiter, FL now so he supports that event. With the Match Play in Tucson, Honda and the WGC at Doral, that’ three weeks in a row and that is the most he is going to play. Riviera is out.” So South Florida is home now. That’s a little reminiscent of when the Lakers Kobe Bryant said he’s not from Philadelphia where he grew up and played at Lower Merion High, but he’s from L.A. Really?
I guess it’s true, the only person who knows why he snubs the Northern Trust Open in Tiger himself. It is rumored that my longtime friend and Tiger’s current caddie Joe LaCava tried to persuade him to play in L.A. That is a gutsy move in itself knowing Tiger’s history with bag loopers. Is it the not winning thing? “True he has never won here but he’s been close,” said Dorman. “Hell he could win here just hitting his three-wood off the tee. At some point you have to figure he would love to win at Riviera.” It was then that Jeff Rude chimed in again, “Somewhere in this discussion you have make sure to include the word selfish.” Think about it. Tiger plays just north of L.A. every year in his own Tiger World Challenge with some 19 of his pro friends so if you want to see him play, there is you chance. Or you drive to San Diego, where he won for the 8th time this January and will obviously return to try win #9 in 2014. Like Jerry West, the people at Northern Trust and his many loyal fans, I too hope he graces us with his presence at Riviera next year. Not sure if he will but when I asked Geoff Shackelford of Golf Digest why Tiger doesn’t play at Riviera, he perhaps had the best answer, “I really have no idea.”