As PGA Tour players forge ahead in Florida, Tiger Woods casts a long shadow from California

Players spoke of gathering familiarity with a 15-year-old course called The Concession, named for a golf-historic moment relished by golf geeks when Jack Nicklaus conceded a putt to Tony Jacklin at the 1969 Ryder Cup. They told of green undulations and Stimpmeter readings. At an event relocated here from its normal home in Mexico because of the coronavirus pandemic, they embodied what Rory McIlroy had said Wednesday, how Woods’s accident was “obviously going to take a bunch of attention away from this golf tournament, but that’s nothing to do with us, that doesn’t fall on us, and we really don’t feel that when we’re playing anyway.”

Woods, the all-time compartmentalizer, would understand.

In 81-degree sunshine and bearable humidity, the first round of the World Golf Championships Workday Championship at The Concession looked like a normal covid-era tournament, with just a trickle of spectators, maybe a tad more of the sponsors and invitees and members than one would have seen were this still 2020. The absence of galleries probably contributed to the absence of any visible Woods-related gear or signage. It was mostly noiseless as these events are these days, with volunteers holding up the QUIET signs long present at these events and the MASK UP signs more recently present at these events.

The normal tournament happened at a course tucked away from the boulevards of Sarasota and Bradenton, rich in nature and pines and moss and ponds, back amid still air and quiet mansions where one might see osprey families in the median. Seventy-two entries, including 47 of the top 50 players in the world, played a course co-designed by Nicklaus and Jacklin on big, howling greens like the one on No. 18, in which one seemingly might build a small village.

Dustin Johnson, the runaway No. 1 player in the world, shot 77.

Brooks Koepka, formidable again, refused to complicate matters as usual on a course he hadn’t seen before Tuesday, shot 5-under-par 67 to lurk in a third-place tie and said of Woods afterward on Golf Channel, “Hopefully he’s okay and can get back out here, because we need him.”

As this went on, much of the golf-conscious world thought about a hospital room in West Carson, Calif. The competitive golf resumed one day after Anish Mahajan, chief medical officer at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, told of Woods’s “comminuted open fractures affecting both the upper and lower portions of the tibia and fibula bones,” his “additional injuries to the bones of the foot and the ankle,” and his “trauma to muscle and soft tissue of leg.”

The PGA Tour had left Los Angeles, where Woods served as a tournament host at Riviera last weekend, and had begun its Florida swing, set to go from here to the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando, the Players Championship near Jacksonville and the Honda near Palm Beach. Many of the players managed to combine both game polish and a concern for Woods.

As No. 13-ranked Tony Finau said here, “I’ve said it I think time after time, the ’97 Masters changed the course of my life, course of my career. Without that event [which Woods won by 12 shots at age 21], I probably wouldn’t be here, wouldn’t be playing golf, so he definitely changed the course of my life, my career. I’m one of hundreds of guys out here probably that would say the same thing. He means a lot to the game, but individually I think he means a lot to us just individually, especially for me.”

Finau was a 7-year-old Utahn at the time. He’s 31 now. He shot 68 on Thursday.

“Yeah, I’m playing well and just playing really solid golf,” said Finau, who finished second after a playoff at Riviera. “Nothing changed this week. Just preparing for the golf course, a golf course that I’ve never seen before, has been our biggest task, my caddie and I, and I think I did a good job today.”

They spoke normal golf dialect, co-leader Webb Simpson telling of a course “fantastic” and “firm and fast,” co-leader Matthew Fitzpatrick telling of greens “running about 12 on the Stimp, that’s great for me, I love it when it’s like that,” McIlroy telling of the new greens allowing pin placements more various than normal tour stops.

As a group, they were forging ahead as expert practitioners of a curious sport whose buzz has relied so much upon one person. They were heading back into a zone they’ve occupied before, that of playing on when Woods is absent, as has happened several times across the past 25 years.

“It’s always great when he plays at a tournament or is out here because it gives that tournament an extra dimension that it usually doesn’t have,” McIlroy had said Wednesday. “I think we were all — you know, we’re all sort of heading toward that day that Tiger wasn’t going to be a part of the game. I’m not saying that that was soon. He’s still — before this accident, he was rehabbing a back injury and hopefully going to come back and play this year. It’s inevitable that one day he won’t be a part of it, and that’s just going to be just something that the game of golf and the tour is going to have to deal with and adapt to.

“Obviously, hopefully he comes back and is able to play, but if he’s not, he’ll still be a part of the game in some way, whether it’s obviously his design business and his foundation and hosting golf tournaments. We might — it may be the end of seeing the genius at work with a club in his hand, but there’s still a lot of other ways he can affect the game in a great way.”

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