Brian Keogh in California
Tiger Woods has been asked some odd questions in his time but nothing comes close to the x-rated ambushing he got in his pre-tournament press conference for the Target World Challenge at Sherwood Country Club in the well-heeled suburbs of Los Angeles.
“Hi Tiger,” pipped a leggy blonde with an English accent. “My boyfriend is a big fan of yours and he often calls your name out during sex. Do you think he might be gay?”
Wood fielded the question with a grin, replying: “That's a very interesting question.” But when the mystery blonde, who turned out to be on a publicity stunt for a dating website, proceeded to update the room on the lurid details of her sex life, Woods displayed the kind of little-boy-lost expression that his rivals would like to see a bit more often on the golf course
“I don't know. That's one for you,” said a bewildered-looking Woods as the tournament organisers rushed to relieve the mystery woman of the microphone and her credentials. “You'll have to figure that out yourself.”
Despite taking a ten-week break from the game, Woods is still the red-hot favourite to lift the Target World Challenge for the fourth time after a year he regards as second only to his 2000 season, when he won the last three majors of the year and went on to hold all four majors at the same time with victory in the 2001 Masters.
"I had a great chance to win three of the four majors this year,” said Woods, whose US PGA victory at Southern Hills was his 13th major victory. “I finished second in two of them. I was just a few shots away from basically doing what I did in 2000, the number of seconds I had, it wasn't that far away. If I get those done, get those squared away, people would probably be comparing it to 2000 if not better.
"A couple years ago I think I was four shots, maybe five shots away from winning all four. I've been pretty close the last few years of eclipsing what I did in 2000 as far as consistency," he added after a season that featured seven wins. “I won nine times, 12 around the world and three majors that year. That's not too bad. But this year I won over 50 percent of my tournaments, so that's not bad, either."
Colin Montgomerie is just one of 15 rivals hoping to get the better of Woods but while the 44-year-old Scot does not believe that his host this week is invincible, he sees the game’s most dominant player edging closer to the form he displayed in 2000.
“I think he’s getting back to that level again,” said Montgomerie. “Who is to say that 2008 won’t be the time that he does all four. It is nice to feel that we have potentially the best sportsman in the world playing golf for the first time ever and that helps us all.
“I think he is almost a better putter than he was then (in 2000). As far as his swing goes, it isn’t for me to say. But he’s very close. Very close.”
Padraig Harrington knows what it’s like to get the better of Woods in the Target World Challenge, which he won in 2002 after a dramatic back nine duel with the Californian.
And while Woods has played down his chances of competing in the European Tour’s inaugural Dubai World Championship in 2009, Harrington says he can see the day when the name T. Woods is etched alongside his own on the Harry Vardon Trophy awarded to the winner of the European Order of Merit.
“I am not surprised that Tiger hasn’t given a commitment to the new Dubai event,” said Harrington, who had Kitt Flood on his bag in yesterday’s pro-am in substitution of younger brother Ronan, who is suffering from a back injury. “I don’t think he will change his mind next week but in the future I can see him wanting to go out there and win that title.
“He’ll want to make the effort to go out and win the title once in his career. I don’t know if it will be next time round but in time I can seem him going for it.
“It would be big for the European Tour if Tiger decides that he would like to get his name on the Harry Vardon Trophy.
“He is obviously somebody who wants to achieve everything in the game of golf and I think there is a possibility that he will go for it at some stage.”