DUBLIN, Ohio -- A man and his young son waited on the first tee at Muirfield Village Golf Club before the sun could climb over the tree tops and start burning off the morning fog. Rumor had it that Tiger Woods was playing on the PGA Tour again.
Long time no see.
The Memorial is the first time Woods has played on the PGA Tour since the Masters, and so much has changed in six weeks.
For one thing, he's not the sole talk of the tournament. There remains a lingering buzz over Annika Sorenstam playing in the Colonial last week. It was so compelling that Woods said he watched the entire first round at his home in Florida.
"I thought she played beautifully," he said.
The other big change is the pecking order on the PGA Tour money list. For the first time in four years, Woods is no longer at the top this deep into the season.
Despite winning three times, including a World Golf Championship, Woods is No. 3 behind Davis Love III and Masters champion Mike Weir.
Maybe that's a good sign. The last time Woods trailed anyone on the money list in May was in 1999. He won the Memorial, finished off the season with four straight victories and hasn't been threatened since.
Don't get the idea he's worried. Woods sees the season as being only four months old, not five months from being over.
"I look at the fact that I've only played in six tournaments," Woods said. "That's the positive side. Now I can play more and see how I am after the summer."
He returned to competition two weeks ago at the Deutsche Bank-SAP Open in Germany, where he struggled on bumpy greens and tied for 29th. It was the first time he has finished out of the top 10 in a non-PGA Tour event.
The Memorial, which he won three straight times before the streak ended last year, is the last time he will play before the U.S. Open at Olympia Fields. Woods has never played such a limited schedule between the first two majors.
Woods hasn't had a top-10 finish in his last three starts, dating to his 11-stroke victory at the Bay Hill Invitational. That's his longest streak of no top 10s since the end of 2001.
Still, he doesn't think it will affect his preparation for the U.S. Open.
"My practice sessions have been pretty good," he said. "If my practice sessions haven't been good, then there is a little bit more concern. But the way I struck the ball in Germany, and the way I'm hitting it now, I'm very pleased. I just need to get on some good greens."
That won't be an issue this week at Muirfield Village, where tournament host Jack Nicklaus makes sure the course is in immaculate condition.
Along with smooth, contoured greens, the fairways are generous enough that it tends to favor the big hitters.
Woods doesn't fall into that category by statistics alone. He is 47th in driving distance this year at 290.8 yards, only 5.6 yards better than the tour average.
Dissatisfied with his driving, Woods decided to play a TaylorMade driver in the final round of the Deustche Bank, when he was so far out of the lead he had no chance to win.
"That was just an experiment," he said. "I just wanted to mix it up a little bit. It's not like I haven't tried anything before at home; I've tried all the different brands. I just wanted to try one in competition."
"It had a nice flight to it," he said.
Still, the Nike was back in his bag on Wednesday and Woods said he was happy with it.
Driving is a big key to winning at the Muirfield Village, which is 7,265 yards and usually plays every bit of that because of rain. Only three times in the last 14 years has a round not been suspended by rain.
"Jack gives us a chance to drive the ball here," Woods said. "You have to be pretty precise on your iron shots coming into the green, but he gives you a chance to hit your driver. I think that's one of the reasons you see so many long hitters doing well."
There are plenty of them at the Memorial.
Seven of the top 10 players in the world rankings are at Muirfield. That includes Ernie Els, Deustche Bank winner Padraig Harrington and Vijay Singh, who won in 1998.
Harrington, who has emerged as the top European player, is at the Memorial for the first time. After one practice round, he wonders why he didn't come sooner.
"This golf course is second to none, I've got to say," the Irishman said. "I can't understand why I missed out on it so many years. Hopefully, I play the golf to match my feelings about the place."
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