- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 29, 2011

ORLANDO, FLA. (AP) - So many people surrounded the first tee that it was hard to see who was playing. The gallery stretched down the entire length of the 461-yard opening hole and wrapped around the back of the green on a sun-baked Sunday at Bay Hill.

Now on the tee, Tiger Woods.

He was in a tie for 29th. He was 10 shots out of the lead, no serious threat to win.

About four hours later, the final group of Martin Laird and Spencer Levin approached the fifth green with under 100 fans tagging along.

This is nothing new.

A few weeks earlier at Doral, the PGA Tour decided to group players based on their world ranking. Someone estimated the gallery at 85 people for the “Big Three” of Martin Kaymer, Lee Westwood and Luke Donald. On the other side of the course, there were too many fans to count in the group of players ranked 4-5-6 _ Graeme McDowell, Woods and Phil Mickelson.

During the FedEx Cup playoffs last year at Ridgewood, thousands of fans crammed behind the ropes on both sides of the fairway at Ridgewood Country Club to watch Woods, who was in 20th place and going nowhere.

One reporter was thinking too hard as he searched for the meaning of it all.

“I get it … but I don’t get it,” he said as his eyes scanned the size of the crowd. “The guy is in 20th place. Why wouldn’t you go watch someone who is actually playing well?”

The answer: They were there to see Babe Ruth.

Even at his worst _ and there are plenty of numbers and statistics to back that up _ Woods remains the most compelling figure in golf. It was like that at Bay Hill. It will be that way next week at the Masters, even as Mickelson tries to join him with four green jackets, or Kaymer goes after a second straight major, or Westwood tries to regain the No. 1 ranking, this time without having to explain why.

Never mind that Woods is meandering through mediocrity at the moment.

Wednesday will mark 500 days since his last victory at the Australian Masters, his last tournament before the car crash outside his Florida home and the revelations of affairs that followed and broke up his marriage.

He has played 20 tournaments since, not including the Ryder Cup. In his only chance to win, at the Chevron World Challenge, Woods coughed up a four-shot lead in the final round to McDowell, the first time in his career that Woods was leading by more than three shots going into the last day and didn’t win.

Woods has earned $265,465 in five tournaments this year. He earned more in his first five tournaments as a 20-year-old pro.

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