Arizona's Mark Lyons draws a foul from WSU's Brock Motum on Saturday. Both have been all-stars in the first half of the Pac-12 season.


Long before a Melbourne, Australia, newspaper wrote that Tiger Woods "is poised to make a shock return" to the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, tournament officials planned for life after Tiger. And OK, Phil Mickelson, too.

At the 13th tee, they successfully created an upscale, open-air viewing pavilion, the Saguaro Club, asking $15,000 for each of 18 eating areas.

"We sold all of them," said Judy McDermott, executive director of the Tucson Conquistadores.

That's $270,000 in a bumpy economy.

They also expanded the Walter Hagen Club, which runs parallel to the 13th fairway, adding a second and third tier of primo rail seating. The Hagen Club can now accommodate about 2,000. It is the see-and-be-seen, gotta-be-there hub of the Match Play event.

"Our corporate sales are actually on par with last year," McDermott said. "We've had success selling our product. It's not snake oil, you know."

The last to buy in is the average fan, the daily-fees guy, who has not rushed to purchase tickets that range from $25 to $65. "That's where we've taken a hit," McDermott said.

But on Wednesday, when the Herald Sun suggested that "strengthening whispers" indicate Woods will end his indefinite leave of absence and play at Dove Mountain Feb. 17 through 21, interest accelerated. The world's No. 1 golfer announced last month that he will take an indefinite leave from golf "to focus my attention on being a better husband, father and person."

Unfortunately, the Australian newspaper did not document its Tiger-to-return piece with named or unnamed sources.

"I don't know what to believe," McDermott said.

Who does? The event continues nonetheless.

Wade Dunagan, executive director of the WGC event, recently awoke in the middle of a restless night. He worried that an unexpected Woods comeback might overwhelm spectator and media amenities at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club.

When he relayed those anxieties to McDermott, she told him to relax.

"This is exactly what happened last year," she said. In 2009, Woods ended an eight-month injury layoff with a six-word statement: "I'm now ready to play again." He was at the Ritz five days later.

The bus shuttles ran on time. Fans had a place to stand, sit, eat and gawk at Tiger.

On Wednesday, Dunagan said he had not received, and did not expect to receive, any official statement from Woods or the PGA Tour. He did acknowledge that the volume of incoming phone calls and tournament inquiries had accelerated.

"This event has a lot of moving pieces," he said. "Wouldn't it be nice if we could add Tiger to the list? But I'm excited about a lot of things, even if he doesn't play here."

The attitude taken by Dunagan and McDermott is similar to that of Mark Toohey, spokesman for the PGA Tour's Farmers Insurance Open last week in San Diego.

"It's been absolutely magical," Toohey told San Diego reporters. "This not only met but exceeded our expectations."

Mickelson finished 19th in San Diego, but otherwise the leader board was decidedly middle-class. "Magical" probably applies more to the Match Play field, which is expected to include 18 of the world's 20 leading golfers.

One theory about Woods is that he has grown weary of being a prisoner, engulfed by scandal, and would like to start on a new life sooner rather than later. It must be suffocating. And besides, the Masters is only 62 days away.

Has any celebrity, including Howard Hughes and Greta Garbo, ever been more successful at disappearing?

Tiger's return is likely to be the biggest off-field story in sports since Magic Johnson announced he had HIV in 1991, or when Muhammad Ali, who was then Cassius Clay, refused induction into the military in 1967, beginning a three-year exile from boxing.

Last year's Tiger-has-returned media scrum at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club was tabloid-free and briefly chaotic, but it was over in 45 minutes. The next one, here or anywhere, is likely to be unprecedented in scope. Qualified players have until Feb. 12 to enter the tournament.

The first time Tucson welcomed back the world's No. 1 golfer was in 1967. That's when Arnold Palmer ended a six-year layoff from the Tucson Open that lasted from 1961 through 1966.

On Feb. 8, 1967, Palmer announced he would play here. This newspaper thought so much of the occasion that its lead story in the next day's sports section was a banner headline of the Pueblo-Tucson High School basketball game. The dominant image on the sports front was a photograph of Major League Baseball manager Leo Durocher paying a speeding ticket in a Chicago traffic court.

But we cared. Arnie's Army marched in record numbers, estimated at 20,000, when he won the tournament the following Sunday.

Afterward, at the winner's news conference, a fan slipped a piece of paper under a closed door to the media room. Someone had written: "Please autograph and return."

Palmer signed it and slipped it back under the door. A cheer rose from the crowd outside.

About now, we could use a champion like Arnie again.

On StarNet: Read more of Greg Hansen's columns online at hansen


• What: WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship

• Where: The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, Dove Mountain

• When: Feb. 17-21

• Tickets: www.worldgolf - or call 1-866-942-2672 or 571-0400