Percy, last one to play with Woods, speaks

Cameron Percy checks balls with Tiger Woods during the final round of the Australian Masters.

Cameron Percy checks balls with Tiger Woods during the final round of the Australian Masters.

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In Tiger Woods’ last tournament before his world was rocked with an infidelity scandal, the Australian golfer who played with him said Woods mentioned how he could stay in touch with his family when he was on the road.

Reader poll

When will Tiger Woods return to the PGA Tour?

  • San Diego Open (Jan. 28-31) 2%
  • Arnold Palmer Invitational (March 25-28) 25%
  • Masters (April 8-11) 20%
  • U.S. Open (June 17-20) 10%
  • After the U.S. Open 5%
  • He will not return in 2010 38%

2218 total votes.

“I remember him talking about how good Skype was for his kids and his wife,” Cameron Percy said in a telephone interview during the Australian PGA Championship last week. “It’s unreal that no one close to him knew about it. No one knew, I suppose. Up until then, he was the perfect role model for anyone.”

Percy considered the final round of the Australian Masters on Nov. 15 as the biggest day of his career, and now it carries an added distinction. He was the last golfer to play with Woods before his “indefinite leave” from golf to try to save his marriage.

“It was the best day of my life, and I suppose it’s tainted a bit,” Percy said. “But I’ll keep the memories.”

Percy, who grew up in Melbourne, was two shots off the lead and in the second-to-last group with Woods. His entire family was part of the record crowd at Kingston Heath that saw Woods close with a 68 and win for the 82nd time in his career. Percy, rattled by fairways that looked narrow with fans lining both sides of them, shot 72 and tied for sixth.

“A local boy from Melbourne, playing with Tiger Woods in front of the biggest crowds,” Percy said. “Everyone in that field wanted to be me that day.”

Two weeks later, Percy was on a family holiday when a friend called and told him to turn on his TV. He saw a picture of Woods and a photo of the damaged SUV that Woods drove into a tree. Then came allegations of rampant affairs, and part of Percy wondered if that was the same guy dressed in a red shirt and playing flawless golf Down Under.

“It was bizarre,” Percy said. “My initial thinking was, ‘This can’t be right.’”

Percy recalls Woods greeting him on the first tee and putting the unheralded Australian at ease with small talk.

“I remember there was a kid crying in the crowd on the third hole, and we were having a chat about how we used to wonder why people brought their kids to the course, but now that we have kids of our own, it doesn’t bother us,” Percy said.

Woods announced his indefinite leave from golf last week, and even when he returns, no one can be sure if he will continue to play overseas as much. Woods promised the crowd at Melbourne that he won’t wait another 11 years before returning.

How will the fans embrace him should he return?

“I can’t see this being an issue,” Percy said. “Our biggest idol is Greg Norman – not much difference there. The golfing public just loves to watch his golf. We have athletes in trouble for one thing or another. Once they’re on the sporting field, it’s all right.”

• • •

CAMERON COMES BACK TO EARTH: It didn’t take long for Cameron Percy to go from the ultimate high – a final round pairing with Tiger Woods in his hometown of Melbourne – back to reality.

Two weeks after the Australian Masters, his draw for the first two rounds of the Australian Open put him with Jian Chen of China and Shintaro Iizuka of Japan. Both missed the cut at a combined 49 over par. Chen shot 82-90, while Iizuka shot 83-82.

“Bit of a contrast,” Percy said with a laugh. “The tour really looked after me on tee times.”

The scores were one thing. Percy said toward the end of the second round at New South Wales – one of the most scenic golf courses in Australia – they asked him to take pictures of them.

“You don’t expect that from your playing partners in the middle of the round,” Percy said.

• • •

photo

Yogi Berra is introduced to fans before a spring training game on Feb. 26.

YOGI AND THE HOPE: Yogi Berra will take on a new role at the Bob Hope Classic as the first “Classic Ambassador,” in which he will perform a variety of duties during the 51st edition of the tournament in the California desert.

The Hall of Fame catcher played 15 times in the Bob Hope, during which he brought his brand of wisdom to the game.

“Ninety percent of all putts which finish short of the hole don’t go in,” Berra once said.

Among other things, Berra will hit the ceremonial first tee shot on Jan. 20 and present the trophy after the 90-hole tournament.

“It’s a privilege for me to be honored by the Bob Hope Classic, which has always been a wonderful tournament,” Berra said. “I thought the world of Bob, for all he’s done for golf and everything and everybody, and I cherish the times we spent. Playing this tournament every year over the last 15 years, I can honestly say has been a great experience.

“I can also say, being 84, not many can beat me in experience.”

• • •

GRAND FINALE: Anders Hansen of Denmark goes into the South African Open with a chance to become the first player from the northern hemisphere to win the Order of Merit on the Sunshine Tour.

That’s not all that’s at stake. The South African Open is the final tournament of the year that awards world ranking points, and the top 50 in the final ranking Dec. 28 will be invited to play in the Masters. Hansen is at No. 48.

Even without golf being played, points are gradually reduced from a player’s record each week. Among the players on the bubble for an automatic bid to Augusta National are Miguel Angel Jimenez (No. 47), former British Open champion Ben Curtis (No. 49) and big-hitting Alvaro Quiros of Spain at No. 50.

Ryan Moore and Dustin Johnson are just outside the top 50, although they already are exempt.

• • •

DIVOTS: Tadd Fujikawa has been given a sponsor’s exemption to the Sony Open in Honolulu. ... Ryo Ishikawa had last week off, and the Japanese teenager certainly earned his break. Dating to the PGA Championship, Ishikawa played 17 weeks in a row. ... Lee Westwood has won the Golf Writers’ Trophy, joining Seve Ballesteros as the only three-time winners of the award from the Association of Golf Writers in Britain. Catriona Matthew, who won the Women’s British Open, was the runner-up, while Rory McIlroy finished third. ... Sophie Gustafson won the Ladies European Tour money title for the fourth time this decade.

• • •

STAT OF THE WEEK: The Ladies European Tour has more tournaments (27) on its 2010 schedule than the LPGA (24).

• • •

FINAL WORD: “I just don’t think that even if you become a professional athlete that you have to give up your education.” – Michelle Wie, who took a final exam at Stanford over the internet just hours before shooting 65 in the final round of the Dubai Ladies Masters.

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