Tiger Woods put his game on display

VERONA, N.Y. -- Tiger Woods ripped his drive long and straight down the first fairway, and the requisite cheers of amazement and encouragement followed him as he walked off the tee and into a day-long frenzy of golf shots and autograph hounds.

Each and every hole at Atunyote Golf Club was lined with spectators several deep, the greens surrounded by fans enjoying their brush with fame. This is nothing new for Woods, who makes this sort of scene routine whenever he is in public and playing golf.

But it's hard to imagine Notah Begay's charity event here Wednesday having this kind of support if the game's No. 1 attraction were not in attendance.

It is a safe bet that the Notah Begay III Foundation Challenge moved to this date specifically to accommodate Woods, who had to bail on the first attempt on July 5 due to the knee and Achilles injuries that cut into his season and kept in doubt his climb back to greatness.

Woods partnered with the LPGA's Suzann Pettersen in a best-ball competition that featured three other mixed teams. Fans also got to see Begay, Rickie Fowler, Hunter Mahan, Cristie Kerr, Natalie Gulbis and Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam. Mahan and Kerr combined to shoot 11 under and win.

But clearly Woods was the attraction, and Begay, a friend dating to before their college days at Stanford, is no fool when it comes to maximizing attendance and thus doing more for Native American youth.

To Begay, the crowds were bigger in the fourth year of the event (Woods also played here in 2009) with Woods' participation, and isn't that at the root of everything that goes with the 14-time major champion?

There are plenty of hard-core golf fans out there who, frankly, are tired of the attention heaped on Woods. They wonder why a 71-time PGA Tour winner who hasn't won in nearly two years, who has barely played this season, who has dropped to 38th in the world and is in danger of missing his own Chevron World Challenge, gets such treatment.

Then you show up at the Turning Stone Resort in upstate New York and see just how much people still clamor to be around him, get a glimpse, watch in awe as he hits a towering tee shot. Those of us who travel around the PGA Tour a good bit take this for granted, as Woods typically plays the same tournaments, and is often followed by spectators who have seen him many times.

That wasn't the case in this one-day hit-and-giggle deal where fans truly were relishing their opportunity until the moment he left the premises.

"How cool is that?" one spectator remarked as Woods walked off the fifth tee. "He's right there."

Yep, there he was, walking without a limp, hitting his share of good shots but not enough of them to make you think he's cured his golf swing in the nearly three weeks since he last played in public, when he missed the cut at the PGA Championship. Then again, that wasn't the point on this day, either.

"Today was for fun," said Woods, who contributed four birdies to his team's 9-under second-place finish. "Try to keep the galleries entertained. Keep the atmosphere really light. Granted, we were out there competing a little bit, but it's all for Notah's charity."

Begay's foundation deals specifically with problems of obesity and diabetes. The latter is close to Woods, as his late father, Earl, suffered from the illness.

Woods referred to Begay as "a big brother" and it is clear there is affection for his friend. Woods has plenty of his own charitable initiatives to tend to with the Tiger Woods Foundation, so getting him here was huge for Begay.

"This was a blessing in disguise," Begay said. "I thought this turned out extraordinarily well. We had a phenomenal turnout."

When the event was rescheduled for this date, it was clearly done with the intention of giving Woods, Mahan and Fowler the opportunity to get from here to the TPC Boston for this week's Deutsche Bank Championship, which begins on Friday. Even with all of his injury woes, the idea of Woods missing the FedEx Cup playoffs still seemed remote.

His absence, of course, is a big blow to the PGA Tour. Woods was headed to the Deutsche Bank on Wednesday night -- he was going to the pro-am dinner to show his appreciation for proceeds given to his foundation over the years -- but the tournament will go on without him.

"More time to practice," Woods joked afterward, before acknowledging the benefits to the down time. "That's the one positive thing about it. I get to work more on my game with Sean [Foley]."

Still ...

"It's the same thing like missing the major championships," he said. "I'm missing tournaments I normally play in or have played in. It's part of being injured and not being able to play."

And yet, Woods admitted that he can use the time off to his advantage. After hoping to get back prior to the U.S. Open and then the British Open and then finally making it back for the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and PGA Championship, it's nice to be in a spot where he does not have to rush.

"We've got some work to do," he said. "It's nice to do some dedicated training instead of doing something quick and trying to patch it together for the big events like I tried to do."

Woods won the Fed Ex Cup twice in its first four years and at least last year made it to the BMW Championship. He was not scheduled to play again until Oct. 6-9 at the Frys.com Open, where you can bet the turnstiles will be churning due to the presence of one man.

And that will undoubtedly be the case when Woods ventures to Australia for the Australian Open and Presidents Cup.

Say what you want about Couples' controversial decision to add Woods to the American team, despite the golfers' lack of form. Plenty of valid arguments have ensued, including whether other players are more deserving, and whether the event is a true competition or just an exhibition.

But there is no disputing the event will be better because Woods is there, just as last year's Ryder Cup in Wales was better because Woods participated. An event that, frankly, wouldn't matter much will have significance, if for no other reason than to see if Woods prospers or falters.

"It doesn't matter where he's playing, whether it's a one-day event like this, a PGA Tour event, Presidents Cup," Begay said. "The Australian Masters [in 2009] invested $3 million in him and they had something like $20 million in economic activity. The guy is a revenue generator.

"He heightens awareness, he increases the gate. It's like [Michael] Jordan. When Jordan showed up, you sold out. In these particular events, there is no ceiling and I think it's great. It's the reason why he is who he is."

Who he was as a golfer, however, is what attracts so many to the Woods story. And the journey, whether he makes it or not, continues to fascinate.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.