Tiger Woods' foundation suffered greatly

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Everything looked perfect at Sherwood Country Club, with the multimillion-dollar homes perched high above the fairways, the sun shining brightly and warmly, the tournament host back in the field.

For the first time since he won the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines some two hours down the road, Tiger Woods is playing a competitive golf tournament in his native Southern California.

The Chevron World Challenge begins Thursday with an 18-player field, and Woods will be competing in his own tournament for the first time since he won it in 2007.

Two years ago, he missed it while recovering from knee surgery.

Last year, he wasn't here because, well, we all know why.

To suggest things were a bit awkward around this place would be like saying Woods has won a few golf tournaments.

After all, Woods' likeness is -- and was -- everywhere, from banners to programs to ticket stubs. The proceeds from the tournament benefit his beloved foundation.

Throw in the uncertain economic times, and Woods clearly put the foundation's good work at risk or, at the least, made the jobs of those who work for him all that more difficult.

Woods said again Tuesday that the past year -- which saw him take a leave from the game, enter rehab, lose millions in endorsements and ultimately get divorced while playing the worst golf of his career -- was "harder than anyone could ever imagine unless you've actually gone through it before yourself."

But somewhere during all his personal turmoil, Woods also had to come to grips with the possible fallout to his foundation, which has a $50 million learning center in nearby Anaheim that has helped hundreds of thousands of students.

The foundation and the subsequent learning center were the dream of Woods and his late father, Earl, almost from the time Tiger turned pro in 1996 and started earning huge sums in prize money and endorsements.

"People don't realize how difficult it was," Woods said. "There was a lot going on. The foundation was clearly one of the items that we were thinking about and talking about on virtually a daily basis."

The Tiger Woods Foundation employs approximately 55 people, according to Greg McLaughlin, president and chief executive officer. The foundation benefits from this tournament, as well as the AT&T National, which will move back to Congressional Country Club in Washington, D.C., in 2012 after being played this year and next year at Aronimink Golf Club in suburban Philadelphia.

The foundation also raises funds through two other events, Tiger Jam and The Block Party.

And those charged with soliciting the numerous sponsors these events require were suddenly in the unenviable position of having to sell Tiger Woods when the boss was in the midst of a worldwide crisis.

Due to Woods' absence last year, McLaughlin made the decision to offer spectators a refund because the top attraction was not here. Or they could get a 20 percent discount to this year's tournament.

Either way, the bottom line was affected, the only thing making it worse being the cloud that hung over Woods and the unknown about the future.

And it didn't help that Woods was unable to play in this event during Chevron's first two years of title sponsorship.

"Clearly the situation was challenging for all of us," McLaughlin said. "The one thing that all of our people -- the board, the staff, our partners ... they believed in the work we were doing.

"As we went through the spring and he returned to golf, it got better. We just focused on the meaningful things we do. Here we sit a year later, and I think the organization to a large degree is stronger than it was."

Last month, Woods was on hand for the opening of two new learning centers in the Washington, D.C., area that are based at existing schools.

It has long been in the plans to expand his programs beyond his Southern California roots, and a year ago, mired in controversy, it might have been difficult to see it happening so soon.

"Everyone believed in what we were doing, and we actually grew this year," Woods said. "With everything that's gone on, our foundation grew, and I am so proud of the staff for what they've done, all of our supporters."

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