Tiger Woods takes the high road

SYDNEY -- The story had the potential to rock Down Under the next two weeks. Comments made with a racial bent directed toward Tiger Woods were met with understandable outrage, and there was a sense that the controversy could dwarf this week's Australian Open and next week's Presidents Cup.

But Woods moved quickly Tuesday to put the rift with former caddie Steve Williams behind him and get the talk back to his game -- which is controversial enough -- just as Adam Scott had done a day earlier when he admonished Williams for his slur directed at Woods on Friday during a private banquet in Shanghai.

Scott, who now employs Williams, had come under fire for not taking some disciplinary measure against his caddie, even though Scott had nothing to do with the situation. Scott was right to come out with some harsh words, however, even if ultimately Williams will go on doing his job with little fallout other than the stain that will surely follow him.

In Woods' case, he could have let the situation fester, could have made things mighty uncomfortable for the caddie who was on his bag for 13 major championships. How their relationship got to this point is something that Woods could not even answer Tuesday at The Lakes Golf Club, where the Australian Open begins Thursday.

"That's a great question. I don't know that one," Woods said of the relationship gone sour. "For me, personally, it was a tough decision to make to go in a different direction in my personal life. But as far as personally, I don't know how that could have happened the way it did, but it did and here we are. So as I said, life goes forward, I just keep moving forward."

Of course, by now we all know that Williams was more than miffed at being let go by Woods this summer, which has led to two high-profile, media-hyped scenarios in which the golf being played was largely overshadowed by the reaction to Williams' words.

Woods spent last week and the weekend at various places in Asia and Australia. His agent, Mark Steinberg, said Tuesday that Woods was clearly upset when word got out Friday night that Williams had referred to him as "that black arse----" in response to a question about Williams' over-the-top celebration in August when Scott won the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

At a news conference Tuesday morning in Australia, Woods fielded more than a dozen questions on the subject. He said he and Williams spoke at the hotel gym where both are staying, and that Williams had apologized.

"It was hurtful, certainly, but life goes forward," Woods said.

Woods was asked: Do you think he is a racist or just stupid?

"No, Stevie's certainly not a racist, there's no doubt about that," Woods said. "I think it was a comment that shouldn't have been made and was certainly one that he wished he didn't make."

Given ample opportunity to pile on, Woods did not, which basically helps quell the uproar -- and helps save Williams' reputation. Imagine what might have occurred had Woods come out with stronger remarks.

"Golf doesn't need it," said Australian Greg Norman, who used to employ Williams as a caddie and has been skeptical of Woods' return to prominence. "Golf needs Tiger back playing great golf like he used to. Golf needs the cohesiveness that's always existed. … To have it play out like it's played out has been a bit sad for the game of golf."

To their credit, Australian Open officials refused to inflame the situation by grouping Woods and Scott during the first two rounds, as had been rumored. Woods will, instead, play the first two rounds with Aussies Jason Day and Robert Allenby. They tee off at 8:10 p.m. ET on Wednesday; 12:10 p.m. Thursday in Australia.

There will still be conjecture about the PGA Tour not suspending or fining Williams. The reaction from the tour as well as the European Tour -- both tours sanctioned the HSBC Champions event where the caddie banquet was held -- was weak and could have sent a far stronger message with some meaningful discipline.

While it might have been unfair to Scott to have Williams sit -- after all, Scott feels that Williams is of great benefit to him -- a chance to send a meaningful message was lost.

Meanwhile, Woods is back in Australia, where his last victory of any sort occurred two years ago next week at the Australian Masters. His professional and personal lives went up in flames a few weeks after the victory, and he's spent the ensuing months dealing with all manner of drama, from divorce to coach changes, swing changes, caddie changes and injuries.

The Australian Open is, amazingly, just Woods' 11th start worldwide of the year, and the first since he played at the Frys.com Open last month. It will be just his fourth tournament since returning from Achilles and knee injuries suffered at the Masters, where he tied for fourth.

In a strange way, the Williams fiasco has taken some of the focus off Woods' game, which is very much a question mark at this point. His pick by captain Fred Couples for the U.S. Presidents Cup team, which takes on an international squad next week at Royal Melbourne remains highly questionable, especially considering the fact that a major champion, Keegan Bradley, will sit out the competition while Woods plays.

You can bet that subject will resurface to a great extent in the coming days and going into next week, as plenty of pundits remain critical of Woods being on the U.S. team.

"I'm grateful that Fred is the captain and not them," Woods said.

So one bit of drama seemingly comes to an end, while another continues.

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