It was hardly a surprise yesterday when Tiger Woods announced he was going to return to competitive golf at The Masters. It also wasn’t a surprise that his announcement was greeted with only slightly more zeal than when man first landed on the moon a little more than 40 years ago.
In the end, the only thing different in this than what most of us expected is that he’s not going to play a warm-up tournament prior to The Masters. I had thought back in December that he would come back this month and play Doral and Bay Hill or, at the very least, Bay Hill, and then head to Augusta. Maybe he’s skipping a warm-up to show people how much he cares about Doing The Right Thing.
If truth be told I kind of doubt that’s the case. What I think is happening here is pretty simple: Tiger wants to come back in the most controlled environment possible (control is the most important word in his life) and there’s nothing that beats Augusta when it comes to control. You can bet there won’t be any paparazzi on the grounds or reporters from gossip magazines or web sites. If one does slip through, he or she will be escorted out very firmly and quickly.
Augusta is also the only golf tournament in the world that allows no media—or photographers—inside the ropes. That won’t stop the media or the shooters from following Tiger’s group, but they won’t be able to get very close and Tiger won’t have to look any of them in the eye even for a split second.
Plus, there’s this: Tiger came back from his first knee surgery of 2008 to play the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines without a warm-up event. We all know what happened there. This is a little different because back then he was still having trouble walking 18 holes right up until the first day of The Open. This time the option not to play is purely his. Still, what happened at the Open is no doubt fueling his belief that he can walk onto Augusta National without having hit a ball in competition in five months and win the tournament.
Are you prepared to bet against him? I’m not. The reason the whole world comes to a halt every time Tiger opens his mouth—or puts out a statement that seems to come from his mouth—is because he’s done superhuman things on golf courses for 14 years now. One of his great strengths as a golfer is his selfishness: he will be able to walk inside those ropes and be completely focused from the first tee forward. His life is about two things first and foremost: going down as the greatest golfer of all time and as the richest athlete of all time.
He became the first to cross the billion-dollar plateau last year although this episode has certainly set him back financially. The goal to pass Jack Nicklaus in major wins is still out there and he’ll likely go past Nicklaus at some point in the near future—two, three, four years whatever---he’ll get the record.
When he does a lot of the apologists will say he’s wiped what happened these past few years completely away. There are plenty already saying that: it is no one’s business; they don’t care what he does as long as he plays golf. I have no problem with those who feel that way. But to think this disappears under a barrage of birdies and Tiger fist-pumps is foolish.
I said this before, I’ll say it again: Monica Lewinsky is part of Bill Clinton’s biography no matter how many billions he raises for relief efforts around the world. (Slightly more important work than winning golf tournaments for those of you scoring at home). This will be part of Tiger’s biography if he wins 30 majors. Whether it is our business or not, he lied to and cheated on his wife repeatedly; he stonewalled (and is still stonewalling) about what happened that led to his outing and at least so far, hasn’t shown any signs of real remorse. If you bought into that staged Tiger and Pony show last month, fine, I have some stock in Bernie Madoff’s company I can sell you at a great price.
Honestly, at this point, I don’t care if he ever answers questions. I don’t think he will or, if he does in some form, he’ll never tell the whole truth. Fine. Frankly, I’m bored with it and I think most people are bored with it. But I WILL be interested to see how he behaves on the golf course.
Tom Watson said what a lot of people in golf have thought for years a couple of months ago when he called Tiger out for his on-course behavior. He noted that there is a difference between being a great player and a great champion. He’s right and I think Tiger knows he’s right. I think that’s why he mentioned that he needed to show more respect for the game during the T+P show.
If anything good can come of this it would be to see a new Tiger on the golf course. That’s not a reference to his game but to his personality. If he stops the club-slamming and the profanity and the club-tossing and the constant grimaces and tells his caddy to behave civilly to people, that will be huge progress. It will also be an indication that maybe he has given some thought to something other than trying to steer his way around the wreckage he has created so he can get back to playing golf.
One other thing: While the world will watch with rapt attention during Masters week—one can only imagine what the TV ratings will be—that week won’t prove anything at all. If he comes back and wins or seriously contends, well, he’s still Tiger Woods, most talented player of all time. If he misses the cut (unlikely) that doesn’t mean he’s not Tiger Woods. He missed the cut at the U.S. Open in 2006 seven weeks after his father died and then came back to win the British Open and The PGA Championship soon after that.
If he behaves impeccably between the ropes, that’s great—see if he can maintain it. And if he behaves poorly, well, he deserves some time to try to adapt to forming new habits. The Masters will be fascinating but, in the end, it will prove little.
After Augusta he’s going to have to make his way in something a little closer to the real world: tournaments that can’t and won’t control his environment the way the Lords of Augusta do. This is going to be a long and winding road. The apologists and the Tiger-worshippers will applaud everything he does. Others will never forgive him no matter what he does. The majority, I suspect, will just want to sit back and watch. It promises to be reality TV at its most real.