Whenever Tiger and I see each other, sooner or later the conversation turns to putting. When I bumped into him on the Isleworth putting green the other day, it didn't take us long to get to it. He looked great. By way of reintroduction, I told him I was doing TV. He laughed it was good to see his big, toothy smile again and asked, "What the hell you doing that for?"
\nI chuckled, then replied, "You see the money list lately?"
\nThen we got to the real stuff. Tiger and I have been talking about putting for 20 years. But something else was going on too. Golfer to golfer, I was welcoming him back to the game. Tiger, of course, is returning to golf at Augusta. How big is that? It's almost too much, given all the sordid reports over the past four months.
\nI wondered if playing Bay Hill might have been a better way to ease back in, but Tiger said he couldn't have done that. "I really wasn't ready," he said. He talked about how much time he needs to prepare for tournament golf way more than others and how much time he needs to come down afterward. He doesn't approach the game like anybody else.
\nSo the Masters will have Tiger, as it must. The Masters is Tiger. It has been that way since '97, when he won by 12, a victory so audacious that players spent the rest of the year talking about it, or at least I did. Augusta is golf's ultimate stage, but a stage needs a star. Enter Tiger. Cue Earl: Let the legend grow. I am certain that Tiger is playing with a fifth green jacket in mind.
\nCan he do it? Twenty-five years on Tour and I'm still a lousy swami, but with that caveat, here are my best guesses at Tiger's four scores if the weather's good, followed by Tiger's postround analysis: 73 (a little nervous out there); 69 (didn't want to have the weekend off); 71 (couldn't buy a putt); 68 (getting used to competition again). Can Tiger win at seven under? Maybe not. But come Sunday afternoon we'll all be thinking about the possibility, and he will too.
\nYes, golf has taken a hit since Thanksgiving. Look at the succession of American golf kings in my lifetime (I turn 50 next year): Palmer, Nicklaus, Watson, Woods. The first three names were untouched by scandal. People ask me if I knew anything about Tiger's extramarital affairs. Not a thing. And I wish I didn't know about them now. I regard the whole matter as something between Tiger and Elin. He hurt Elin, and my heart goes out to her. He didn't do anything to me. As for his status as an icon, he can reclaim it. If he does the right things, he can be bigger than ever. Look at Bill Clinton. Look at Kobe Bryant. Memories fade, and people forgive.
\nI'm much more concerned about Tiger's being treated by the Toronto doctor, Anthony Galea, who was arrested in Canada last October on drug charges, a doctor who admits to using human growth hormone. Baseball really took a hit by being so opaque about PEDs. Golf cannot afford to do the same. I really hope Woods did not use HGH, even if it was when he was off the Tour rehabbing his knee. Any use of HGH by a Tour member would represent a serious violation of our drug policy. I don't think Tiger would use HGH, but he should say exactly how he was treated by Galea.
\nGiven his inclination to be guarded, that would be hard for Tiger to do. Now that his private life has been exposed to the world, his natural instinct will most likely be to become even more secretive. But if he really wants the world to forgive him, he needs to be far more open.
\nAs Tiger has said himself, he faces a long road to getting his life back on track. When he does, my guess is it will look very different than it did. But I don't think any of that will affect his golf performance. Maybe that takes an almost inhuman ability to put things into compartments, but that's what Tiger does so well. He blocks out the outside world. He's 34 now, with 14 majors. Jack has 18. I think Tiger will get to 19 before he turns 40. Sam Snead has the most Tour wins, with 82. Tiger already has 71. He'll blow right by 83 even before he gets to 19 majors.
\nI suspect Tiger still thinks he can be the perfect husband and the perfect father, even with all that has happened. That's the male ego. I've been there. I went through a difficult divorce in the late 1990s. My first wife and I had three wonderful daughters together. When things went bad in the marriage I wanted to take the blame for everything. Still, I couldn't fix it all. Eventually you ask yourself, Should I be trying to fix everything? For me the answer was no. When I realized that, I was freed up to accept failure, get divorced, find love again, remarry, have a fourth child. They call the senior tour the ultimate life mulligan. I've already taken mine, and it was the smartest thing I ever did. My wife, Dory, and our daughter, Charlotte, and I just spent three months together on the road. Almost 90 nights in hotels and the guest rooms of friends and family. And we loved it. Tiger will discover that his life, though changed, will go on. He's getting a mulligan here too. People are always willing to give somebody a second chance.
\nI first met Tiger when he was 13. I was playing in the Shark Shootout in Los Angeles, and this skinny kid was hanging on the ropes, challenging me to a chipping and putting contest. I smoked him. In 1992 I played a practice round with him at the Honda Classic. He was 16, and I was "Mr. Faxon." First hole he outdrove me by 30 yards.
\nFive years later I found myself trying to get him to sign a Masters-logoed golf ball for a charity that Billy Andrade and I run. We were going to auction off a beautiful Brazilian walnut display case with a signed ball from every living Masters winner. We had an empty slot for '97. Tiger won by 12, and then he disappeared for five weeks. (Five weeks!) He's in the locker room at the Byron Nelson, and his locker is jammed with letters, packages, photos, flags, balls anything with a Masters logo. Stuff is practically tumbling out at him. Another person might have been amused, but he wasn't. I put the ball back in my pocket.
\nYou really couldn't treat Tiger as if he were just another player, because he wasn't, at least that's what I was thinking right then. But now, as he returns to the Tour, this is an ideal time for fresh starts all the way around. Almost every Tour member has some sort of charity event at his home club, and there are a lot of Tour players who are too nervous to ask Tiger to sign or donate something. I'd love to see Tiger send out the message that he's approachable. Tiger has had a stranglehold on the 7 a.m. tee time on the Wednesday pro-ams for years. It would be nice for him to play some in the afternoon when many more people would have a chance to see him. I'd like to see him commit to tournaments earlier than the Friday before the tournament is played. It would be great to hear him talk about the swing with other players on the driving range, to give an interview now and then where he talks about what the game means to him, to drop in on a Tour player meeting, to play once in a while in Memphis or Las Vegas or at Pebble Beach, tournaments that have done so much for the Tour and so much for him. To be part of the community of golfers. You can do that and still be a world-beater. Palmer did. Nicklaus and Watson did too. Phil does it.
\nNow would also be an excellent time for Phil and Tiger to bury their Arnold versus Jack phase (1960--75) and enter the Arnie and Jack love-affair phase (1976--present). Golf fans can't get enough of Tiger and Phil. In San Diego in 2003 I played with Tiger and Phil in the last group on Sunday. It was the most fun I could have had while shooting 73 and playing my way into oblivion. Remember last year at the Masters, when those two were paired together on Sunday? People couldn't get enough. Phil's an artist and Tiger's a grinder, and they complement each other more than they know. My old caddie, Tommy Lamb, could watch Phil practice pitch shots all day long. On that Sunday at Torrey Pines, Tiger hit a 215-yard four-iron into the wind that was so pure Tommy moaned in admiration.
\nTiger is the ultimate golf nut. That's what I picked up from him when he was 13, when he was 16, when I saw him working on his putting the other day at Isleworth. A few years ago I was playing in Tiger's charity event in Los Angeles. We were on a putting green circled by hundreds of fans. Tiger and I started talking about the stroke, just as we did at Isleworth, about the position of the left thumb, about swing plane, about what the release feels like. Jim Furyk, also a great putter, joined us. I was very aware that hundreds of people were trying to listen in on our conversation, including Vijay Singh, who was hovering nearby. All that added to the excitement for me. But Tiger was able to block all of that out. It was so intense and so much fun. For Tiger, it was all about the golf, about doing a difficult thing not only well but also better than anyone else has ever done it. Maybe he didn't get love from the public for that, but he certainly got respect.
\nNow he'll be looking to find a way back to where he was. If he can win us back all of us, duffers and pros alike he'll be making an important first step. Augusta National, of all places, is where he'll start. Real golfers don't care about Tiger's text messages. We want to know what club he hit into 13.