There have not been many predictable moments in the Tiger Woods saga. Every day, it seemed, the story took a bizarre left turn. A new woman. A wild rumor. Another new woman. Sex therapy. A sponsor dump. An apology press conference. Even if you wanted to escape, you could not, because the crazy level was at 11, and somebody HAD to tell you the latest.
Tuesday, finally, the story took a sensible turn. Tiger Woods will play the Masters. Well, of course he will. The story had to end up at the Masters. There were people who thought that he might play Arnold Palmer's tournament at Bay Hill next week or he might wait until later in the year to enter a tournament. But no. It had to be the Masters. Here's why.
1. It's a controlled environment. This is the thing you have to understand about the people at Augusta National: They don't care about the stuff that other golf tournaments care about namely, they don't care about making more money. They put all the money they make right back into the tournament. These people are ALREADY bajillionaires, and you sense that they would consider it unseemly to commercialize the Masters (beyond the ever-present Masters polo shirts with the logo over your heart).
You can see this utter disdain of money in everything they do at Augusta. If they wanted more money, they would allow sponsorship tents. They would get a corporate sponsor the money they could get there would be staggering. They would allow more commercial interruptions during television broadcasts (for years, they would not even allow 18-hole coverage). They would charge more money for food. A chicken sandwich at The Masters will cost you about a quarter what it will cost you at any other major event.
As my old friend David Westin who has long covered the Masters for the hometown Augusta Chronicle likes to say: You will never see them pay a Masters winner with a giant cardboard check.
And because they don't care about money, the Tiger Woods story will have almost no impact on the way the tournament is run. Unless I'm mistaken and I suspect I'm not the Masters will not give one extra media credential and will not sell one more ticket because Tiger Woods is coming. The circus will be outside. No other big golf tournament in the world could have offered Woods that sort of protection.
2. It figures to be a welcoming crowd. Pro golf is not really much of a heckling sport anyway. Golf fans unlike most football and basketball fans continue to play the sport. And because they play, they tend to be in awe of pro golfers' abilities. Pro football fans would probably not be as critical of the starting quarterback if they had spent the weekend getting pummeled by 240-pound linebackers.
The Augusta crowd tends to be twice as respectful, I think because Augusta National tickets are hard to get. A huge percentage of the fans are people making a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the golf course they fell in love with on television. A huge percentage of the fans are regulars who come back year after year because they love the place so much. These are not people who are interested in yelling witticisms at Tiger.
At another tournament, sure, people who feel let down by Tiger Woods might buy a ticket just to boo him. But that's not how it is with the Masters. Also, there will be plenty of security guards around to make sure it's pleasant and reverent. They work VERY hard in Augusta to make sure that the atmosphere is pleasant and reverent.*
*For one thing, year after year, they have to haul in that piano that plays the music for CBS.
3. Woods HAD to play the Masters. In the last few months, maybe we have come to see a Tiger Woods who seems different from the careful image he and his sponsors and his handlers have constructed the last 10-15 years.
But if there's one thing we know about Woods, it is that he wants to break Jack Nicklaus' major record of 18. If there's one thing we know about Woods, it is that he needs to win on golf's biggest stages. He was raised to do this. He has lived to do this. It was fine for him to stand behind a lectern and say that he did not know when he would return, but it might be this year, etc. The reality is that if there was any way for Tiger Woods to play Augusta, he was going to play Augusta.
4. He could win. I know there are people people who know a lot more about golf than I do who say he can't win after a long layoff and without a tune-up tournament.
Maybe. Here's what I think: Augusta National is designed for drama. A friend and I would often argue about what tournament is better: The U.S. Open or the Masters. What we decided is that neither is BETTER, per se; it just depends on what you prefer. The U.S. Open is real life. The U.S. Open is high rough, high winds, oppressive heat, putts that don't drop, survival. Some people prefer reality.
And the Masters? The Masters is Hollywood. The Masters is spring and azaleas and Easter bonnets and old Southern men drinking mint juleps on the veranda. The Masters is about reachable Par 5s and lightning quick greens and "rough" that needs quotations marks around it because there's nothing especially rough about it. The Masters is where Jack Nicklaus won when he was 46 and contended when he was in his 50s. The Masters is where gentlemanly Ben Crenshaw won after his game had mostly abandoned him. The Masters is where a hometown kid, Larry Mize, chipped in to win. The Masters is where John Daly was served divorce papers, where Greg Norman succumbed to his demons, where Phil Mickelson beat his.
The Masters is where a 25-year-old Tiger Woods won his fourth major championship in a row, the Tiger Slam, and hugged his father in the ultimate triumph.
Point is, the Masters is designed for golfers to do spectacular things. You don't have to be the most precise golfer to win. You don't have to be the hottest putter to win. You don't even have to be the best player that week to win. No, to win at Augusta you have to know where to miss, you have to remember little quirks that can make a difference, you have to make 10-foot par putts, you have to keep moving forward when a good shot ends up bad (and when a bad shot ends up good), and you have to stay together on the back nine on Sunday when the wind and ghosts are howling between the trees.
Well, who does those things best? You already know. Tiger Woods knows the golf course better than anyone else. He handles pressure better than anybody. He is the best in the world maybe the best ever at the 10-foot par putt. And he's motivated like never before. Sure, it's possible that he will come out rusty and nervous, will not look like himself, will miss the cut and go home and leave everyone wondering.
But, I doubt it. Hey, it's not like he's been away for 10 years. He has been away for a few turbulent months. He has been practicing. He is healthy. He, no doubt, is eager to get back on the golf course, where he is king. We all expect that this will be the most watched golf tournament in television history, not only because of the Tiger Woods story but because everybody wonders how he will play his first time out. All I would say is this: I wouldn't bet against him.