It is remarkable watching an entire sport shake its head and shrug its shoulders, as the PGA Tour did last week at the Transitions Championship in Palm Harbor, Fla., unsure exactly what the return of Tiger Woods means beyond breathless news coverage and big TV ratings. Time was, Woods was the only sure thing in this game of chancecold steel inside the ropes, marketing magic outside themand the pride of grandmothers from Compton to Dubuque.
After more than four months in which so much has changed, who knows what will happen when Woods tees it up on April 8 at the Masters, the tournament that launched his legacy? Will he shoot 65 or 85? Will he hear snickers or applause? Will he be peaceful and sharp or become some sort of diminished Elvis?
Woods's announcement of his return during the Transitions, won by a shot by Jim Furyk, put his strange journey back on the front pagesthe car crash in the middle of the night, the mistresses, the humiliating parodies, the televised apology in front of an ugly blue curtainand pushed his story into more unknown territory: Tiger is coming back, yes, but who is he coming back as? Who is Tiger Woods now?
"As a player and as a friend of his, I didn't see any of this coming," says David Toms, reflecting on Woods's infidelity while also looking ahead. "I was shocked and disappointed at first, but I'm happy he's trying to work everything out. The first time I see him, I'll probably give him a hug and say, 'Welcome back.' "
Until the moment Woods pulls onto the grounds of Augusta National, where he will attempt to win a fifth green jacket and Ârecapture a modicum of normality (might the former lead to the latter?), a sport to which he brought untold riches waits for the gathering storm. Thirteen years ago, on a Sunday evening in Georgia, Woods grabbed the PGA Tour by the collar and held it firmly until the early morning hours after last Thanksgiving. Two weeks from now, at the same tournament but under changed circumstances, Woods will reach out again.
"He could not have picked a better venue to make his return to golf," says Gary Player, the three-time Masters winner. "After all is said and done, Tiger is a professional golfer, it's what he does best, and the golf world needs him back and playing well, especially in the majors. Despite the distractions he is such a tough competitor both mentally and physically that it would not surprise me at all if he were to win."
Says John Daly, "He's the best I've ever seen, best I've ever played with, and, God bless him, I'm glad he's coming back. I hope he and Elin work it outit looks as if they areand I'm sure he and Hank Haney are working real hard. It shows you how much confidence he has at Augusta, playing in his first tournament there."
For all the huzzahs about his return, Woods has received more criticism than at any time in his career, from Tom Watson's scolding him for his on-course behavior to NBC's Johnny Miller's announcing on the air that Woods's "integrity has been shattered."
Tough talk from Martha Burkwho seven years ago protested Augusta National's exclusionary membership practicesis not a surprise. Says Burk, "Woods is charmingly consistent. He built his reputation partly on standing up against racism and in helping kids, but his view of women never varies. He refused to stand up against the Masters when he could have single-handedly advanced justice substantially. He obviously has treated the women with whom he has come in contact like instruments to be used and discarded, not as human beings. His return at the Masters is just so perfect." But never have so many of Woods's peers been willing to publicly take him on, as Ernie Els did last month by calling Woods "selfish" for making his televised statement during the Accenture Match Play Championship, or as veteran Harrison Frazar did at the Transitions.
"I think so much has been made of Woods's situation that most of the players are over talking about it," Frazar said. "It's kind of an irritant. But we need him back and need him playing our events, not only the majors. Why not Tampa, Bay Hill or Houston? I would think that anybody who has gone through what he has would reach out to Houston, the Colonial or New Orleansthe places he's never been to or been to only once. Our game is sponsor-driven, and if the best players don't play in the tournaments that drive our business, this is all going to dry up."
Sheila C. Johnson, who owns Innisbrook Resort, home of the Transitions, and sits on the board of the Tiger Woods Foundation, was also talking economics as it relates to Woods. "One thing that we're going to learn from the whole Tiger episode is that the PGA Tour has built its entire house around one player," Johnson said last week. "Tiger could have dropped dead on us. There's more than one star out there. Everybody's ego has to be stroked, and it's important that we need to start looking at this a little differently. Tiger really pulled the plug, and everything deflated. Everybody went into a reactive mode rather than trying to say, Let's look at why we're in this slump and why we're losing sponsors."
Woods's return to the Masters will most likely provide him with cover from the tabloid press (media credentialing closed weeks ago) and negative fan behavior (an Augusta National spokesman said that the club expected that decorum and civility would still be in place and that its patrons are the most respectful in sports), but eventually he will not be afforded that cocoon. Even before Woods announced that he was coming back at the Masters, the Tour was calling several of its tournaments to go over the logistics of a potential Woods return. Among the issues discussed were the expansion of media facilities, the deployment of additional Tour personnel and media credentialing. Concerning credentials, media that regularly cover golf would be given priority, followed by mainstream news services. "The people who would fall third would be the nonÂtraditional media, who wouldn't be credentialed," says Ty Votaw, the Tour's executive vice president for communications and interÂnational affairs. "That's not going to prevent them from buying a ticket and getting on-site, but that will prevent them from getting into the media center."
Kym Hougham, tournament director of the Quail Hollow Championship, which is played from April 29 to May 2 and is a likely next stop for Woods, says a plan is in place at the Charlotte golf club to handle a Woods appearance but that he does not think Woods's second start will be as dramatic as his first.
"I don't know what I would compare Woods's return to," Hougham says. "It's like his coming back, mentally, from when his father passed away, but I don't pretend to know what's going on there."
No one does. Everything involving Woods is conjecture. Tommy Roy, the executive producer for golf at NBC, says Woods's return would transcend the sport, while Sean McManus, the president of CBS News and Sports, predicts that TV ratings for the Masters will be comparable to those for the inauguration of President Obama. The quality of Woods's golf, after a scandal unlike any other, is anyone's guess.