NEW YORK (AP) — ESPN treated Tiger Woods’ return to golf at the Masters as an epic event Thursday, then tiptoed around the reason for all the buzz.
The sports network laid on the hype for Woods’ comeback, carefully noting it had been 144 days since he last swung a club in competition and even installing a countdown clock on “Sportscenter.”
But when it came to Woods’ first tee shot, the closest ESPN’s Mike Tirico came to explicitly mentioning the sex scandal that kept Woods out was noting “I think you know the timeline going back to the SUV crash in November.”
Left out were details of Woods’ rehab and reemergence. The words “sex” and “infidelity” were not used, nor was there mention of Woods’ wife, Elin.
“It’s very unusual,” said anchor Scott Van Pelt. “Usually in a major tournament you’re most interested in the final shot on Sunday. This year, we’re most interested in the first shot on Thursday.”
Tirico said many fans in the gallery had planned their schedule around trying to be at the tee when Woods started. ESPN did, too. The network’s regular Masters coverage didn’t begin until 4 p.m. EDT, but it broke into “Sportscenter” for the first tee shot.
Even while keeping his remarks general, analyst Curtis Strange oddly contradicted himself during that early coverage.
“There is nothing routine about what he is doing right now,” Strange said as Woods approached the first tee. “He has to be full of more nerves, more anxiety than he’s felt in his life, I should say in his career.”
Yet after Woods made his first drive and flashed a smile, Strange said, “this might be the most comfortable he has been in the last four or five months, getting back on the first tee of a tournament.”
An airplane flew above the Masters grounds carrying a dig at the golfer – “Tiger: Did you mean bootyism?” – a reference to Woods’ admission that part of the reason for his troubles was he got away from Buddhism, the faith in which he was raised. Some people in the stands laughed and pulled out binoculars to get a closer look. ESPN briefly showed the plane later in its coverage.
After his first drive, ESPN was prohibited from picking up Woods’ round live again until 4 p.m., so instead the network instead showed his early shots on tape delay.
Rick Burton, a former U.S. Olympics Committee official who’s now a sports marketing professor at Syracuse University, said ESPN was aiming for balance in a tough spot. He noted that ESPN has a contract with Masters organizers to show the tournament, and those officials are known in sports for keeping a tight rein on how its broadcast partners handle coverage.
“There may have been more things they could have said,” Burton said, “but it would not have served their long-term financial interests.”
If even oblique references to Woods’ serial philandering and crumbled marriage upset the Masters folks, Tirico made up for it later in the afternoon.
“The presentation simply defines perfection,” he said of the golf course. He said it was “a national treasure that serves as a reminder of the renewal and hope that comes with each spring.”
Nike’s commercial with Woods’ late father talking as his son’s unsmiling face looks into the camera was aired 15 minutes before the first shot, then again shortly after.
The advertisement had rapidly become a topic for conversation when it was released the day earlier. ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, on his late-night show, aired the commercial and said, “That’ll make you want to buy shoes, won’t it?”
He then aired a parody version with Woods’ “mother” yelling at him and smacking him with a rolled-up newspaper.