AUGUSTA, Ga. — Every year, on the eve of the Masters, a tradition unfolds in the Augusta National press center.
The club’s chairman sits before the media and tackles questions ranging from practice facilities (“Four hundred yards long,” chairman Billy Payne offered of the new range) to the makeup of the membership (“Subject to the private deliberations of the members,” he said).
On Wednesday, after rattling off a number of changes to the tournament in his opening remarks, Payne took on the topic that has shadowed the Masters like no other: the return of Tiger Woods.
“We are aware of the significance this week to a very special player,” Payne began. “As he ascended in our rankings of the world’s great golfers, he became an example to our kids that success is directly attributable to hard work and effort.
“But as he now says himself, he forgot in the process to remember that with fame and fortune comes responsibility, not invisibility. It is not simply the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here; it is the fact that he disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids and our grandkids. Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we saw for our children.”
The room was silent as Payne continued.
“Is there a way forward?” he said. “I hope yes, I think yes. But certainly his future will never again be measured only by his performance against par, but measured by the sincerity of his efforts to change. I hope he now realizes that every kid he passes on the course wants his swing, but would settle for his smile.”
Payne’s words were a reminder that Woods’s admitted infidelity did not go unnoticed inside the club’s gates. Not only will the golf world be watching the level of Woods’s play Thursday, when he competes for the first time since November, but also his comportment on and off the course. Payne said Woods had “clearly and emphatically” proved his game worthy of Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, but that his job was not finished there.
“I hope [Woods] can come to understand that life’s greatest rewards are reserved for those who bring joy to the lives of other people,” Payne said. “We at Augusta hope and pray that our great champion will begin his new life here tomorrow in a positive, hopeful and constructive manner, but this time, with a significant difference from the past.”
Payne and Woods were present at the Tuesday night Champions dinner in the Augusta National clubhouse.
“I had a conversation with him,” Payne said, “but I don’t want to go into detail about what it was.”
Payne addressed several issues during the session — from Nicklaus joining Palmer as an honorary starter to a new pin position on the front right portion of the par-5 15th hole — but the specter of Woods hovered over the conversation. Among the photographs in the interview room was a picture of Woods being greeted with a green jacket from Nick Faldo in 1997, when Woods won by 12 shots.
“This year, it will not be just for him,” Payne said of Woods’s return, “but for all of us who believe in second chances.”