The Year of Living Tiger-free

The Year of Living Tiger-free

Augusta, April 1, 2009 — Ten months removed
from reconstructive
knee surgery, Tiger Woods will return
to action at next week’s Masters.

It will mark the sports world’s
first sighting of him since he made
like Willis Reed to win the U.S. Open
at Torrey Pines, and his first glimpse
of a golf landscape that has undergone
seismic changes in his absence.

Some alterations to the sport will be
obvious. At Augusta National, for
example, after years of so-called
Tiger-proofing to make the course
longer and harder, the green jackets
have decided to use the 6,450-yard
member’s tees and installed moving
walkways throughout the hilly

What’s more, holes 11, 12
and 13 have been rebranded as
Amen He’s Back! Corner.

Interest in Woods is so acute because
he has maintained a Pynchonlike
seclusion since the operation to
repair his torn left ACL last June,
communicating with the public only
through cryptic musings — “Anyone
else heard the rumors about a Gossip
Girl spinoff? I need to know!” — posted
late at night on his Facebook

The only confirmed sightings
of Woods have been at Mommy &
Me gatherings throughout central
Florida, and according to sources in his
daughter Sam’s music class, the Tiger who
shows up at Augusta National will be markedly
different from the one who limped out
of sight last June.

He is said to have added
17 pounds of muscle, most of it in his left leg.
Gone will be the trademark swoosh on his cap, replaced with mayo clinic, which took
advantage of golf fans’ newfound interest
in medical issues and became his newest
big-ticket sponsor. Woods will also unveil
a reconstructed swing designed to reduce
the torque on his left knee: After carefully
studying a sequence of photos of Charles
Barkley taken at 1999’s American
Century Celebrity Golf Championship,
Woods has incorporated a
pronounced hitch in his downswing.

It is a testament to his tremendous
athletic ability that he is still able to
drive the ball up to 210 yards.
To chronicle the return of the
world No. 1 — yes, Woods had piled
up enough points to retain his lofty
perch while idled — ESPN and CBS
are planning wall-to-wall coverage.

(A tiny camera has been embedded
within Woods’s knee, so viewers can
gauge how well his surgically repaired
ACL holds up during the Masters.)

Television executives are giddy about
Woods’s return, since ratings have
plunged 93% without him. It’s been
so bad at Golf Channel that instead of
providing live coverage of the Fall Series,
the network ran an endless loop
of Woods’s 2006 appearance on The
Ellen DeGeneres Show.

The Tour has
been similarly desperate to maintain
interest in its product, resorting to
such fan-friendly initiatives as awarding
extra FedEx Cup points to players
for every autograph
they sign (a hit!)
and adopting the slogan These Guys
Aren’t Half Bad (a bust).

Few beyond the most dedicated
Tour diehards noticed, but plenty of
new plotlines emerged while Woods
was sidelined. The 2008 British Open and
the PGA Championship were among the
most fiercely contested tournaments in recent
memory, as Tiger’s absence afforded
most of the players the only good chance
they’ll ever have to win a major. Why, with
Woods out of the picture, even Ernie Els felt confident enough to drop the sports psychologist
from his payroll, and Phil Mickelson
was emboldened to put a driver back
in his bag.

What no one predicted was that
Shaun Micheel would sweep the British and
the PGA. His career had stalled two years
earlier because of a medical condition that
lowered his testosterone, but he credited his
rejuvenation to repeatedly watching tape of
Woods’s ballsy victory at Torrey Pines.

Woods will no doubt be motivated to
put these upstarts back in their places at
Augusta. If that’s not enough to make him
want to crush the field, there’s also the trash
talk aimed his way at the Ryder Cup. After
the U.S.’s lopsided victory last fall, a handful
of European
players were quoted as
saying that the outcome might have been
different had Woods played.

As was noted,
if you throw out Tiger’s singles results,
his Ryder Cup record is 7-12-1. Also, the
U.S. has lost four of the five matches in
which he competed.

The question on everyone’s mind is,
Can Woods continue his advance on Jack
Nicklaus’s record 18 major championships?
Everyone, that is, except his agent, who
might also be wondering about Tiger’s viability
off the course. Before blowing out
his knee, Woods was on pace to become
the first billionaire athlete, but the marketplace
has changed dramatically since
he went under the knife.

Without its star
pitchman, the Buick line was folded by
General Motors; nobody would have noticed
if it weren’t for the two eponymous
tournaments that vanished from the Tour
schedule. And then there was his acrimonious
split from Nike.

Woods reportedly was
upset with the company’s i am stewart
cink ad campaign, which debuted after
Cink won the FedEx Cup on the strength of
four consecutive runner-up finishes.

Most of all, the 2009 Masters will help
answer a question that was posed recently by
Today correspondent Rocco Mediate: “Does
Tiger still matter?” Just as pickup basketball
players used to tuck their hair behind their
ears in homage to Steve Nash, in the aftermath
of Torrey Pines there was a distinct
uptick in grunting noises and grimacing on
golf courses across the country whenever a
player missed a fairway.

That was then.

only a few diehards in red polos pretend to
double over in pain after bad shots. Woods’s
astonishing win at the Open, and the ensuing
jolt of his surgery, was the biggest story in
sports in 2008. Can we ever care as much
about him as we did during those emotional
days last June? We’ll soon find out.