Tiger’s next task? Returning to the Tour

Tiger Woods practices golf the day before making a public statement at TPC Sawgrass.

Tiger Woods practices golf the day before making a public statement at TPC Sawgrass.

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MARANA, Ariz. – Tiger Woods suddenly appeared through a door-sized gap in the blue curtains as the room fell silent. He had been out of the public’s eye for three months. Fifteen minutes later, he was gone again.

Essentially, what happened Friday was that Woods was seen and heard – in tightly controlled circumstances.

Reader poll

When will Tiger Woods return to Tour?

  • Tavistock Cup (March 22-23) 26%
  • Arnold Palmer Invitational (March 25-28) 34%
  • Masters (April 8-11) 17%
  • Another event this year 10%
  • He will not return in 2010 13%

2041 total votes.

The next big step comes when Woods gets back to golf, a landscape he once dominated but may no longer control.

Golf’s biggest star spoke before a friendly crowd of 40 people in Florida, most of whom he had not seen since the Nov. 27 car accident that exposed the dirty side of a squeaky-clean image with sordid tales of sex.

Supporters thought his televised apology for cheating on his wife and letting his fans down was sincere. Critics found it to be scripted.

Either way, it was clear just how differently Woods is viewed now.

Another example: Two employees from a local strip club were chased off the property Friday morning at the Sawgrass Marriott, where dozens of satellite trucks and some 300 media gathered to watch Woods’ appearance on short-circuit TV. And about an hour before Woods was to speak, a pair of women not dressed for the chilly weather stood along the side of the road holding signs with suggestive comments.

“Hopefully, as he makes progress with these issues – today would have to be characterized as progress – people will react to that in a positive way,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said. “He’s the biggest name in sports in the world, and people like that bring people out of the woodwork who have different opinions. It’s hard to predict how that’s going to play out.”

Three wire services – The Associated Press, Reuters and Bloomberg – were allowed in the room at the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse to observe Woods’ talk, with no opportunity for questions.

That time comes when he steps fully back into public life, which in his case is the golf course.

“I don’t rule out that it will be this year,” said Woods, who confirmed he received therapy and was headed back for more on Saturday. “When I do return, I need to make my behavior more respectful of the game.”

It was an indication that along with trying to make good at home, Woods is taking responsibility for how he acts at work.

His temper has been a topic throughout his 13-plus years on the PGA Tour, particularly his language. Tom Watson sent Woods a letter last summer about his cursing, urging him to knock it off. Watson shared those thoughts earlier this month in Dubai when he said Woods has not carried the same stature as the greats who came before him, such as Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Byron Nelson.

“I think he needs to clean up his act and show the respect for the game that other people before him have shown,” Watson said.

photo

Tiger Woods addresses a small audience Friday morning.

What’s unclear is whether being “more respectful of the game” means Woods will consider changing his schedule to compete in some of the 11 tournaments on the main PGA Tour schedule that he has never played as a pro.

Also noteworthy was the location Woods chose for golf’s biggest media showcase ever.

It would have been just as easy for Woods to set up shop in the clubhouse at Isleworth, tucked away behind secured gates not far from his house. In a letter to the PGA’s policy board, Finchem said the Tour made Sawgrass available as it would for any player, even though no other player could command this much worldwide attention.

It appeared to be a statement by Woods that he knows he has damaged his sport and his Tour, and staging such an important event at PGA Tour headquarters was an indication of his support when he returns.

What kind of support will Woods himself get?

Ernie Els was among those furious that Woods chose the Friday of the Accenture Match Play Championship here in Marana to speak – Accenture was the first sponsor to drop him – although that was before he knew Woods had a one-week break from therapy and was going back.

Players are no different from the public. They either like Woods and hope for the best, or don’t think much of him and will delight in his failures. The former outnumber the latter by a large margin.

“For me, it’s water under the bridge,” Sergio Garcia said. “I’m just looking forward to having him back on Tour. I’m actually excited to see him back. So it’s good to see that he’s doing well and hopefully he gets everything sorted out.”

Woods has many friends on the PGA Tour, but he is close to hardly any of them. One exception is Notah Begay, who withdrew from the PGA Tour event in Mexico to be at the TPC Sawgrass.

Begay compared Woods’ delivery – measured, uncomfortable – to when Woods spoke before a private gathering at his father’s memorial service in May 2006. “This is as emotional as I’ve ever seen him in public,” said Begay, Woods’ teammate at Stanford.

Looking forward, he believes Woods will find a reception like never before on the PGA Tour.

“There will be a mixture of cheers and boos,” Begay said. “Not everybody is going to say, ‘Go Tiger.’ There’s going to be some criticism, things he’s not used to hearing. And he understands that it’s his fault.”

The Tour has rarely dealt with so much anger directed at one of its players – there was some heckling of Vijay Singh for saying he hoped Annika Sorenstam missed the cut at the Colonial, and at Bethpage in the 2002 U.S. Open when Garcia saluted the fans with his middle finger after they made fun of his pre-shot routine.

Woods’ star power dwarfs the rest of golf, however, and the nature of his sins make him an easy target.

“It’s going to be a big deal when he comes back out and resumes his career,” Finchem said. “But we can be reasonably prepared for that on short notice.”

Finchem is hopeful that notice comes soon, although no one knows when Woods will play golf again. There were apologies and confessions in his 13-minute speech, just not much information.

The commissioner was far more optimistic about whether Woods can succeed.

“If there’s anything about Tiger Woods that’s been evident over the last 14 years, it’s that when he sets his mind to do something and he brings the attention and focus that he can to do something, he’s been successful,” Finchem said. “And certainly, that includes improvement in almost every area, whether it’s his game, his business acumen, his presentation, his ability to talk on his feet.”

Woods actually has proven to be somewhat clumsy in spontaneous speech. That time is coming, and it will be another big step. Only then will it be known if it’s a step forward or back.

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