Hate to be Rude: Augusta without Tiger?

Tiger Woods walks across the Hogan Bridge during the final round of the 2009 Masters.

Tiger Woods walks across the Hogan Bridge during the final round of the 2009 Masters.

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Jeff Rude’s “Hate To Be Rude” column appears on Golfweek.com on Wednesdays.

Insiders say Tiger Woods doesn’t know when he will return to competition. But the more PGA Tour people with whom I talk, the more I sense Woods might not return by the Masters.

I’m surprised I just typed that last sentence. Until this week, I had subscribed to the notion he would return in March and play a Florida tuneup or two before heading to Augusta, Ga.

Reader poll

When will Tiger Woods return to the PGA Tour?

  • San Diego Open (Jan. 28-31) 2%
  • Arnold Palmer Invitational (March 25-28) 25%
  • Masters (April 8-11) 20%
  • U.S. Open (June 17-20) 10%
  • After the U.S. Open 5%
  • He will not return in 2010 38%

2218 total votes.

Following a sex scandal that turned him into a punch line and punching bag, Woods announced in early December that he’d be taking an indefinite leave. A month later, everyone’s still guessing about the timetable because he’s not talking and his camp is in more tight-lipped lockdown than usual.

There are two primary schools of thought: One, he’ll return in March and get ready for the Masters and continue his chase toward Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships. Two, he won’t play at all in 2010.

“If he and (wife) Elin decide to work it out, it could take a long time,” said Champions Tour player John Cook, a longtime Woods friend and one of two touring professionals who attended the Woodses’ wedding in 2004. “If they decide not to stay together, I think he goes out pretty quick. . . . If he works on the emotional things he needs to heal, I could see 2011 (as a return date). It wouldn’t surprise me at all.”

Multiple professional golfers have told me they don’t think he’ll play this year. One emphatically said he sees no way Woods will play the Masters. Another said the news media wrongly portrays that Nicklaus’ record is the most important thing to Woods.

At first, I dismissed such thought. My reasoning was, I couldn’t imagine Woods doing anything the second week of April other than playing golf in Bobby Jones’ invitational.

What, he’ll skip the Masters and hang out on his boat and try to hook fish instead of a fifth green jacket?

And he’ll miss the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and the British Open at St. Andrews, other sites where he has dominated? Doesn’t sound like something this ultra-competitive golf assassin would prefer. How much scuba diving can one man do?

“I don’t think he’ll play until his marital situation is settled,” one veteran touring pro said.

Or at least cleared up one way or the other. The technical term, I believe, is “when the dust settles.” That makes sense. The quicker a decision is made on divorce or reconciliation, the faster the process goes and the sooner we’ll see him play golf again.

A decent guess is we’ll see him when his world and hers are more comfortable again. It will be easier for him to re-enter public life once everyone knows his wife is taken care of, that he did right by his family in the messy aftermath, that he got help, that he learned something and changed.

The easy default is March. That’s the sports side. The sports timetable is easily measured. But the human side isn’t. The human side knows no timetable. Things like divorce and emotional healing move at their own speed.

One thing about Woods is certain: He tends not to play until he’s ready. It follows that his personal situation will have to play out before anyone knows how long it will take him to prepare physically and mentally. Considering that, his participation in the Masters would seem doubtful.

If he returns in March, his “indefinite” leave would mean missing 2-3 tournaments. Some think that doesn’t sound like an “indefinite” leave.

The longer Woods sits out, the more he heals and the more the frenzy dies down.

The longer he sits out, the more golf will want him back, the more sports will miss him.

Time is his ally.

Woods is an athlete who messed up big-time. His actions have cost him a high level of embarrassment. They have cost him multimillions. They might have cost him his family.

In time, more people than ever will watch him play golf because more people know about him now. In time, the world will understand he paid his price. Given that our society seems to like champions, for better or for worse, winning more majors will only aid his cause.

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