PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Tiger Woods didn’t just announce Tuesday that he will return to competitive golf next month at the Masters. He knocked over a bunch of dominos, punched a button here, moved a needle there, raised an eyebrow everywhere.
His return, among other things, means this:
Play time is over, gentlemen. Being schooled is back in session on the PGA Tour.
The so-called Toughest Ticket in Sports just got tougher. Prices of scalpers’ tickets on Washington Road in Augusta, Ga., just got spiked to at least another tax bracket. Don’t just bring cash. Bring briefcase. Street commerce doesn’t know installment plans.
They just added a chair at the Masters Champions Dinner, where Woods, who has been through the grinder, now will be asked to partake in Angel Cabrera’s serving of blood sausage and thymus gland of a bull.
Cleaning crews will have to work overtime to tidy up post-party messes tonight and maybe every night at CBS and ESPN, the Masters’ TV carriers, where one can be apoplectic at the thought of record ratings.
And to hear Tour players buzz on the range here at the Transitions Championship, Bobby Jones’ spring invitational has a new top betting choice – someone right out of the rust factory.
“He’s the favorite,” Paul Goydos said. “He won the U.S. Open on a broken leg.”
Nobody knows that better than Rocco Mediate. In a battle between the limper and the yapper, Woods beat Mediate in a playoff in that 2008 Open at Torrey Pines.
“Yeah, he’s had a hard time after long layoffs,” Mediate said Tuesday, dripping with sarcasm. “When he has a layoff, he just can’t do it. Hey, it wouldn’t surprise me if he won the Masters. He’s played his whole life. There is no rust. I don’t think he’s going to come out hitting it sideways. I don’t think (his focus) will wane at all. He’s a machine. He’s a machine, man.”
Woods, of course, hasn’t played since November. He’s returning after nearly a five-month hiatus prompted by revelation of affairs that are alleged to be somewhere in the neighborhood of the number of Jack Nicklaus’ major championships, 18. Woods has gone through more than 50 days of rehab. He has been turned upside down numerous times by TMZ and the tabloids. He has spilled his guts for 14 minutes on international television. He has gone into hiding and has yet to answer a single question.
Now he’s answering one lingering inquiry, the one about when he’ll play again.
“After a long and necessary time away from the game, I feel like I’m ready to start my season at Augusta,” he said in his Tuesday statement. “When I finally got into a position to think about competitive golf again, it became apparent to me that the Masters would be the earliest I could play.”
There had been speculation that Woods might play next week in the Tavistock Cup exhibition and the Arnold Palmer Invitational. But the timetable apparently didn’t match up with his longtime credo: Don’t play until you’re ready.
Palmer talked with Woods on Tuesday and gave us a report that jibes: “He said that he really didn’t feel his game was sharp enough to begin competition this early.”
In other words, Woods believes he’ll be ready at the Masters, without a tuneup tournament. We’ll find out how rustproof he is this time.
“You never say never with that guy,” Jim Furyk said when asked if a Woods victory would surprise him.
Woods has returned to majors after layoffs before. He missed the cut at the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot after mourning the death of his father. And he won the ’08 Open after undergoing knee surgery following the Masters and not hitting a ball for weeks.
If we are to deduce anything from those two instances, it’s that it might be harder to play after mental bereavement than after and during physical problems. If that’s the case, if the mental stuff is the real barrier, then perhaps winning this Masters for a fifth green jacket won’t be as easy as his historic limp by the sea.
“The precision needed at Augusta is greater than at any other major,” U.S. Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin said. “The fast greens, the touch, the feel. It’s a tough place to play. But if anybody can be successful after time off, it would be Tiger.”
The numerous players interviewed Tuesday generally agreed that Woods’ return is good for golf. They agreed Augusta National is the safest place for a Woods return because the environment there is so controlled. As Mediate said, “If people act up, they will be removed and their tickets will be removed forever.”
That idea wasn’t lost on Furyk, either.
“If he gets heckled, which everybody assumes he will, he’ll get heckled a lot less at Augusta,” Furyk said. “The fans there are as well behaved as they can get. They’re all afraid they could lose their ticket.”
Players disagree on how effective he’ll be right away, though some expect he’ll show his best stuff yet in time.
“He’ll be better,” Mediate said. “He’s faced things he’s never had to face before. He’ll be a little more human to everybody else, which is good. As a golfer, he’s not more human.”
Bubba Watson said Woods’ decision signals that his family life is under control and that “he’s ready to beat us again.” Three-time major champion Padraig Harrington suggested that Woods’ decision to delay his return until the Masters “shows he’s putting his family first.”
“Playing golf is putting the balance back in his life,” Harrington said. “And Tiger’s pretty good playing out of the blue, coming out of the cold.”
Golf isn’t just part of his therapy. Winning golf would be vital to the rehabilitation of his image.
“The best way to put this thing to bed is to win the golf tournament,” Justin Rose said.
Apparently that wouldn’t surprise Jerry Kelly.
“It had to be a lot tougher before,” Kelly said, referring to Woods’ playing while carrying out secret affairs. “If he was strong enough mentally while that was going on, I have the feeling he’s going to be mentally strong in this next phase. There had to be an awful lot going on in his head before.”
Even so, Woods has won 51 percent of his PGA Tour starts since July 2006. Little wonder then that two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen said this Tuesday: “Normal stuff gets thrown out the window with him.”