Saturday, May 29th, 2010
VANCOUVER — Tiger Woods, supremely gifted at controlling the arc of his golf ball, may have badly miscalculated his ability to do the same with the trajectory of his life. But he hasn’t given up trying.
What the world’s No. 1 player seeks — in announcing Tuesday that he will make his long-awaited return to golf at the Masters Tournament, April 8-11 — is a rigorously controlled environment. This may work out better than the one he tried to create with that scripted, oh-so-rehearsed, no-questions-taken televised apology last month, delivered in front of his mother, business associates and a small group of reporters (many reporters boycotted the staged event).
In the cloistered, rarefied atmosphere of the Augusta National Golf Club, he’ll have a nearly ideal combination of spectator gentility and a club administration that will brook no nonsense from the great unwashed. The British bookmaker William Hill waited a full nanosecond after the announcement to install him as a 4-1 favorite to win.
“The Masters is where I won my first major and I view this tournament with great respect,” Woods’ statement said. “After a long and necessary time away from the game, I feel like I’m ready to start my season at Augusta.
“The major championships have always been a special focus in my career and, as a professional, I think Augusta is where I need to be, even though it’s been a while since I last played.”
But coming back at the Masters, instead of two weeks earlier at Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Invitational, is not about choosing an appropriate amount of time away to demonstrate his dedication to rescuing his marriage from the fallout of his serial cheating. It is not about TV ratings. It is not about fear of missing a chance to continue his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’s record 18 major championships.
For perhaps the first time in his life, it is not even about winning, though it’s not to be dismissed that seven of his 14 major championship victories have come at Augusta (four Masters), Pebble Beach (the 2000 U.S. Open) and St. Andrews (British Opens in 2000 and 2005), all of which play host to majors this year. With Woods, it is and always has been about control.
He simply isn’t willing to come in close contact with an unruly public or a scandal-driven media in his first time out of the box since his late-November fall from grace. The green jackets’ stringent screening will help shield him.
Said Rocco Mediate, who lost the 2008 U.S. Open to Woods at Torrey Pines: “It’s the safest place. It’s the most controlled place.”
You don’t run at the Masters. You don’t carry a cellphone. You don’t chant. You don’t boo. You don’t heckle. You may yell “Get in the hole!” when a player hits a tee shot on a par-5, but stupidity is not an attribute that the green jackets of The National have figured out how to combat.
What they do know how to do, the old boys of the greatest old boys club in golf, is keep the riff-raff out. His choosing of their glorious annual rite of spring at which to unleash the first, most ravenous pack of media hounds may be about as welcome among the members as that deep blanket of snow that fell on the club a few weeks ago, but they are tickled he’s coming, all the same. Almost as tickled as CBS, which can expect off-the-charts ratings if Woods is still alive on the weekend, after ESPN carries the first two rounds.
Said Masters and Augusta National chairman Billy Payne: “We support Tiger’s decision to return to competitive golf beginning at this year’s Masters Tournament. Additionally, we support and encourage his stated commitment to continue the significant work required to rebuild his personal and professional life.”
Even Payne and his cronies may not be able to keep reporters from asking pointed questions — his predecessor Hootie Johnson couldn’t, when Martha Burk mounted her futile 2003 campaign to have corporate sponsors boycott the tournament until the club opened up to female members — but they do have the ultimate hammer. When it comes to anyone wishing access to the grounds, and that includes the press building, the unspoken rule is: be careful, or y’all might not be back next year.
Lest we forget, Jack Whitaker never made it back onto the CBS broadcast after referring to the fans as a “mob” in 1966. Gary McCord has never been back since he told viewers that the greens were so slick because “they don’t cut the greens here at Augusta — they use bikini wax.” That was 16 years and three club administrations ago.
Augusta is long on memory and short on forgiveness. So we’re not going to be seeing TMZ or the National Enquirer in the Masters’ press room.
When a wide-eyed C. Cole first applied for a press credential, in 1993, the head of the tournament’s press committee was the late Charlie Yates, who was Bobby Jones’s playing partner the last time the Augusta National (and Masters) co-founder ever swung a golf club. It was a requirement then, probably still is, that the first-time applicant had covered golf, and that he send along clippings of golf stories he had written. Also, if memory serves, a covering letter containing the signature of the paper’s editor-in-chief, along with the company seal, was mandatory.
It was like applying for a job, only the paycheque wasn’t in dollars, it was in goosebumps. They still come, like clockwork, every April, but last spring was oddly anticlimactic, with Woods rehabbing after knee surgery. Three weeks from now, golf’s fallen idol — feet of clay, and all — will make Augusta the centre of the sporting universe again. It will be, unequivocally, great to have him back.