"I do plan to return to golf one day, I just don't know when that day will be."
-- Tiger Woods at his press conference, Feb. 19, 2010
Raise your hand if you still believe that sentence.
Now, you and I are going to be bombarded with some numbers between now and when Tiger tees off at the par-4 first hole at Augusta on April 8. I think the one you'll see most is 144 -- the amount of days it will be between appearances on the PGA Tour. ESPN is going to run that number on an endless loop on its scroll in an attempt to convince you and I that Tiger has taken a meaningful absence from golf. Why? Well, A) because ESPN has the first- and second-round coverage of the Masters and B) the World Wide Leader thinks you and I are dopes.
Tiger Woods, in 2009, played three tournaments before the Masters. Three. Exactly 12 rounds of golf. He has never played a heavy schedule on the PGA Tour (usually between 18-22 events) and there is nothing in his history to suggest that 2010 would have been any different had he chosen the A.C. Green Highway instead of the Wade Boggs Expressway. And I suspect that if you ask Tiger Woods when the PGA Tour season really begins, he'd tell you it starts when you make the drive up Magnolia Lane into Augusta National Golf Club.
So, unless you put a whole lot more weight into the trio of the Buick Invitational, the Match Play Championship and Bay Hill than do I, what we have been reading about and watching and talking about is nothing close to what reality turned out to be. And that is this: In baseball terms, he basically went on the 15-day DL with a "torn image." No year off, no skipped majors. He didn't even make it to Tax Day. That's no hiatus. You want a hiatus, call Conan O' Brien. No, what Tiger and his people are trying to do is fool some of the people into thinking he has found perspective because he missed the first all-important first three months of the PGA Tour season. The truth, of course, is that's like saying an NFL player had found perspective because he skipped the first two games of the exhibition season.
Proof? Quick, who won the Buick this year? How about the Match Play? How about last year? Exactly.
(Oh, and the Buick isn't even the Buick anymore. It's something called the Farmers Insurance Open. But you knew that, right?)
Now, I don't personally care that much about Tiger's private life. I really don't. Sure, I read the same stuff everyone else does and I must plead guilty to listening to a half-hour of the "Howard Stern Mistress Beauty Pageant" last week (where the winner, Jamie Jungers, called the moment "the best of her life" before thanking her dog and breaking into tears.) Whatever happened with him and the band of 18 or 20 or 582 is between him, those ladies and the Mrs. That's why I thought the press conference he held in February was a mistake. If he was truly sorry for what he did (and I have no reason to believe that he isn't) he should have apologized to those that deserved an apology and then never spoke about the whole deal with the media. Couldn't be any less of our business.
But that didn't happen, of course. Because Tiger Woods is a business as much as a person. So in an effort to save some face (and, to be fair, perhaps one of the 12 steps), he stood in front of those cameras and had the only speaking part in what was the most bizarre 20 minutes of TV I can remember (that didn't involve Matthew Lesko.) And the sinking feeling that a lot of people had afterward -- the idea that Tiger was doing this only to pacify sponsors and that the whole event seemed more rehearsed than Luca Brasi's speech to Don Corleone -- wasn't exactly fixed with the announcement on Monday.
My two cents? A couple of weeks after the whole thing broke, Tiger sat down with his people and told them that he wanted to play in the Masters. Anything else before that was on the table. They then, I guess, went backward from there and figured out when the right time was to hold a press conference, the right time to release photos of him jogging or hitting golf balls, and the right time to let the world know that he's going to play on the Tour again. If it all seems orchestrated to you it's because it probably is. I don't think Tiger hired Ari Fleischer because he wants to pass a bill through Ways and Means.
That all being said, he absolutely picked the right event to make his return. There's an exchange in the first season of "The Sopranos" between Meadow and Tony. Meadow is complaining that her father is too old-fashioned because he won't discuss sex with his kids at the breakfast table, that outside of the house the world is changing. Tony turns to her and says, "You see out there it's the 1990s, in this house it's 1954." That's Augusta. There, it's always 1954. There will be no TMZ, no Inside Edition, no US Weekly. Nope. For four days, Tiger Woods will just be a golfer again. And don't expect CBS to get within a Par-5 of the whole mess during its coverage. Don't forget, they are told by the Augusta National Golf Club what they can and cannot say on the air. For instance, please refer to the fans as "patrons" (and never refer to them as a "mob" -- Jack Whitaker made that mistake one year and was removed from CBS' coverage. And Gary McCord hasn't been allowed on the grounds since 1994.) So this place is time warp city -- perfect for an athlete that needs the kind of hands-off coverage that the athletes of, say, 1954 once received. No event is handled more smoothly and the only way that you'll hear the words "Tiger" and "clutch" in the same sentence is if he makes a big putt on the back nine (oh, sorry, Augusta prefers the "Second Nine") on Sunday.
And he can win. Come on, you think he hasn't been playing a lot of the golf the past month? Say what you want about Tiger Woods, but he's not going to the Masters if there is any possibility that his game might be in shambles. It's not as if he's forgotten how to play the sport during his vacation, I mean hiatus. Look, if he hadn't touched a club since Thanksgiving and showed up at Augusta I'd still give him a one in ten chance of winning. His record at the Masters (four wins, 10 top-10s) is the best by any player not named Jack Nicklaus. He hasn't finished worse than sixth since 2004. He's the instant favorite and I'd be stunned if he wasn't somewhere close to the lead on Sunday afternoon.
And there's this, which I think is reason No. 1 why he's coming back. If you Google "Tiger Woods 14" the options that pop up in the window below are the following, in order:
Tiger Woods 14 Women
Tiger Woods 14 Mistresses
Tiger Woods 14 Affairs
Tiger Woods 14 Girlfriends
Tiger Woods 14 Woman
Tiger Woods 14 Women Pictures
Only after that do you arrive at "Tiger Woods 14 Majors." And Tiger knows that the only way to get anywhere close to where he was with the public five months ago is to do what he does best. Better than anyone ever, in fact. He is now someone else to us, and he always will be. But that image can be muted in a couple of years if he stays under the radar off the course and wins a bunch of majors on it. That rebuilding plan starts on April 5.
And when he wins (I predict by three shots over Lee Westwood and Tim Clark) the 2010 Masters I suspect that Elin and the kids will be waiting for him as he walks off the 18th green. Seems about the right time for that comeback as well. Jim Nantz will speak in his Masters tone, telling us how much the majors mean to Tiger, but how family means that much more.
And in 2010, that moment could only happen in a time warp.
Luckily Tiger found one.
Welcome to Augusta.