At Masters, Tiger comes in cold to a warm place
There are two things we know absolutely for sure now about the Masters.
First, the TV ratings this year aren't going to be outdone by some hockey game. (It was a stunner to hear that more Americans watched United States-Canada last month than the 2009 action from Amen Corner.)
Second, Tiger Woods will be able to eat at least one meal in peace during tournament week. (The Masters Champions Dinner is so exclusive that even Billy Payne, head of Augusta National, knows he basically must sit there and be quiet because he is an invited guest.)
The point is, the Masters is the Tiger Woods of tournaments and Tiger Woods is the Masters of golfers. So it makes perfect sense all the way around that Woods will make his return to golf there. Even though it will be harder on Woods to increase his major championship stash, coming in cold like this without a warmup tournament, it makes sense.
As much as golf aficionados have discussed the way Augusta National officials have "Tiger-proofed" the course, the pertinent fact is that they "tabloid-proofed" it long before that. If you don't have a credential by now, you're not going to get one. That's the policy. Aside from having to politely reject the zillion requests for tickets and media badges, the folks at Augusta will have a remarkably business-as-usual week. Gary Player used to describe the environment this way: the president of the United States couldn't get inside the ropes at the Masters.
It is up to the public to decide whether that is a good thing in this case. Does Woods really deserve the relative sanctuary that Augusta offers? Your call. A caution for those media people who will be there for the big comeback: Let's not forget what he is coming back from. He's not returning from a life-threatening illness or the death of a loved one.
That said, in sheer golf terms, it will be like having a table full of comfort food. Woods and Augusta became forever entwined in 1997, when he was 21 and made winning the Masters look incredibly easy.
Granted, it is not easy to roll into a major after a layoff. Johnny Miller said last week that if Woods wants to win at Augusta, he must play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational later this month. The cynic in any of us notices that Miller is the golf analyst on NBC and Arnold's tournament just happens to be on NBC. But if anyone is a non-shilling straight shooter, it's Miller.
He remembers how overmatched Woods looked at Winged Foot, coming back after his father's funeral and missing the cut.
On the other hand, accelerating from zero to 80 miles per hour at a major is not impossible. Phil Mickelson came into the U.S. Open last year off the trauma of dealing with his wife's diagnosis of breast cancer and darned near won it.
Besides, this isn't Winged Foot. This is Augusta, which Woods knows inside and out. The place usually brings out the best in him, even though he has not won there since 2005.
What Woods does have to worry about are the unknowns that are going to stick with him wherever he plays. He will be well protected on the grounds, but the paparazzi will trail him after that (unless he chooses to stay in the clubhouse Crow's Nest).
He also might have to deal with jeering and rough sarcasm from the galleries for the first time in his career. But the "patrons" at Augusta are famously well mannered.
It is just kind of fun to imagine what it would have been like if he would have made this comeback at Bethpage.