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Best: Only golf can help restore Tiger's image

Tiger Woods plays his tee shot on the

Tiger Woods plays his tee shot on the 10th hole during the second round of the 109th U.S. Open on the Black Course at Bethpage State Park. Photo Credit: Getty Images

It was no surprise that Tiger Woods seemed scripted and even a tad stiff Friday during his return to public view for the first time since clearing the dessert plates after the Worst Thanksgiving Ever.

For one thing, he was reading from prepared notes. For another, he clearly paid attention during his 45 days in rehab, because much of what he said was straight from the 12 Steps playbook.

Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that, if it helps Tiger salvage his family.

But what about Woods' spectacularly lucrative, previously unsullied public image? Did he take a first step toward rehabilitating it before his handpicked audience in a sanitized environment?

It was a question that consumed the sports world - and beyond - Friday as one of the world's most recognizable humans opened up in a way he never had before.

The answer seemed to be a qualified yes, but reaction ranged widely and wildly.

From blogs to TV to sports talk radio to office cubicles, some saw Woods as a carefully coached phony doing what he must to repair his reputation and retain what is left of his sponsorship portfolio.

ESPN.com columnist Bill Simmons: "I thought it was a borderline train wreck . . . Everything about it seemed staged. Everything. When the main camera broke down at the nine-minute mark and Tiger had to be shown from the side, I half-expected to see that he was plugged in to the wall."

Others believed he said all he reasonably could be expected to, accepting blame and responsibility and adding unexpected flourishes, such as a return to his Buddhist roots.

A tweet from Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez: "Saw Tiger this morning & I thought he was genuine. I'm pulling for Tiger, Elin and their kids & truly hope they come out stronger in the end."

One highlight was a blunt reference that got to the heart of most athlete/entertainer/politician scandals. "I felt I was entitled,'' he said.

Perhaps the most striking part of the drama for a public eager for a little Tiger schadenfreude was not anything he said but the way he looked: old, weary, humbled.

In other words, entirely un-Tigerlike.

Oh, there were flashes of the old Woods, such as his anger about elements of the news media hounding his family and what he called inaccurate reports of his wife, Elin, whacking him with a 9-iron.

The seeds of Friday's cynicism were sown when Woods made the mistake of inviting pool reporters from the golf media to attend, giving the impression this would be a news conference.

It wasn't, even though it attracted a staggering level of live coverage, including national broadcast TV networks that interrupted their late-morning schedules.

In fact, it was a prepared statement in front of friends and family, including his mother, Kultida (who looked less than pleased to be there), but not his wife.

Usually docile golf writers chose to boycott, getting in a jab at a guy who never has been particularly open or accessible.

Tiger correctly said he has no obligation to detail his extramarital exploits publicly, and by addressing them in general terms, he now can refuse to answer questions on that topic moving forward.

"There are issues between a husband and a wife,'' he said.

But he does owe the public answers about golf, and he did address that subject, briefly.

There had been speculation that Woods would play again soon, but he indicated he will not. He also said that when he does return, he needs to "make my behavior more respectful of the game.''

Countless golf questions remain, most of which will be answered in due course - and on the course. As other fallen heroes have learned (see Rodriguez, Alex), the best antidote to off-field failure is on-field success.

On the Golf Channel, analyst Nick Faldo (himself a veteran of tabloid scrutiny), seemed baffled by all the fuss and suggested a quick return to the course would be the best medicine.

"He's a golfer who needs golf,'' he said.

Of course, golf needs Tiger, too. Before Faldo spoke, studio analyst Charlie Rymer teared up while discussing Woods' speech and his personal predicament.

It was awkward, but unlike with Woods, no one doubted his sincerity.

New York Sports