AUGUSTA, Ga. - Issuing the golf world's sternest rebuke to Tiger Woods for the sex scandal that drove him from the game, Masters chairman Billy Payne Wednesday said the four-time green jacket winner "disappointed all of us" and that his future will be "measured by the sincerity of his efforts to change."
On the eve of Woods' return to competition at Augusta National, Payne spoke deliberately and with feeling from a lengthy prepared statement, which was the final part of his annual state of the Masters address. After he reviewed changes to the course and developments such as the 3D telecasts that began with the Par 3 Contest Wednesday, he then addressed the one story line that is dominating this week at Augusta National Golf Club: The return of Woods following a self-imposed leave since late November.
"Finally," Payne said, "we are not unaware of the significance of this week to a very special player, Tiger Woods."
The chairman of both the tournament and club praised Woods' elite place in golf alongside Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. Then, unlike any other golf official or player since the scandal broke following an SUV crash hours after Thanksgiving, Payne directly criticized the behavior that Woods himself has decried.
"It is not simply the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here, it is the fact that he disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids and our grandkids," Payne said in his statement. "Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we saw for our children.
"Is there a way forward? I hope yes. I think yes. But certainly his future will never again be measured only by his performance against par, but measured by the sincerity of his efforts to change. I hope he now realizes that every kid he passes on the course wants his swing, but would settle for his smile."
Woods, scheduled to return on the first tee at 1:42 p.m. Thursday, was not available for comment. As he left the first tee during his practice round with Mark O'Meara Wednesday, a few people said, "Welcome back Tiger" and he looked at them and said, "Thanks . . . thanks, guys."
Payne said he spoke with Woods at the champions dinner Tuesday night. He declined to reveal what was said.
Officials at the PGA Tour and fellow golfers have been reluctant to say anything substantial about Woods in light of the scandal lest it might worsen the negative impact of his absence.
But Payne pointed out that the Masters' success is a constant.
"We are very secure in who we are, and the Masters has almost now a 74-year history. We just kind of do things our way. We are not threatened by other big news stories or things like that," he said.
But Augusta National has been criticized, especially by Martha Burk, who organized a protest near the course in 2003, about its policy prohibiting women members. Burk has been critical again lately in print and broadcast interviews, linking Woods' treatment of women and the club's males-only rules.
Payne was asked about that Wednesday. He said the Masters has provided "tens of millions of dollars" to promote growth of both men's and women's golf. Then he added, "I think the rest of that [question] may be a membership kind of issue. As you know, those are subject to the private deliberations of the members."
That policy has been endorsed by none other than Woods. In 2002, after Burk went public, Woods said, "They're entitled to set up their own rules the way they want them."