Tiger Woods: Return at the Masters is the Right Thing

Mike LiebermanContributor IMarch 16, 2010

Author's Note: This article was written Monday night, hours before Tiger made it known that he would in fact make the Masters his first event of the season. The piece is an argument as to why he MAY choose to do so, and not an explanation as to why he DID. Thank you for reading.

Ever since Tiger Woods announced his indefinite leave from golf on Dece. 11, the single biggest question hanging over him and all of golf has been: When will Tiger return?

If Tiger is bold, confident, and savvy, there’s only one answer to this question: The Masters.

Before I go on, let me say one thing. This isn’t a judgment of what Tiger Woods has done, what he’s been accused of, or the rumors, innuendo, and conjecture surrounding his past. At issue is what makes the most sense for Tiger (the golfer) to begin rebuilding what Tiger (the person) has so tragically dismantled.

Tiger’s return to practice two weeks ago sparked discussion about his imminent return. The arrival of coach Hank Haney has only served to turn up the heat on this raging debate.

Many pundits predict Tiger will return to action at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which opens 10 days from now at Bay Hill. Tiger’s very familiar with Bay Hill—he’s won Palmer’s event six times, including the last two in dramatic fashion. He’s also quite close to Palmer, making the tournament that much more welcoming as he looks to get back into the swing of things.

NBC golf analyst Johnny Miller, in an ESPN.com article, suggested Tiger “needs to get one tournament under his belt” if he wants to have any choice at winning the Masters. “Even if you don’t play well at Bay Hill, you just have to get things going,” said Miller, who added that Tiger needs to “get the cobwebs out, get his confidence going.”

Steve Stricker, a PGA veteran and a friend of Tiger’s, believes there’s more to a tune-up, however. “It’s going to be hard for him to not only worry about playing but all the hype,” Stricker said in the same ESPN.com article. Playing in a tournament or two before the Masters would allow Tiger and the media to get all the hysteria out of the way before embarking on the season’s first major.

Stricker even intimated that a Tiger return at Augusta would take away from the Masters. “Whenever he comes back it’s going to draw a lot of attention to that tournament and the focus is going to be on him coming back… To turn it into Tiger’s comeback instead of the Masters Tournament itself.”

Miller, Stricker, et.al. make valid points. Popular opinion is that Tiger will not be able to return at the championship level to which we've grown accustomed. Any pro who hasn’t appeared in a tournament since Nov. 15 will need some time to get back up to speed—even Tiger, who has proven to be human after years spent establishing his reputation as a machine. In fact, even with a tune-up, he isn’t really expected to compete at the Masters.

Which is exactly why that should be his first tournament back.

Imagine the historical significance of Tiger winning at the Masters if it’s his first tournament back. After the layoff, the scandal, under the burning glare of this spotlight—no matter how self-imposed it may be—to win a major in his first event… it would be an historic victory.

Don’t think the history would be lost on Tiger. He understands his place in the annals of golf. The man has won four times at Augusta, setting records in the process. From his historic victory in 1997 to his title defense in 2002, and his sudden-death win in 2005, the Masters has been a large part of Tiger’s legacy.

Like it or not, that legacy has been tarnished, and what better way to begin restoring it than a win right out of the gate at Augusta.

Not that any athlete wants to think about failure, but it’s another reason Tiger should consider starting his comeback with the Masters: diminished expectations. He really has no downside when it comes to his performance if Augusta is his first tournament. After all, seemingly every quotable source deems a tune-up absolutely necessary for Tiger to even have a fighting chance at the Masters.

If he plays poorly, it’s effectively what would be expected, considering all the factors (layoff, major, media, etc.). The better he plays, the more he’s defied expectations; a win or anything close would go a long way to restoring his legacy.

So while every athlete plays to win, the suddenly PR-aware Tiger has to realize that losing is a very real possibility. Should he work out the rust with an appearance at Bay Hill, he won’t have the layoff to blame for a poor showing at the Masters.

But if Augusta is his first play, he can understandably spin his performance, even if spin control hasn’t proven to be a strong suit for him. (Sorry, I know I promised not to bring up the scandal, but in this case, it was pertinent. Forgive my indiscretion.)

Also, Stricker is right: The media will descend on Tiger’s first tournament in a way the sport hasn’t seen in some time. The circus is bound to be distracting, not just for Tiger, but for everyone. Why not use it to his advantage at a tournament that matters? If Tiger were to return at Bay Hill, the Masters, or the Orange County Chip & Putt Open, every competitor is going to be deluged with questions.

From a purely tactical standpoint, he would get the most benefit not simply by getting in everyone’s collective head, but by doing so at a major.

Don’t think this isn’t a consideration for Tiger. He has done more than beat his PGA brethren over the years; he has demoralized them. From the red shirt on Sundays to fist pumping all weekend long, he plays the mental game as well as anyone else on tour. If the media can be an asset to frustrate and distract his competition, don’t expect him to leave it in his bag.

Yes, a decision like this is bound to ruffle feathers… so be it. The players who complain have all benefited from Tiger’s very existence ever since he arrived on tour. And they will certainly benefit again, because there will be a lot more that’s green than just a jacket if Tiger makes his comeback at the Masters. CBS News and Sports president Sean McManus told SI.com that Tiger’s return “will be the biggest media event other than the Obama inauguration in the past 10 or 15 years.”

Hyperbole aside, if it’s at Augusta, McManus may be right. The SI.com article cites an estimate that more than 20 million people watched Tiger’s scripted public apology last month. It would be no stretch to say that a Masters return would shatter the tournament record 14.1 television rating earned by the final round in Tiger’s 1997 victory.

Tiger has gone from legend to polarizing figure. He will attract viewers who want to see him win again, others who hope for his failure, and still more who just want to experience the spectacle of it all. If 43 million people watched at least part of that final round in 1997, and more than 20 million tuned in for his press conference, it’s amazing to think what the event would garner in these circumstances. And if he’s in the hunt on Sunday? The mind boggles…

So with all these considerations, Tiger has every reason to continue practicing with his coach at home for the next few weeks. Make your return on April 8. In Augusta. At the Masters.

Whether people like it or not, it just makes sense.

Thanks for reading. For more, please visit my new blog, Sports In Briefs .


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