Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Tiger's baaack...

Tiger Woods said in a statement today that he wants to make his return to golf at The Masters next month. His decision finally puts an end to the firestorm of speculation over which tournament he would play first. I like everyone else, assumed he would not miss a major championship, if for no other reason because his window to surpass Jack Nicklaus' record is closing at an increasing speed.

Many pundits, as well as I, suspected Woods would play at least one tournament prior to The Masters as sort of a tune-up. For those non-golfers out there, tournament golf cannot be simulated on the practice tee. We all thought Woods would want a warm-up before taking on a major championship field.

However, as the news broke this morning, I thought making his return to The Masters probably is the best place to do it. And here's why:
  • Logistically, it makes the most sense: Woods return already is being called the biggest return to sports in the last decade, maybe ever. The crush of sporting press at his first tournament will be out of control. Add the gossip press that is covering his non-golf problems and you create much more than a media circus. Because it is a major championship, which draws media from around the world every year, The Masters is equipped to handle the onslaught. Woods can hide there if he wants.
  • If Woods is seeking control of his return, he can get it at The Masters: Augusta National Golf Club hosts The Masters each year, not the PGA Tour. It invites whoever it wants to play the event each year. And as a private club, it strictly controls a limited amount of tickets for the gallery. In fact, badges for the event are famously difficult and expensive to obtain. That will limit the number of potential hecklers or hooligans that potentially could be on the grounds.
  • Woods can control the media crush as well: Augusta National can credential whichever media outlets it chooses to cover the event. That means if they don't want TMZ.com on the grounds taking pictures and asking questions, they can do that. There is no indication yet whether the club will do that, but my guess is Tiger's people have made the request.
  • Woods has dominated the course: Woods has won The Masters four times, finished in the top three seven times and the top 10 nine times. Of the 15 times he has played the event, he has finished in the top 25 12 times. Club officials lengthened it and added rough because it was too easy for him. His game suits that course.

Should Woods be considered a favorite to win? Probably not, although I wouldn't put it past him. If it's true what he says that he didn't pick up a golf club for a few months after the Thanksgiving incident, I doubt he will be in contention. Like any other sport, golf requires athletic ability that you can't just turn on and off.

For someone who enjoys the pressure of competition, this will be Woods' ultimate test. Not only is he dealing with a major championship, chasing the record of the greatest golfer of all time, and expectations that he must win every time he plays, now he is shouldering the burden of returning to golf after the off-course disaster.

He will have the biggest stage to show he hasn't lost a step. I think he'll have a good showing, but not a great one. He'll make the cut and finish in the top 20, but I don't think he'll be in contention during the final round.

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