‘New’ Tiger eyes controlled return

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For Tiger Woods it appears a controlled environment will win out over a chance for a competitive one.

Tiger is “likely” to stage his return to golf at the Masters according to The Associated Press. If so, the April 8-11 tournament will end what will be a self-imposed (and mostly unnecessary) four-month hiatus from the PGA Tour after revelations he had more than a dozen girlfriends, news that was disconcerting to his wife, Elin.

Tiger Woods is "likely" to return to competitive golf at the Masters tournament, April 8-11.
(AP file photo)

In choosing Augusta National, Woods will try to shake off some expected rust in what he hopes will be the respectful air of the azaleas.

His other option was the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a tune-up tournament in his hometown of Orlando in late March. It would’ve allowed him at least a chance to get back into form while playing a favorable course he’s won six times, including each of the last two years. Then he could’ve attacked Augusta with an eye on a fifth green jacket.

The difference though is control. The Masters has a lot of it – over the media, over the gallery, over the atmosphere on its fabled grounds.

The Palmer Invitation at Bay Hill is your typical free-flowing golf tournament, where the players’ locker room is open to media, the public can get rowdy and the opportunity for opportunists is everywhere.

The Masters greatly limits both the number and type of media allowed to attend. There’ll be no TMZ at the “turniment” (at least officially). The players’ dressing room is off limits to reporters. The club, which Woods is a member due to his four championships, can protect him in ways no one else can.

Then there’s the crowd. The Masters hands out weekly badges which are renewed each year and are such prized items they get passed down through families. Such longstanding fans are unlikely to heckle Woods in the first place, but since each badge is traceable, doing so could cause them to be revoked forever.

That threat of permanent loss of a badge could even keep tickets out of the secondary market. Selling badges to brokers carries a significant risk; if the faceless person who winds up buying it acts up, you get punished.

Of course, the Augusta secondary ticket is unlike any other. A badge for the first round to the Palmer Invitational could be had for $59 on StubHub on Thursday. For the Masters they were going for $555, and that’s without the guarantee of Tiger. Different prices, different clientele. Ticket holders aren’t even called fans; in Augusta parlance, they’re “patrons.”

As a result the galleries are calm and genteel. There are no signs allowed. Cell phones are confiscated at the gate. Although they serve alcohol, you rarely see any over served. It’s like stepping back in time. A shock jock isn’t going to get in with a pack of strippers, one of Tiger’s ex-girlfriends is less likely to show up at the first tee and unpredictable hecklers will be dealt with.

This move says that was a primary concern. From the start Woods appeared stunned and angry that his personal life has become a punch line for the public. He’s never appeared to understand that when a star of his status leaves his house barefoot early one morning, slams his SUV into a tree and a fire hydrant after an almost impossible turning trajectory and has his wife smash out both back windows with a golf club, well, people will talk. And that was before all the girlfriends came public.

Tiger Woods' last public appearance was a televised apology in mid-February, where the golf star publicly admitted to cheating on his wife.
(Eric Gay-Pool/Getty Images)

Just Wednesday Howard Stern conducted the “Tiger Woods Mistress Beauty Pageant” on his radio show (won by cocktail waitress Jamie Jungers). Topics discussed included endowments, safety precautions and preferred styles of play.

So, yes, just about anything was possible if Woods tried to return under the comparatively loose Palmer Invite.

Still, that used to be the environment Tiger would seek. To return at Augusta is to all but write off a chance to make this Masters his 15th major. Maybe a single get-back-into-the-groove tournament wouldn’t have mattered, but his odds of victory now are even longer.

Woods was never going to miss the Masters completely. His pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 major championships has been the most important thing in his life. For Woods to skip a chance to add to his current 14 championships would be completely out of character.

Woods was free to return at any point. He didn’t owe golf, its fans or his peers anything; let alone a self-imposed suspension. Once he felt his family life was on the right track, he should’ve jumped back at it.

Every smoke signal from the still heavily scripted, public relations-driven Team Tiger has indicated that day was coming soon. There have been news leaks of practice rounds and stories of the work done with his swing coach. Even Tiger’s caddy did a television interview, no doubt preapproved.

When Woods rushed to give his apology speech, his handlers explained he had to return to rehab and it couldn’t wait. It turned out his second stint was just a week, so that wasn’t really true.

The timing was clearly designed to create as much space between his mea culpa and his return. It allowed the public time to get over the initial reaction and begin longing for him to just get back to hitting golf balls.

Woods has even retained former Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer to help his already sizeable marketing team with the spin, according to the New York Post. Fleischer’s sports public relations company has also handled the unpopular Bud Selig, the hated Bowl Championship Series and the disgraced slugger Mark McGwire, whose recent “steroids admission” was short on actual truth.

This is the state of Tiger Woods’ desperation, hiring a PR firm that’s hasn’t been successful at helping even the most down and out entities in sports.

If that’s Tiger’s state of mind, then Augusta was probably the right call. He’ll have a chance to return with some dignity, which should be his right. As much as possible, he can concentrate on playing golf. He can begin reminding the public why they liked him in the first place.

The Palmer Invitational would’ve been bold, would’ve said he’d go right into the teeth of the reaction and would’ve signaled he still considered the Masters a place to win, not rehab.

The old Tiger would’ve done just that. This is the new Tiger Woods though, in every way imaginable.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Mar 11, 2010