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Anything's possible for Tiger's return

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports
Anything's possible for Tiger's return

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Padraig Harrington said of Tiger Woods: "I have no idea what’s going on in his head this week, if his …

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AUGUSTA, Ga. – The porn star stripping in Atlanta, the jokes getting whispered in the gallery and the latest tabloid reports were probably already enough to rattle Tiger Woods when he steps to the first tee at 1:42 p.m. Thursday.

Just in case it wasn't, Masters chairman Billy Payne took to the microphone Wednesday and unleashed an unprovoked assassination of Tiger.

''It is not simply the degree of [Woods'] 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. ''Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we saw for our children.

''Is there a way forward?'' Payne continued. ''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.''

When was the last time a tournament chairman ripped a player like that? Let alone laid out a sanctimonious standard where Tiger is such a scumbag he should be judged on how nicely he plays, not how well?

Gee, thanks Billy. You run a golf tournament, not a confessional booth, right?

Not that Woods can claim he doesn't deserve the lecturing.

Wednesday came a report that he had a one-time relationship with his neighbor's college-age daughter, who he's known since she was 14. If true, it's a pathetic act; something that will catch you a beating even on the ''Jerry Springer Show.'' When Tiger returns home from Augusta, his wife Elin will be the least of his problems. There may be an entire neighborhood of parents waiting to swing a golf club in his general direction.

At this point, there isn't much left to say about Tiger the person. His team's hope is people will ignore his actions or go with ''everybody makes mistakes'' or give him a pass as he tries to fix his problems.

All that's really left is his ability as a golfer.

Thursday is the day Tiger's life was supposed to return to being that player, to being measured against par – at least for a few hours.

The golf ball he whacks around Augusta does not know or care about Joslyn James or Isleworth fire hydrants or the heartland omelet at Perkins. It cares only about how Tiger Woods strikes it.

This entire soap opera has gotten so bizarre that even Tiger Woods agrees with Billy Payne. Heck, he even filmed a ridiculous Nike commercial using the voice of his deceased father lecturing, ''I want to find out what your thinking was'' and ''did you learn anything'' and so on.

Apparently, Tiger learned that self-humiliation is the way to sell golf shirts.

On the course, Tiger says he needs to show more respect for the game, interact with the fans and tone down the emotion in his play. He claims off the course he's become a good family and church man.

The old Tiger wasn't much of a father, husband or neighbor. He was the world's best golfer.

Will (supposedly) living the straight and narrow help him hit the ball straight and through the narrow? Or did he need the wild personal life to get away from the pressures of the course?

Will playing with less intensity, eliminating both the anger and elation he displayed, make him a more consistent player? Or did he need that roller coaster to reach his peak abilities?

No one can say; which is why no one can say whether the new Tiger will be better or worse on the course than the old one.

''Well, emotion, I think plays a lot in different ways to different people,'' said Jack Nicklaus, whose record 18 majors championships are what Woods, with 14, is chasing. ''Tiger has always been exuberant and shown his emotions on his sleeve.

''Do I think [toning it down] will probably affect him one way or the other? You know, the only way you're going to find out is watch it in time.''

The world will do its best to watch Thursday in what may be the most anticipated event in decades that will not be shown fully on live television. ESPN will broadcast Woods' first tee shot and then cut away until 4 p.m. when its three-hour live coverage window returns. Tiger should be on the back nine by then. Friday's round that starts at 10:35 a.m. won't be on TV at all.

Much of the reaction to Woods will be directly related to the way he plays. America loves a winner and is a sucker for a comeback story. If he struggles and misses Friday's cut his tenuous respect would be shattered with more jokes and endless psychoanalysis of his state of mind.

If he plays well, a lot gets forgotten. He's four under par away from being a hero again to many.

Tiger said he's now at ''peace.'' It stands to reason less drama, more sleep and fewer wear-you-out-sessions could be good for his game. Focus, after all, is everything in golf.

''Looking back, you wonder how he competed at such a high level with all of this stuff going on,'' said golfer Steve Stricker. ''It's actually scary to think if he gets his mind a little bit freer and uncluttered that it could be better. I mean, the guy is so talented and so mentally strong; that if he can maybe get rid of all the outside factors, he actually could perform at a higher level.''

Then again, what if Woods needed that kind of a lifestyle to relax from competition? What if he just isn't cut out for the family man stuff, let alone endless counseling, apologies and professional introspection that can make you question everything, including why you do want to dominate the competition?

''Nothing's changed,'' Woods said. ''Going to go out there and try to win this thing.''

That might be easier said than done. There's a chance he spent Wednesday night talking about the neighbor's daughter with Elin, not exactly preferred pre-Masters conversation.

''It's that thing that sits on your shoulders that makes you better than the others,'' former Masters champion Raymond Floyd said. ''I don't think we've seen focus like [Tiger's] since Jack [Nicklaus] was in his prime.''

So what if the focus is gone or diminished at all? What if it's no longer at Nicklaus' level, can he still catch Jack?

Then there is Tiger trying to be Phil Mickelson with the gallery. Woods has never been one to engage the fans. His intensity (even rudeness) was credited for making rivals melt. He'd famously never blown a 54-hole lead in a major until the PGA Championship last August. He's celebrated loudly and busted clubs in rage.

Now he's going to change his personality?

''I'm actually going to try and obviously not get as hot when I play,'' Woods said. ''But then again, when I'm not as hot, I'm not going to be as exuberant, either. I can't play one without the other, and so I made a conscious decision to try and tone down my negative outbursts and consequently I'm sure my positive outbursts will be calmed down, as well.''

This sounds good, but sometimes athletes need the anger to fuel their game. Long after Michael Jordan became the best basketball player in the NBA he sought slights, real or imagined, to motivate him. Football players scream and shout. Hoops players pound their chest. Fighters play introduction music.

If getting ''hot'' and ''exuberant'' brought you 14 majors, then why give it up? Was it really the fist-pumps that sent you into the arms of the cocktail waitresses of America?

Nicklaus was long criticized for not being more outgoing like Arnold Palmer. Yet when he tried to change his ways it screwed up his game. You are what you are, he said.

''I never could show a lot of really outward exciting emotion and go back and play the next hole,'' Nicklaus said. ''Every time I did, I found myself all excited about what I did the last hole and pretty soon I found two holes later I made a bogey and double-bogey and I'm saying, why did I do that? I had to always rein myself in.''

Publicly golfers were unwilling to express any doubt about Woods. All said of course he can win the Masters for a fifth time. Privately everyone admits they aren't certain what Tiger Woods will return to the course.

''We don't know what sort of bearing [the scandal] is going to have in the short term,'' said Padraig Harrington. ''He could be incredibly stressed and have quite an effect. … I have no idea what's going on in his head this week, if his mind is on the golf or not. You can never quite tell.''

He could be better. He could be worse. He could be the same.

In the middle of a circus with porn stars stripping, tournament chairman ripping and neighborhood scandals still being reported, Tiger Woods will step to the tee Thursday afternoon, all eyes, once again, upon him.

What we get is anyone's guess.