March 16, 2010
So now we know -- Tiger Woods will be coming back at Augusta to debut at The Masters.
Next question: how's he going to be received?
If you're looking for a place to focus on golf rather than the masses outside the ropes, Augusta is your place. Take a look at the well-behaved fans -- or, as Augusta calls them, "patrons" -- in the photo above. Everyone in Augusta knows exactly how lucky he or she is to be in that space; tickets -- sorry, "badges" -- are family heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation. (For that same reason, that's why you won't see much heckling; whoever loses their badge loses it forever.)
That's not to say craziness can't happen at Augusta -- just last year, a guy dived into a sand trap next to Phil Mickelson -- but it's much less likely to happen at a place where the fans are under almost as much scrutiny as the players.
The true test will come at Woods' next event, wherever that may be, since the crowds will be less likely to conform to Augusta National's standards of behavior. The PGA Tour will surely outlaw signs, but they can't restrict the airspace -- planes have flown above tournaments with Tiger jokes already -- and they can't muzzle people. Somebody out there is going to make a slight modification to "get in the hole," somebody else is going to take it a step further, and before long, the gallery could well turn into the Yankee Stadium bleachers.
Of course, there will be fans -- many, many fans -- who will stand and applaud Woods. Many fans can separate what he's done on the course from what he's done after the round's over, and he'll enjoy unprecedented support from these fans.
The media response also will be fascinating to watch. First, we have to cleave the media into three distinct groups:
The tabloids. These are the fly-by-nighters, the ones who blast out photos of Elin Woods not wearing her wedding ring or Tiger spotted in Mississippi. They have zero regard for Woods' privacy or dignity, and will be running helicopter-cam shots of his family for weeks to come.
The sports media. The media not completely invested in Woods will treat him with respect but not worship. They'll cover the Masters, but since they don't interact with Tiger on a weekly basis, they have no need to pull their punches. (Some columnists will take particular delight in cheap-shotting; we'll link them and call them out as needed.)
The golf media. Here's where it gets tricky. Does Woods open up to the golf media, which was slow to glom onto his story but, as with every other outlet, unrelenting in pushing it? Does Woods, or the golf media, make any attempt to bridge the gap?
If Woods decides to freeze out the media entirely -- not an inconceivable proposition -- you'll see far fewer "let's move on" pieces than you would otherwise.
As for the PGA Tour and Tiger's sponsors? They've got to be absolutely giddy at the fact that he's coming back. Obviously, he's damaged goods, but all that needs to happen is one victory -- shoot, even one good showing -- and much of the vitriol and acrimony will vanish.
Tiger Woods will always have detractors; this controversy is going to follow him the rest of his life. But he can go a long, long way toward winning back a huge chunk of his fanbase with the right moves.
And it all starts in April at Augusta.
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