Of all the staggering Tiger Woods victories, none would compare to the fifth Green Jacket he plans to don on 11 April. The time he won his first major as a professional by 12 shots? A mere bagatelle. The time he won a major by a record 15 shots? Pah. How about the time he won a major on one leg? Nothing but a walk – well, hobble, in the park.
Believe it, the Masters of 2010 would eclipse all of the above – and do so totally. When the 34-year-old tees it up at Augusta in 22 days, he will not have played competitively in almost five months. No Masters champion has ever prevailed when making the tournament his curtain-raiser for the year. Yet if only the hurdles facing Woods were that straight-forward. He will not only have to shake off the rust and make history, but also withstand the scrutiny of the world. Not even the controlled environs of Augusta will protect him from that intense pressure.
To say this will be the most watched golf event in the sport's history is less a prediction and more a statement of fact. The president of CBS, the US network which has just landed the televisual equivalent of the lottery, declared it would be "the biggest media event other than the Obama inauguration in the past 10 or 15 years". Maybe Sean McManus went over the top, but his hyperbole was perhaps forgivable. After all, it is hard to imagine any other sporting superstar being able to stop the globe by reading out a mea culpa statement like Woods did last month.
Since that crash into a fire hydrant last November, the revelations of his extra-marital affairs have transported Woods from the Jock mags to the scandal sheets, from the locker rooms to the kitchens, from the sports stations to the comic halls. From being the most revered sportsman on the planet, he became the most ridiculed of men. How will he handle that new vulnerability when he returns to the arena in which he is supposed to be impervious? That is the question which should command the attention as much as the shape of his game itself. If only.
After all the waiting and speculating, so shall start the recriminating: Woods was clearly insincere in that "tear-provoking" performance last month; Woods has dared to turn the Masters into "The Tiger Woods Show"; it should be all about Augusta, instead it will be about the character who in Roman circles might well have been renamed "Disgusta"; far from "viewing this tournament with great respect" (as Woods put it in yesterday's announcement) he is showing the Masters no respect whatsoever; Woods is doing so because he cannot handle the flak he would receive off the normal fan and because of questions he would take from the more inquisitive sections of the media.
That was the reaction in golfing circles last night, and even his blindest apologist might find it hard to argue.
Woods also stated that "the majors have been the special focus in my career". If so, why is he electing not to play an event beforehand? Nobody can genuinely believe that skipping next week's Arnold Palmer Invitational assists Woods in his preparations to win a 15th major. Johnny Miller, the former major champion, spoke for many: "If he wants to win at Augusta, which he does, he's going to have to play Bay Hill. No doubt about that."
So why stay away? And why not even play the Tavistock Cup, an exhibition which takes place across the street from his home on Monday and Tuesday? In this regard the sessions Woods has held with Ari Fleischer have probably been more influential than those with his coach, Hank Haney. Fleischer is a former press secretary with President George W Bush who specialises in priming athletes for difficult dealings with the media. At Augusta, these dealings will be far easier than they would have been at a normal Tour stop.
At the Masters, press numbers are restricted and those accredited are heavily vetted for their golf-writing credibility. There would be as much chance as a gossip journalist gaining access as there is of Woods being appointed the next CEO of Relate. Yet he will still face an inquisition – if he does consent to hold his usual Tuesday press conference, that is – and he will expect the ride to be rough.
While many in the media centre will seek to finally get to the bottom of that bizarre early-hours crash on 27 November – which featured his wife, Elin, wielding golf clubs and Woods either asleep or unconscious on the pavement – others will want to know about his connection with a doctor currently under investigation with the FBI for supplying performance-enhancing drugs to athletes. The suspicion is that Woods will try to flat-bat all those queries and that the green-jackets of Augusta will assist him in his guarded responses. They will, however, be of no use when it comes to the reaction of his peers.
Will any of the other players have the nerve to ask him why he had to stage last month's mea culpa in the middle of the season's first big tournament? Ernie Els, perhaps, who labelled him as "selfish" for overshadowing the Accenture Match Play? Whatever, not everyone will welcome him back with open arms. Indeed, his first few days in Georgia might be very uncomfortable.
And then the golf will start. Heckling is not acceptable at the Masters and any "patrons" heard making disparaging remarks will be removed forthwith, never to re-enter. The focus will be solely on his golf. And that is how he wants it. Woods knows that if he wins, the road to redemption will shrink to the size of Magnolia Lane. His sporting prowess will banish the mistresses to the margins, the sponsors will return in droves and the game of golf will hail the superstar whose startling re-emergence will doubtless replenish their emptying coffers. First and foremost, Woods will be the game's best-ever player again.
But what if it goes wrong? What if Woods cannot overcome the self-enforced lay-off? Yes, he has won four times at Augusta, knows the course like the back of his glove, but the National is no place for anyone lacking match fitness. Say, if he misses the cut – wouldn't his image spiral yet further? This is the gamble Woods is taking. He may feel he has nothing left to lose. But still, perhaps, a lot to hide.Reuse content