Tiger leaves the big question unanswered

Woods addressed his personal issues yesterday but left the game to speculate over the date of his return – and the frame of mind he will bring back to the course

The countdown was supposed to go tick-tock while the world continued to go tut-tut. It wasn't and isn't like that. Tiger Woods did not announce yesterday that he is coming back to his sport any time soon. In fact, from a sporting point of view he didn't announce anything. As Nick Faldo put it: "As golfers we are back to square one."

In truth, golf has never left that wretched starting point; not in the three months since Woods drove into that fire hydrant outside his home and all his marital deceit proceeded to pour forth. The game certainly hoped it was about to move on when Woods' "coming out" party was announced on Wednesday. Indeed, the word was that he would return to the professional fairways as early next month. He will not. The "indefinite break" stretches out like an ominous wasteland.

Of course, in the midst of the surreal scene at PGA Tour headquarters – which was half Presidential address, half Jerry Springer – the game of golf seemed totally irrelevant. Here was Woods giving the most extraordinary performance of his life, a husband and father-of-two standing 10 feet in front of his mother and basically admitting to have been one of the most deceitful superstars ever to submit to the temptations of fame and money. "I am sorry." He said it over and over. But he didn't say what his profession yearned to hear. "Yeah we've had our apology," commented Faldo. "But as far as golf is concerned, he has still left the biggest question mark – when will he return?"

Last night the sport and its chroniclers were still raking over the few seconds out of the 13 minutes Woods dedicated to his immediate employment schedule, in a futile attempt to extract an answer. "I do plan to return to golf one day," said Woods. "I just don't know when that day will be. I don't rule out that it will be this year."

What does that mean and when will that be? The cynic will no doubt disagree but it is clearly all linked to his rehab and the progression thereof. After 45 days' of treatment Woods will today return to the Mississippi sex addiction clinic. "I still have such a long way to go," he said. The Masters is out of the equation. The first major of the year takes place in a little over six weeks and Woods will require a prep tournament, if not two. Who knows, perhaps the US Open at his beloved Pebble Beach in June will also come too soon. Four weeks later follows the 150th staging of our very own Open Championship at our very own golfing Mecca, St Andrews. Surely he can't miss that?

Well, yesterday indicated he can and possibly will. The officials were not about to issue anything other than "we just hope he conquers his problems" statements but, be sure, their concerns are as present as they are as justified. Without Woods, television audiences halve and with half an audience comes half the proceeds. Long-term contracts might have meant that the losses are limited but with Woods apparently this uncertain the next contracts will not be easily signed. The PGA Tour, for one, is at a critical stage in its history as the sponsorship of the big financial institutions becomes a memory and the other endorsers hesitate at the enormity of the required commitment. The commissioner, Tim Finchem, looked as suitably humble as every one of Woods' "friends, colleagues and close associates" in that Jacksonville room yesterday. But he could be forgiven if inside his gut was churning. This saga could still herald an economic calamity for his organisation.

Certainly, it will make the other players think, particularly all who raged against the timing of this mea culpa spectacular. On Wednesday, Ernie Els had called Woods "selfish" for opting to overshadow the Accenture World Match Play Championship in such ecliptic fashion. The South African's remarks were understandable, especially as Accenture just happened to be the first sponsors to drop Woods in the infidelity fallout. There remains a lot of scepticism as to why Woods had to pick this particular Friday to open his heart and the straight-back-to-therapy factor went only part of the way in convincing many why it had to occur in mid-competition. "I don't buy that one," said Faldo.

But none of the other professionals would dare to pose any doubts. For when the world No 1 said "when I do return I need to make my behaviour more respectful of the game" he sounded anything but selfish. In fact he sounded anything but Tiger.

In many respects his tone, his body language and, yes, his sincerity were the most chilling aspect of this excruciating confession. "Careful for what you wish for" they say and the sight of this broken soul did make one wonder if the doubtless Tiger of old would ever be witnessed again. In urging Woods to "get on the private plane with your family and play some golf" Faldo may have been misunderstanding the demands of Woods' recovery. But, again, from a golfing perspective he could be excused any insensitivity. There was undoubtedly a PR myth created, but still Woods's utter certainty on the golf course was the foundation on which the no-weaknesses illusion was built. Now, he doesn't even know when he will next tee it up in anger again.

"I'm surprised by that," said Faldo. "Here was a man who, along with Jack Nicklaus, was the most mentally strong player ever to step on a golf course. And to him not being to sort this out ... well. His whole world has been golf and if he does not get back to it you assume he does not have a world. You would have thought he would have wanted to get on with this as quickly as possible."

Golf has to accept that Woods will be doing it as quickly as possible, just as it has no other option but to accept he is genuine about returning a changed man. Cynicism will still rule in the locker room and when he does return they will await the first curse, the first thrown club, the first statement or action of supreme arrogance. Does he truly believe the "same boundaries that apply to everyone apply to me?" Because he didn't used to.

Even on Thursday most of his peers were convinced that he would be the same old Tiger. They saw the staged pictures of him on the range so close to his Orlando home and that fateful driveway and saw a transparent publicity machine in operation. They put this disgust alongside the timing and the ridiculously controlled environment of the announcement and then with the admit-very-little silence of the previous months. And most thought to themselves, "he actually thinks he's still in control, he actually thinks he can get away with it, just like he always did".

Well, the clubhouse might see it a little differently now. Woods claims not even to be in control of his "addiction" yet and definitely not of his personal life. He has been in a clinic for seven weeks already and will return for at least another two. Woods probably took the chance to hit a few balls on Thursday because he hadn't done so since the car span off the drive. He is in no fit shape physically to relaunch his assault on the record books, just as he is in no fit state mentally. After one long personal process will come one long professional process. Golf will just have to stand in line. It won't be next month, or the month after and we can only pray it will be May. And then we will discover how different the Tiger Woods Show will really be.

Will he be the same golfer, can he be the same golfer, or will the vulnerability and self-awareness wreak their rough justice through his psyche and hence his game? And if he can't scale the previously inhabited heights again what exactly will that mean to his sport and its riches? They remain the questions golf is interested in. And after yesterday they should sound more foreboding than ever. When will that day be?

Reactions from across the world

Headlines from the web

*Times of India: "Tiger Woods returning to Buddhist roots"

*Detroit Free Press, US: "Tiger woods still has all the power, and he knows it"

*Vancouver Sun, Canada: "Tiger's coming out party: Golfing great contrite and apologetic"

*Boston Herald, US: "Hey, Tiger Woods, apology not accepted"

*Daily Mail, UK: "Tiger Woods' porn star mistress can't hold back the tears as she watches star's apology"

*Golf.fanhouse.com: "Tiger still has egg on his face"

*NBC.com: "Tiger Woods will bore you with his integrity"

*Times of Oman: "Tiger Woods needs to rebuild image in crafted comeback"

*Orlando Sentinel, US: "Hey, Tiger, spare us the apology and just tell us when you're playing again"

How bookmakers responded

*1/6 to return this year

*7/4 to win a 2010 Major

*1/7 to break Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles before he retires. He currently has 14

*33/1 never to play competitive golf again

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