O’Neill: Masters will be tough test for Tiger’s return

By Dan O'Neill
|  Thursday, Jun 30, 2011  |  Updated 2:54 PM EDT
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Masters Will Be Tough Test for Tiger

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Augusta doesn't cotton to strangers, doesn't suffer fools.

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The Southern hospitality Augusta National Golf Club can provide certainly must appeal to Tiger Woods. For a man looking to re-invent himself, trying to foam a runway and softly land his badly damaged image, the Masters has irresistible charm.

Augusta doesn't cotton to strangers, doesn't suffer fools. The green coats won't be expanding the press credential list or setting up an auxiliary press center. Those there to observe this Masters will be largely those that observed the last one, the last many for that matter. The grounds might be bursting with azaleas and magnolias, but you won't see any paparazzi in bloom.

What's more, you aren't likely to hear any offensive taunts or or catcalls from the galleries. Folks who are fortunate enough to get their paws on a gate pass at Augusta approach this golf tournament the way they might approach the Soup Nazi in an episode of “Seinfeld.” They don't dare draw attention to themselves; they watch their p's and q's.

Loudmouths and wiseacres are not well-received. Song birds and piano music are the sounds of choice. Just ask Gary McCord about Augusta's sense of humor. For the most part, save for structured press conferences, Woods will be able to go about his professional business at the Masters.

There will be nothing inside the ropes other than caddies in white overalls and some 7,450 yards of “Tiger-proofed” turf, a golf course Woods has counted four times among his 14 major championships.

In terms of passive environments, Augusta might as well be Eden for the scarred Sir Eldrick. Even Dr. Drew would approve of the Friendly Fruitlands The path to golf focus will be as uncluttered as it can get.

Ah, yes, but there's the rub. As he attempts to ease his perforated private life into an orderly professional career, as he performs CPR on television executives and restores normal breathing for PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, Woods has to play golf. Moreover, he has to play well.

The quickest way the game's No. 1 star can put these unsavory months behind him is to change the content from “birds” to birdies, to sensationalize what is going inside the ropes rather than outside, to bring back comparisons to Jack Nicklaus and perspectives about his rank in golf history.

Al Davis can tell Woods how to make all this go away: “Just win, baby.”

But winning golf tournaments, much less majors, is never a layup, even for Woods. His career winning percentage in majors is 33 percent, which is fabulous stuff. Only Bobby Jones has a better mark, a 44 percent winning clip that demands some qualification. The definitions were significantly different during Jones’ illustrious career in the 1920s and early 1930s.

But to re-iterate, before “Driveway-gate,” before the parade of embarrassing phone messages and seamy soirees, when mental fortitude was Woods’ calling card, he failed to win 67 percent of the majors he entered. Now, he will attempt to make a major championship his first competition in five months.

And Ari Fleischer will be no help when it comes to answering the kind of questions the greens at Augusta will pose.

No one knows this better than Woods, which makes his decision to go straight to Augusta, without passing go, without collecting first-place money at Bay Hill — which he seems to do annually — all the more intriguing.

No warm-up act to iron out kinks in his swing. No dipping the toe in the waters of tournament golf to re-acclimate himself. Woods is starting off at the top, in a major.

This is not new territory for Woods. He tried this same cold turkey trick in 2006, going from an emotional frying pan into a U.S. Open fire at Winged Foot. It did not go well. After taking eight weeks off to mourn the passing of his father, Woods pulled trombones from his bag. He carded a pair of 76s, stumbled 12 strokes over par and missed the cut at a major for the first time in his professional career.

Michael Campbell, who played with Woods through those initial two rounds, noticed a difference. “He’s pretty focused, but the intensity wasn’t there as it normally is,” Campbell said afterward.

Yet, Woods has trumped that glitch as well. Two years later, he came back from eight weeks off for surgery on his knee and won the U.S. Open. He hobbled around Torrey Pines while defeating Rocco Mediate in a memorable Monday playoff.

 

Perhaps those conflicting results aren't so confusing. Perhaps they speak to the essential ingredient in championship golf. The challenge at Winged Foot was personal, emotional, mental. The obstacle at Torrey Pines was mostly physical. Still mentally strong, Woods was able to overcome.

In that perspective, Augusta in April will be like Winged Foot in 2006, only the jump start in Georgia promises to be even more mentally challenging. We all know hitting balls on a range, practicing without consequences, is nothing like swinging the club when it counts. Only when thousands of people are watching, when millions of dollars are at stake, will Woods' legendary ability to tunnel his vision be challenged. And it remains to be seen how he will react.

Given the incredible circumstances, one wonders if can he still afford to conduct himself with the same “intensity,” if he can slam clubs in anger, if he can launch the occasional f-bomb, if he can continue to be indifferent and unaffected toward the huge galleries. Or will Woods will be more sensitive, more aware of his surroundings? He has said he will try to be more respectful of the game — how, exactly, will that affect his concentration?

Woods enjoyed an 88 percent USA TODAY/Gallup poll popularity rating in 2000. In recent weeks, his rating has dropped 52 points in the same poll.

Augusta will be a safe house; only golf will be spoken there. But the toll the past few months have taken on Woods remains unknown. Since the incident in November, he has appeared just once in public, in a controlled atmosphere Feb. 19 at TPC Sawgrass. He addressed a television camera and 40 of his closest associates, including his mother. He looked sullen and uncomfortable. He read a statement and did not take questions.

The Masters might seem similar, but there will be at least one question asked, the most compelling question of all. After all that has happened, is Tiger Woods still the best player of his time?

Augusta can ask that question most succinctly. The challenge will be for Woods to provide the absolute answer.

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