It is remarkable watching an entire sport shake its head and shrug its shoulders, as the PGA Tour did last week at the Transitions Championship in Palm Harbor, Fla., unsure exactly what the return of Tiger Woods means beyond breathless news coverage and big TV ratings. Time was, Woods was the only sure thing in this game of chance—cold steel inside the ropes, marketing magic outside them—and the pride of grandmothers from Compton to Dubuque.
After more than four months in which so much has changed, who knows what will happen when Woods tees it up on April 8 at the Masters, the tournament that launched his legacy? Will he shoot 65 or 85? Will he hear snickers or applause? Will he be peaceful and sharp or become some sort of diminished Elvis?
Woods's announcement of his return during the Transitions, won by a shot by Jim Furyk, put his strange journey back on the front pages—the car crash in the middle of the night, the mistresses, the humiliating parodies, the televised apology in front of an ugly blue curtain—and pushed his story into more unknown territory: Tiger is coming back, yes, but who is he coming back as? Who is Tiger Woods now?
"As a player and as a friend of his, I didn't see any of this coming," says David Toms, reflecting on Woods's infidelity while also looking ahead. "I was shocked and disappointed at first, but I'm happy he's trying to work everything out. The first time I see him, I'll probably give him a hug and say, 'Welcome back.'"
Until the moment Woods pulls onto the grounds of Augusta National, where he will attempt to win a fifth green jacket and recapture a modicum of normality (might the former lead to the latter?), a sport to which he brought untold riches waits for the gathering storm. Thirteen years ago, on a Sunday evening in Georgia, Woods grabbed the PGA Tour by the collar and held it firmly until the early morning hours after last Thanksgiving. Two weeks from now, at the same tournament but under changed circumstances, Woods will reach out again.
"He could not have picked a better venue to make his return to golf," says Gary Player, the three-time Masters winner. "After all is said and done, Tiger is a professional golfer, it's what he does best, and the golf world needs him back and playing well, especially in the majors. Despite the distractions he is such a tough competitor both mentally and physically that it would not surprise me at all if he were to win."
Says John Daly, "He's the best I've ever seen, best I've ever played with, and, God bless him, I'm glad he's coming back. I hope he and Elin work it out—it looks as if they are—and I'm sure he and Hank Haney are working real hard. It shows you how much confidence he has at Augusta, playing in his first tournament there."
For all the huzzahs about his return, Woods has received more criticism than at any time in his career, from Tom Watson's scolding him for his on-course behavior to NBC's Johnny Miller's announcing on the air that Woods's "integrity has been shattered."
Tough talk from Martha Burk—who seven years ago protested Augusta National's exclusionary membership practices—is not a surprise. Says Burk, "Woods is charmingly consistent. He built his reputation partly on standing up against racism and in helping kids, but his view of women never varies. He refused to stand up against the Masters when he could have single-handedly advanced justice substantially. He obviously has treated the women with whom he has come in contact like instruments to be used and discarded, not as human beings. His return at the Masters is just so perfect." But never have so many of Woods's peers been willing to publicly take him on, as Ernie Els did last month by calling Woods "selfish" for making his televised statement during the Accenture Match Play Championship, or as veteran Harrison Frazar did at the Transitions.
"I think so much has been made of [Woods's situation] that most of the players are over talking about it," Frazar said. "It's kind of an irritant. But we need him back and need him playing our events, not only the majors. Why not Tampa, Bay Hill or Houston? I would think that anybody who has gone through what he has would reach out to Houston, the Colonial or New Orleans—the places he's never been to or been to only once. Our game is sponsor-driven, and if the best players don't play in the tournaments that drive our business, this is all going to dry up."