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Whenever Tiger and I see each other, sooner or later the conversation turns to putting. When I bumped into him on the Isleworth putting green the other day, it didn't take us long to get to it. He looked great. By way of reintroduction, I told him I was doing TV. He laughed—it was good to see his big, toothy smile again—and asked, "What the hell you doing that for?"
I chuckled, then replied, "You see the money list lately?"
Then we got to the real stuff. Tiger and I have been talking about putting for 20 years. But something else was going on too. Golfer to golfer, I was welcoming him back to the game. Tiger, of course, is returning to golf at Augusta. How big is that? It's almost too much, given all the sordid reports over the past four months.
I wondered if playing Bay Hill might have been a better way to ease back in, but Tiger said he couldn't have done that. "I really wasn't ready," he said. He talked about how much time he needs to prepare for tournament golf—way more than others—and how much time he needs to come down afterward. He doesn't approach the game like anybody else.
So the Masters will have Tiger, as it must. The Masters is Tiger. It has been that way since '97, when he won by 12, a victory so audacious that players spent the rest of the year talking about it, or at least I did. Augusta is golf's ultimate stage, but a stage needs a star. Enter Tiger. Cue Earl: Let the legend grow. I am certain that Tiger is playing with a fifth green jacket in mind.
Can he do it? Twenty-five years on Tour and I'm still a lousy swami, but with that caveat, here are my best guesses at Tiger's four scores if the weather's good, followed by Tiger's postround analysis: 73 (a little nervous out there); 69 (didn't want to have the weekend off); 71 (couldn't buy a putt); 68 (getting used to competition again). Can Tiger win at seven under? Maybe not. But come Sunday afternoon we'll all be thinking about the possibility, and he will too.
Yes, golf has taken a hit since Thanksgiving. Look at the succession of American golf kings in my lifetime (I turn 50 next year): Palmer, Nicklaus, Watson, Woods. The first three names were untouched by scandal. People ask me if I knew anything about Tiger's extramarital affairs. Not a thing. And I wish I didn't know about them now. I regard the whole matter as something between Tiger and Elin. He hurt Elin, and my heart goes out to her. He didn't do anything to me. As for his status as an icon, he can reclaim it. If he does the right things, he can be bigger than ever. Look at Bill Clinton. Look at Kobe Bryant. Memories fade, and people forgive.
I'm much more concerned about Tiger's being treated by the Toronto doctor, Anthony Galea, who was arrested in Canada last October on drug charges, a doctor who admits to using human growth hormone. Baseball really took a hit by being so opaque about PEDs. Golf cannot afford to do the same. I really hope Woods did not use HGH, even if it was when he was off the Tour rehabbing his knee. Any use of HGH by a Tour member would represent a serious violation of our drug policy. I don't think Tiger would use HGH, but he should say exactly how he was treated by Galea.
Given his inclination to be guarded, that would be hard for Tiger to do. Now that his private life has been exposed to the world, his natural instinct will most likely be to become even more secretive. But if he really wants the world to forgive him, he needs to be far more open.
As Tiger has said himself, he faces a long road to getting his life back on track. When he does, my guess is it will look very different than it did. But I don't think any of that will affect his golf performance. Maybe that takes an almost inhuman ability to put things into compartments, but that's what Tiger does so well. He blocks out the outside world. He's 34 now, with 14 majors. Jack has 18. I think Tiger will get to 19 before he turns 40. Sam Snead has the most Tour wins, with 82. Tiger already has 71. He'll blow right by 83 even before he gets to 19 majors.