Well, that was pretty fast. In December, when Tiger Woods announced he was taking an indefinite leave of absence from golf to try to repair his marriage to Elin Nordegren, breathless speculators figured he'd probably have to skip a whole year. After all, he had inflicted plenty of damage and had taken quite a hit himself.
But after a few weeks of rehabilitation for his reported sex addiction, followed by an awkward public press conference, Tiger appears to at least be working toward some sort of reconciliation with his wife this week, the couple was photographed together for the first time since the scandal broke. So after spending a couple of weeks tuning up his game, Woods will return to the course at the event that, more than any other tournament on the pro tour, has cemented his status as a golf legend: the Masters, which tees off April 8 at the Augusta National Golf Club.
In this case, Tiger certainly chose the safe shot. First off, the Masters is notoriously stingy when it comes to handing out media credentials, so he won't be confronted by TMZ after finishing his practice round. "They're going to have a much harder time getting in," says Dan Jenkins, a legendary golf writer who will be covering his 60th that's not a misprint Masters in April, regarding the access Augusta grants to media outlets that don't cover golf regularly. "You've got to start going there awhile before you get taken into the club." Masters organizers say the number of media passes distributed this year is on par with the number given out in years past, and they have already turned down requests from numerous outlets that don't cover golf.
The last time the Masters drew the interest of the larger media machine was in 2003, when news organizations of every stripe descended upon Augusta to cover the protests of Martha Burk, chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations, who crusaded against Augusta National's men-only membership policy. But Burk set up shop outside the club, where the media had access to her. Tiger does his work inside the ropes of Augusta, so the club can cut off the larger circus. Expect many television stations to send trucks and reporters to camp outside Augusta to gather fan reactions and other sidebar stories and don't be surprised if a mistress or two (or more) show up for publicity stunts. But at Augusta, Tiger can largely ignore such extracurricular activities.
Plus, Augusta fans will treat Tiger like a cub. "The galleries are kinder there and more knowledgeable," says Jenkins. "He's not going to get as many catcalls or whatever you are going to get when you go somewhere else." But he should expect the occasional barb. Even on the (cue the maudlin CBS music and the soothing voice of announcer Jim Nantz) "hallowed grounds of Augusta National, where the azaleas leave galleries breathless at Amen Corner," some clown won't be able to resist.
Make no mistake, however: Woods will be under mind-bending pressure at the Masters. "His chances of connecting with the fans, consumers, and making himself marketable again begins and ends where it always has his ability to be a phenomenal golfer," says Paul Swangard, managing director of the James H. Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. Jonathan Bernstein, a Los Angelesbased crisis consultant, suggests that if Tiger bombs on the course, he should just admit that the personal distractions weighed on his game. "A little self-deprecation and honestly and humility will go a long way," says Bernstein. "But that would be an un-Tiger thing to do in the past. As far as public communication goes, hopefully Tiger has learned new tricks."
No matter how he fares on the course, Tiger's return will likely be successful as long as there are no new surprises between now and April 8. "He should be ready to rehabilitate his image," says Bernstein. "But if there are more smoking guns, all bets are off." Not even Augusta can cocoon Tiger from any more scandals.