The Return of Tiger

Grand Central sports writer Doug Sears Jr. gives his thoughts on Tiger Woods' return to the PGA Tour and The Masters.

Tiger Woods returns to golf this week, playing The Masters, which is a little like coming out of retirement and immediately playing in the Super Bowl. Woods, of course, has not golfed in a tournament setting since the events of Thanksgiving 2009 and the ensuing destruction of his carefully crafted public profile.  Woods has won the tournament four times all ready, including his first Major win in 1997 at age 21, in a legendary performance in which the young prodigy finished 18 under par and won by 12 strokes.

The big question is how the crowd, the fans and the media will respond to Woods’ return, and in turn how he will return to them. However, that question will quickly be rendered irrelevant, overrun by the simple question of whether Woods can win. It will only be about golf. His drives, not his answers, how well he putts, not how many autographs he signs and his stroke count, not an accurate count of, well, of whatever Woods was up to that got him in this position in the first place.

The simple fact of the matter is this is Tiger Woods. Approached only by Roger Federer and Jimmie Johnson for the most dominant athlete of this generation, Woods has revealed only a few things about himself by choice and those are more revealing and important now than they ever were before. They stand as a sign of why he should still be THE prohibitive favorite to win this tournament.

1.     Focus

Legendary sports scribe Rick Reilly once wrote of the young Woods, 26 years old, marching out of the clubhouse to complete his famous “Tiger Slam” in April of 2001 at these same Masters. Reilly took special note of how Woods was in such a zone he did not even notice Nike Chairman Phil Knight, who just so happens to pay Tiger more than anyone else, standing next to Tiger’s own mother. It is a pretty simple rhetorical situation. If Tiger does not see his mother, and biggest supporter, when it is time to win, do you really think he is going to see a hand drawn sign with a bad pun about a hole-in-one on it?  Is Tiger Woods really going to notice someone calling out a crude joke from the gallery? Of course not. He is going to be too busy thinking, planning and plotting the next 10 shots, the next eight holes, possibly even the  next two rounds. You can not, and will not, shake Tiger at Augusta. You would have a better chance at dropping the Great Wall of China with a forearm shiver.

2.     The Moment

It has long been theorized that certain athletes have a true understanding of their own legend, and do things in such a way that, when a moment of legendary proportions comes about, they will be there, they will achieve their goals, they will succeed and will etch another tale in stone. It is why Mark Messier could guarantee a victory, why Michael Jordan was never concerned with Byron Russell and it is surely why a 21 year old kid fresh out of Stanford could not only win, not only dominate, but crush the field at his very first major.

Tiger knows what he has on his hands at Augusta this week. His return to golf will be literally the biggest return since Magic Johnson came out of retirement to play the 1992 NBA All-Star game.  If anyone knows that this will be a great documentary someday, it is Tiger Woods. He wants it, he knows how to get it and he knows that the only way he will ever return to the position he was in last October is to win and win right now.

3.     Winning

To be perfectly honest, Tiger’s world crashing around him after 13 years of care, protection and preservation, is a loss. He did not win his own private game. The press, the fans and the golf world took one off Woods, and that absolutely cannot stand. Tiger has played nice, he has tried to be honest and forthcoming but still waters run deep, and there is no way Tiger is going to just take the loss and move on. He has something to prove. Tiger Woods wants to be perfect again, and the first place he can do that is on the course. He saw Kobe Bryant overcome a very similar situation simply by taking his already dominating game to another level, and he sees that a vast majority of fans and press have pretty much forgotten about Eagle, Colo. While it was time that healed that wound, it was certainly helped along by an 81-point game, and more importantly a championship without Shaquille O’Neal. Right now, Tiger Woods is an adulterer, a liar and a bad husband. Fast-forward 12 months and see Tigers coffee table with four sparkling trophies on it, and Tiger Woods will probably be nothing more or less than a golf legend again. The pursuit begins again this week, and for Tiger Woods the stakes have never been higher.