When Tiger Woods is likely to return

Thursday, March 11, 2010 - 5:12pm

On Wednesday, Howard Stern conducted the “Tiger Woods Mistress Beauty Pageant” on his radio show (won by cocktail waitress Jamie Jungers). With one competitive rite of spring out of the way, we can now turn our attention to the next.

How soon will we know if Tiger is going to play in the Masters this April? And will he make Augusta National the site of his comeback or will he first return for a tune-up and circus act at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in late March, as the New York Post is reporting?

The answer should come by 5 p.m. ET next Friday, the entry deadline for the Palmer invite.

Woods announced an indefinite leave from the PGA Tour in December after revelations he had more than a dozen girlfriends, news that was disconcerting to his wife, Elin. Since then Woods has done two stints in rehabilitation clinics, says he returned to religion and apparently has not had a single omelet at Perkins.

The only comments on his golfing future came during his February televised address.

“I do plan to return to golf one day,” Woods said. “I just don’t know when that day will be. I don’t rule out that it will be this year.”

Don’t rule out that the news will come in the next week.

At this point, almost no one thinks Woods will miss the Masters. His pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 major championships has been the most important thing in his life. For Woods to skip a chance to add to his current 14 championships would be completely out of character.

Every smoke signal from the still heavily scripted, public relations-driven Team Tiger says he intends to come back soon. There have been news leaks of practice rounds and stories of the work done with his swing coach. Even Tiger’s caddy did a television interview, no doubt preapproved.

When Woods rushed to give his apology speech, his handlers explained he had to return to rehab and it couldn’t wait. It turned out his second stint was just a week, so that wasn’t really true.

The timing though was designed to create as much space between his mea culpa and his return, allowing the public time to get over the initial reaction and begin longing for him to just get back to hitting golf balls. Tiger is surrounded by the exact same marketers who sold him as a family man; don’t think for a second they stopped doing their job because the message changed.

Woods, seeking additional spin, has hired former Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, the New York Post reported Thursday. Fleischer’s other sports clients include the unpopular Bud Selig and the Bowl Championship Series. He recently assisted disgraced slugger Mark McGwire, whose “steroid admission” turned out to fall short of the actual truth.

This is the desperate state of Tiger’s once pristine public image. Only winning golf tournaments can help and if he’s coming back, as he should, why not in time for the April 8 start to his favorite event, the Masters?

This isn’t as simple as returning from a knee injury though. That would just be Tiger trying to get his game back.

Woods is a traveling freak show now. No one knows what the media will be like (or if Woods will speak to them). No one knows how the crowd will react.

No one knows what kind of sideshows will develop; if planes will fly overhead tugging crazy signs or if ex-girlfriends will show up on the first tee. At this point, after Stern discussed Tiger’s endowment with Jungers and the girls, is anything out of the realm of possibility?

The Palmer Invitational has numerous advantages. Palmer, the golfing legend, can provide some measure of cover and moral support through the media. It’s held at Bay Hill in Orlando, allowing Woods to commute from home where he enjoys security and privacy not available on the road. The made-for-TV Tavistock Cup, a private two-day event, is played Monday and Tuesday of the week at Woods’ own neighborhood course, Isleworth, to help ease into competitive play.

Tiger loves the course. He’s won the event six times, including the past two years. The last thing he wants to do is return and struggle – a distinct possibility considering his game must have some rust.

All of the above is why the April 1-4 Houston Open, which Woods has never played in, is an unlikely spot for his return. An unfamiliar town, course and schedule would be unappealing.

He needs as much control as possible since there is no way to predict how he’ll handle what may be the most pressurized and scrutinized rounds of his career.

Of course, the ultimate control would come at Augusta National. The Masters greatly limits both the number and type of media allowed to attend. The players dressing room is off limits. The club, which Woods is a member due to his four green jackets, can protect him in ways no one else can.

Then there’s the crowd. The Masters hands out weekly badges which are renewed each year and are such prized items they get passed down through families. Such fans are unlikely to heckle Woods in the first place, but since each badge is traceable, doing so could cause them to be revoked forever.

On the secondary ticket market, the Masters lives in its own world. A badge for the first round to the Palmer Invitational could be had for $59 on StubHub on Thursday morning. For the Masters they were going for $555, and that’s without the guarantee of Tiger. Different prices, different clientele.

As a result the galleries are calm and even genteel. There are no signs allowed. Cell phones are confiscated at the gate. It’s like stepping back in time. A shock jock isn’t going to get in with a pack of strippers.

Other than having to travel to the event, the Masters should be the ideal place for Woods to return and deal with what should be the uncomfortable first days of his comeback.

Augusta isn’t for survival though. It isn’t for just getting through it or working out the kinks or preparing for the next event.

The Masters is about winning. It’s about one more opportunity to catch Nicklaus for a now 34-year-old on a rebuilt knee entering a period of unknown mental and emotional pressure. Even Tiger must realize that his chance of winning his 15th major is greatly reduced without a warm-up tournament. If he makes his return in Augusta, he’s all but writing off the event.

So it says here if Tiger is going to play the Masters, he’s going to play the Palmer Invitational.

With everything Tiger related these days, that’s a guess though. Next Friday’s deadline should provide an answer.