Tiger to return?

So Augusta is harder than ever before and better for it. The problem comes when the weather turns a bleak face on the picture, the feel goes out of the players’ games, so they turn nervous and defensive, and the chilled spectators withdraw within themselves.

The opportunity remains, however, for a stellar back nine to produce Sunday play unlike any other Major venue. As always, it’s up to the ambition of the competitors to embrace this thought and to go for glory, rather than a big cheque. It remains the most enticing strokeplay prospect of the year.

Last year’s play-off trio of Angel Cabrera, Kenny Perry and Chad Campbell may have been about as likely a final group as Mickey, Donald and Pluto up on a break from neighbouring Florida, but even their combined tonnage failed to dilute interest in what they had to do to make it into the last act of what was a compelling drama from start to last. For the first time in a while, the old spectator explosions of yelps and yells were back and hanging noisily in the once-more sultry air. It was good to hear, and let us hope for more of the same this year.

Of course, whether Tiger Woods emerges with them is – at the time this is being written anyway – unknown. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that he will be there. If he is, then obviously he has to remain one of the favourites to win it. Not, mind you, the overwhelming favourite, no matter what the bookmakers may claim.

The fact is that Tiger has not played particularly terrific golf at Augusta for a few years now. At least not by his standards. He last won in 2005. Since then he has finished third, second, second and sixth. In 13 Masters as a professional, Woods has won four and only finished outside the top ten on three occasions. While there can be no doubt that he is a contender every time he plays, Augusta National is not yet lying down and allowing him to trample all over these cosseted acres. Oddly, to this eye anyway, it has been his putting that has let him down at crucial moments.

How will the media and public treat him if he does appear, following several months of unmitigated scandal and a retreat from view? I suspect the reaction will be subdued. Woods’ own reaction to an extraordinary and hurtful public examination of his private life has been, with hindsight, entirely predictable. He’s always tried to maintain anonymity away from the big stages, and to give away as little as possible to either a reporter or a fan. Depending on your view, his televised mia culpa speech was either an orchestrated, corporate cringe, or a rare show of attentive sincerity.

I will be surprised if he is not now even more wary and distant than he was before, although there should be fewer tantrums. Personally, 
I enjoy watching him play brilliant golf, but he’s not the first sports star that I have admired for their athletic ability, but thought little else of when it comes to the more significant bits of life.

Tiger is now damaged goods, and although 
I still expect him to break through that 18-Major barrier, he will never be quite the iconic and popular figure when he heads into middle age that he should have been. This, on top of whatever happens between him and his family, is the other big price his behaviour has cost him.

His bad luck is that he lives in an age when scrutiny is instant and global. Others in the past have got away with stuff because, frankly, no one cared much. But nowadays, celebrity is not only feted, it is dissected. Others will judge him morally, but for me he is guilty of the one charge I never thought I would lay against him… stupidity.