Tiger steps out of the long grass
ONE speciality bet stood out from many others in the run-up to this week's US Masters as a leading British bookmaking firm offered odds against Tiger Woods hitting a tree 'out of the gate' at Augusta National.
Nobody in their right mind would wager the house on the prospect of Tiger's opening tee shot next Thursday striking timber-- but as souvenir of the maddest menagerie in golfing history? Priceless!
All joking apart, there's a very strong sense of the Shakespearean tragedy about this epic as Woods and his family grapple with the nightmarish consequences of his serial philandering.
Was it arrogance or stupidity that persuaded one of the world's most famous men to play Russian roulette with his own health and, shamefully, that of his wife Elin and expect to get away with it?
Or is one multiple Major champion correct when he muses that somewhere deep inside, Tiger wanted to be caught -- that assembling a chorus-line of brassy, buxom blondes to high-kick their way through his marriage had been a cry for help? Was it an attempt to break out of the rigid, suffocating strait-jacket of a life in which he carried golf on his shoulders like some latter-day Atlas and each victory added a little more weight to the achievement of the next?
Or maybe, as Woods himself suggested, he did it simply because he could and they would. Enabled by his fabulous wealth and coaxed by a coterie of sycophants into the belief that he was beyond the reach of normal social mores, he surrendered to base instincts.
Having sought treatment for his 'addiction' and atonement from his family, Woods this week goes to the US Masters in hope of winning by far the biggest prize of his career and ripping himself free of the opprobrium in which he's been held since November.
He'll be welcomed back in the locker-room, not necessarily because there's any great sense of camaraderie on the PGA Tour, but because of Tiger's role in making Tour golfers rich beyond the wildest dreams of their predecessors.
However, will the patrons of Augusta give him a second chance and provide the welcoming stage and support their fallen idol needs to pull off an outlandish 15th Major title and, at one stroke, boost the stock of Tiger Woods Inc to unprecedented levels?
Heck, conspiracy theorists are sitting on the grassy knoll right now wondering if it all hasn't been some fiendish plot by Tiger's management team at IMG to add a little more spice to a pot which had gone from sweet and sour to bitter and, whisper it, boring?
So what chance does Tiger have of winning this week? If it was Hollywood, he'd be a shoo-in. Instead it's Augusta, a course as pretty as any of his mistresses but capable of being infinitely vicious and demanding.
If we take Woods at his word and accept he "wasn't ready" to play in a friendly private match, the Tavistock Cup, a fortnight back, it's lunacy to expect that after a five-month hiatus from golf, he'll roll up Magnolia Lane and collect a fifth Green Jacket like a man picking up his laundry.
Some say Tiger's good at winning on comebacks, citing his victories following knee surgery at the 2002 and 2006 Buick Invitational. Yet he didn't do it when it really, really counted at the 2006 US Open in Winged Foot, a mere nine weeks after he'd struck his last golf ball in anger at that year's Masters.
Woods took a break from golf on that occasion to bury his father Earl. As he returned to the professional fold in Winged Foot, he was said to be striking the ball beautifully in practice -- yet days later, after missing the cut at a Major for the first time as a professional, he confessed "I was rusty -- there's no doubt about that."
The bookies may rate him as favourite for the Masters but victory for Tiger this week at Augusta would be making the cut. When Tiger crashed his Cadillac Escalade into that tree outside his Isleworth home last November, he also ran slap into one of life's tough realities.
It took years of hard graft, ingenious golf and mind-boggling dedication for Tiger to establish himself as the greatest golfer of his generation and the world's best-respected sportsman -- and just minutes to become a punchline. It's staggering how fast and how far Woods' reputation has fallen.
Judging by his recent TV appearances, the exhaustive efforts Tiger has made in recent months to recover his self-esteem and regain the trust of his family have not been in vain. Yet if the man, Eldrick Woods, succeeds in finding peace and humility, will the combative Tiger of old survive?
Did the old arrogance, certainty and an unmistakable sense of sporting entitlement still lie behind those weary eyes -- or has his spirit been broken?
How jarring it was recently to hear Tiger's speak in trepidation of the reception he might receive from the patrons at Augusta, admitting he was nervous about his comeback and timidly suggesting "a little applause would be nice".
The old Tiger knew of only one way to stir the masses and never grovelled for approval. Woods certainly can expect a grilling this afternoon in the media centre at Augusta National when he faces 120 representatives of the accredited golf media in a pre-Masters interview and will have to answer questions which have festered for nearly five months.
The one I'd like to ask is how Tiger ended up receiving a series of perfectly legal treatments last year to boost the recovery of his problematic left knee from a Canadian medic, Dr Anthony Galea, who is not licensed to practise in Florida and has since been charged in Toronto with conspiring to smuggle Human Growth Hormone and another banned substance across the US border?
Today's press conference is probably the least controlled environment Woods is likely to encounter this week.
One has to attend the Masters to understand how completely the golf club controls every facet of their tournament. The mission of the members is to enshrine the memory of their legendary late founder, Bobby Jones, and to preserve the unique atmosphere of the tournament he began in the mid-1930s.
For example, the elite players who qualify for and therefore are entitled to compete in the year's three other Major Championships, are 'invitees' to the Masters, while spectators at the event are 'patrons', not fans or anything else.
Everyone who attends the Masters is subject to an exhaustive set of rules which succeed in giving this event its unique atmosphere.
For example, running is banned. So too are periscopes, while anyone found with a mobile phone will be ejected and they or the person who supplied them with a ticket or, in the case of the media, sought their accreditation will be forever barred from the Masters.
Of course, cheering is allowed -- for example, the famous Sunday afternoon roars returned after several years absence to the Masters during last April's event. Yet in black and white, the regulations urge patrons never to applaud a player's misfortune and to refrain from comment or behaviour contrary to the etiquette of golf.
Since Masters tickets are harder to score than a hole-in-one and the privilege of attending is one which people guard for life, patrons are unlikely to risk hurling an obscenity at Tiger.
Even on practice days, when tickets are a little more freely available from a club ballot and thousands pack the grounds, the vast majority are passionate golfers who travel hundreds, even thousands of miles to worship at Augusta. No question, Tiger's behaviour shattered any illusions the faithful had about him and broke the heart of many within the sport who used to proudly offer him as an example of all that's good, clean and wholesome in golf.
Yet no matter how many people Tiger alienated with his behaviour or how badly they might feel, Woods knows the very worst he's likely to hear as he walks the fairways of Augusta National this week is silence.
And in the unlikely event that 'patrons' initially avert their gaze as Woods passes, all he need do is toss them the occasional birdie to win back their applause.
Beyond the gates of Augusta National, who knows what might happen? Washington Road, with its burger joints and strip malls, could be bedlam.
Yet given the history of support the Masters enjoys from local and state law enforcement, expect any unwelcome, intrusive or unsavoury element to be kept at arm's length from the event.
And the arm of the law is very long in Augusta when it comes to the Masters, as women's activist Martha Burk discovered when she tried to organise a demonstration outside the property during the 2003 tournament.
So Augusta National, as ever, will be locked down like a fortress on the outside, while it's business as usual with the Masters on the inside.
As Padraig Harrington pointed out, the pomp and ego of old might return in quick time should Woods hear a roar from the crowd or get the faintest whiff of stardom in his nostrils once again.
After all, he is a performer and golf is his stage. Yet for Tiger to be installed as favourite is homage only to former glories and the many painful poundings he has given bookmakers in the past.
As a spokesman for William Hill admitted: "We don't want to attract too much money on him because the first rule of bookmaking is 'never take on Tiger'."
Yet Ernie Els, Harrington and Phil Mickelson won't be so craven, while Augusta National herself could swallow Woods whole.