Published March 31, 2010
That Tiger Woods chose Augusta National to stage his return to golf is in itself an admission that, for the first time in his career, winning the Masters isn't his priority.
At least that's the conventional wisdom.
If he really wanted a fifth green jacket, the smart money says, he would've played a warm-up tournament and worked on his chops. Slapping it around at home with your buddies isn't any way to prepare for a major.
Most of the savants believe Woods chose the Masters because it's the safest place for him to embark on what will be a difficult comeback.
The media won't roll over at his Monday press conference but neither is he likely to be savaged with embarrassing questions about sexting porn queens.
And it's worth noting that this is the only tournament where writers and photographers aren't allowed inside the ropes, offering Woods more breathing room than he would've gotten anywhere else.
He knows, too, these aren't the type of patrons who get thrown out of pubs. Augusta may be the South, but the fans at the Masters aren't rednecks: they're genteel folks who sip lemonade on porches, far too well-mannered to make a guest feel unwelcome.
But one little throwaway line Woods uttered during those mini-appetizers that passed for interviews with ESPN and the Golf Channel last week stuck with me.
"I'm a little nervous about that to be honest with you," he said when asked about the reception he expected.
"It would be nice to hear a couple claps here and there. But I also hope they clap for birdies, too."
Birdies? Woods thinks he's going to Augusta to make birdies?
Maybe it was just his way of saying he wants the conversation brought back to golf. But what if he meant something else?
What if we're still chewing the fat over the Shakespearean twists and turns his life's taken since Thanksgiving, but he's not?
What if Woods has put the whole sorry saga behind him and is back to focusing on golf?
Could he actually win the Masters?
It's preposterous to think so but I've learned never to count the guy out; for all the obvious reasons -- he's only finished outside the top eight three times in 13 visits as a pro -- but principally because he's the only player in the field who doesn't have to play out of his skin to win.
That might seem like hyperbole but two enterprising academics have scientific proof.
Finance professors Richard Rendleman of Dartmouth and Robert Connolly of University of North Carolina analyzed data from 83,823 rounds played on the Tour between 2004 and 2008 and, after factoring in variables like course conditions and difficulty, concluded that Woods would've won 13 times by just playing his "average" game.
He actually won 24 times in that span -- and the first two of those years were lean as he was learning Hank Haney's swing -- so you could say that about half the time he doesn't do anything special and still wins.
And here's the kicker: No other player would've won even once in that span by playing his "average" game.
But the issue for Woods is that for all but one of the last eight years he hasn't been able to show up at the Masters with even his C game.
His lone victory in that span, in 2005, when he beat Chris DiMarco in a playoff, wasn't convincing, either. Woods got lucky after making bogeys on the last two holes.
His problems have been two-fold. First, he's never gotten off to a good start. Haney's been trying to get him to treat Thursdays like he treats Sundays but Woods has been slow on the uptake.
The other issue is that Woods' final rounds since that fourth green jacket have been marked by misadventure and exasperation, especially on the greens.
In 2006, he lost by three shots to Phil Mickelson when, in perfect scoring conditions, he could only muster a Sunday round of 70. Seven players shot in the 60s that day, including Mickelson.
The following year he lost by two to Zach Johnson after turning in an even-par round of 72 against Johnson's 69. Looking back, that was a watershed moment. It's easily forgotten but he held, albeit briefly, the final-round lead on the back nine. But for the first time in his career he wasn't able to close the deal.
In 2008, he finished three shots behind Trevor Immelman after another final round 72 and last year he left steaming about his "band aid swing" after bogeys on 17 and 18 had left him tied for sixth.
There are all kinds of theories about why Augusta isn't the Tiger's den it looked like it was when he won his third Masters in six years in 2002. Many say the course is longer and that it doesn't suit him (as if length is a problem for Tiger Woods) but what I see is how much he's changed.
Maybe because he got used to rivals imploding on Sundays against him, but I've noticed in recent years that he's playing not to lose rather than to win.
I wonder whether his deconstruction will change the way he views golf? Maybe he'll go back to the player who stepped on throats and won tournaments in a canter.
Certainly, he no longer needs to walk around wondering if some Vegas bimbo is about to spill the beans. That peace of mind has to be worth something.
Wouldn't it be ironic if after the fall Woods returns to the place where it all began 13 years ago and a star is reborn?