ORLANDO | Some believe we’ll see a kinder, gentler Tiger Woods, more fan-friendly, less profane, perhaps a tad more humble and less controlling than the pre-bimbo eruption model of years past when he returns to Augusta National next week to play The Masters, his first tournament since mid-November.
And yet, The Entitled One’s clearly calculated decision to hold his pre-Masters news conference next Monday afternoon – the first time he’ll face a full complement of media inquisitors since the still murky events of Nov. 27 – offers yet another suggestion that not much will change with Woods, at least not on the Control Freak front.
Conventional wisdom has it that Woods decided to hold this highly anticipated session Monday in order to get it out of the way and allow him to focus on his preparations over the next two days. Maybe so. But another source familiar with the ways of the Woods camp also pointed out that his handlers surely had other motives in mind by scheduling it a day before his traditional Tuesday media session at virtually every event he’s ever played over the past 14 years.
For one, the American sports media and public mostly will be focused hundreds of miles away on Monday, specifically toward Indianapolis, site of the NCAA basketball title game that evening. Many of the country’s leading sports columnists and reporters will be questioning basketball players that evening, not Tiger Woods that afternoon. They’ll all write hoops, not golf, for Tuesday editions.
Better yet, banner headline coverage around the country surely will focus on basketball. And in many cities, it’s also opening day for Major League Baseball, another big Tuesday headline that might even push the Woods news conference down to the bottom of front pages coast to coast, perhaps even buried inside. If Woods continues to evade pertinent questions in Augusta, who will notice?
Perhaps we’re reading too much into all of this, but Woods has dictated the ground rules virtually every step of the way since Day 1, from declining to talk to the Florida Highway Patrol, to his three-month silence, to his staged public apology (no media questions allowed) in Jacksonville, to his rushed five-minute interviews with ESPN and Golf Channel eight days ago. So why stop now?
Monday at Augusta, Woods will still face a packed room of reporters, present company included. Few would be surprised if the Augusta National member moderating the interview that day starts off by saying “Mr. Woods will entertain golf questions only.” Big mistake, if only because I’d like to think most of us would not acquiesce to such a gutless request, and simply ask anything we like.
Woods also can respond any way he chooses, as he did in the most recent mini-interviews. It’s all in the police report (even if it’s really not), he said when asked about the accident. That’s between me and my wife, also was a frequently invoked talking point. Surely there will be more of the same next Monday, but Woods would be wise to pose no restrictions whatsoever. He might be wiser still to follow the sage advice of Arnold Palmer.
“I suppose the best thing he could do would be open up and just let you guys shoot at him,” Palmer said here this week. “What would be the best thing? Someone said move on. Well, that may be the best way to move on.”
Certainly his fellow players are more than ready for that, but they’re also realistic about the situation they’ll confront when they drive up Magnolia Lane.
“I think it’s obviously going to be the biggest thing in sport that week,” said Ernie Els, who truly deserves to be a very big thing himself at Augusta National after winning at Doral and taking a two-shot lead with four holes to play in the rain-delayed Arnold Palmer Invitational to be resumed here at Bay Hill today.
“People are not going to be talking about losing form until probably Thursday morning when we start the event,” said Els, clearly in fine form himself heading into The Masters. “It’s going to be all about Tiger and him coming back and everything. I think we will all be sideshows until Thursday morning, and I think we’re fine with that. Everybody’s fine with that.”
Still, Woods is likely to remain the main focus the rest of the week, whether he plays like a guy who hasn’t been in the crucible of competition for months, or somehow manages to perform like the No. 1 player in the world. Many players firmly believe the latter is far more likely than the former.
“Trust me, the guy is working, the guy is practicing, the guy will be ready to play,” Camilo Villegas said this week. “He’s a smart guy. He’ll do everything he can to come back and win a golf tournament.”
“Do I think Tiger Woods can be a competitive factor at The Masters? I can’t believe you’re even asking that question,” Stewart Cink said at Bay Hill. “We’re talking about Tiger Woods, the best player that’s ever played golf. I’ve never seen anybody that plays golf like Tiger Woods does. So the answer to that question is yes, I believe he can be a factor.”
And finally, a final few words from Colin Montgomerie.
“I know him well enough. He wouldn’t be playing in The Masters if he didn’t think he could win,” he said. “He’ll get over those nerves and he will be as determined as anyone who has ever been on a golf course to prove that he’s still the No. 1 player in the world, and, in my opinion, the best player ever to play the game.”
And the most controlling, as well.