A sideshow like no other at the Masters


PALM HARBOR, Fla. – The Masters is three weeks away, filled with story lines that now are sure to be ignored.

Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer will be paired together, if only to hit a ceremonial tee shot to start the tournament.

Angel Cabrera is the defending champion. Europe, with five players among the top 10 in the world, has vastly improved its chances of having a Masters champion for the first time since 1999.

Brothers will be competing for the first time in 10 years – Francesco and Edoardo Molinari of Italy.

Oh, and Tiger Woods is playing.

That announcement Tuesday was all it took for the Masters to become about one player. Minutes later, reporters flocked to the practice range at Innisbrook to find anyone willing to share any perspective about his return to competition.

The most awkward moment came when a reporter asked Rod Pampling, who frequently plays practice rounds with Woods at the majors, if he would seek him out at Augusta National.

“I’d love to,” Pampling said. “But I’m not in the tournament. Thanks for reminding me.”

It might seem that so much attention on one player would allow everyone else to be left alone to work on their games and get in the right frame of mind for a week that requires so much discipline.

One problem.

“It will have an affect on everyone because we’re going to have to talk about it a lot,” Jim Furyk said while surrounded by TV cameras. “I’m doing it right now. He’s going to be difficult to interview, so that leaves the rest of us answering a lot of questions.”

This is not the first time the Masters has been taken hostage by a single story on the road to Augusta National.

Seven year ago, rarely a week on the PGA Tour went by without someone asking about Martha Burk and her campaign against the club’s all-male membership. When the Masters rolled around, everyone was waiting to hear the press conference of club chairman Hootie Johnson, who started the whole thing with his “point of a bayonet” letter to Burk. He took nearly three dozen questions without saying much of anything.

The uproar even overshadowed Woods’ effort to become the first player to win three straight years. At one point, Woods said the best way to get into Augusta National was by parachute.

But this is different.

Once the 2003 Masters began – on a Friday because of rain – the focus returned to competition.

Woods figures to command attention as long as he’s on the golf course.

There was speculation that Augusta National did not want Woods to return at its hallowed tournament and create the biggest media spectacle in sports, although chairman Billy Payne appeared to welcome him in his statement.

“We support Tiger’s decision to return to competitive golf beginning at this year’s Masters Tournament,” he said.

The timing of Woods’ announcement could not have been better or worse. Whenever he announced his plans, it was sure to become the biggest story no matter what was going on (the Transitions Championship, by the way, starts Thursday).

That will be the case at Innisbrook and Bay Hill, and the Houston Open the week before the Masters. And don’t forget the Tavistock Cup, to be played next Monday at Isleworth, not far from where Woods ran over the fire hydrant and hit a tree in that middle-of-the-night accident that began this sordid tale.

At least in the Martha Burk year, players were talking about a lobbyist they didn’t know, and a subject out of their control.

Everyone knows Woods. Most are careful what they say.

In December, they were asked what they thought of his infidelity. The first two months of the new year brought old questions about how long they thought he would be on his indefinite break.

Then it was reaction to his first public comments since the accident – on the Friday of a tournament sponsored by Accenture, the first company to dump him. The last few weeks, the questions shifted to when he might return.

And when they get to Augusta?

“Try to avoid the big tree,” Justin Rose said, alluding to the live oak between the clubhouse and the first tee, where hundreds of media mingle trying to snag players walking to and from the golf course.

Adam Scott arrived at Innisbrook, went into the locker room and saw Woods on every television. He expects that to continue until the green jacket ceremony when the Masters is over.

“ESPN has been on him for an hour,” Scott said. “The Golf Channel is going to be on him for three weeks. That’s how it is with him, anyway, but even moreso when it’s different circumstances – whether it’s knee surgery, or what’s going on at the moment, or his alleged poor form going into the Masters. That’s his life.”

Now, it takes on a life of its own.

Burk’s campaign for the club to have a female member was relentless for nine months, and led the Masters to do away with television sponsors for two years to keep them out of the controversy.

One difference Furyk sees is that most players and golf executives are happy that Woods is playing again. Even so, he expects the players to be tested as never before, not so much by the challenge of Augusta National, but the endless questions.

“We’re going to have to be patient,” Furyk said. “There will be times when a guy double bogeys the last hole or has a bad round, and the first question is about Tiger. Guys are not going to want to answer that question. It’s what we’re going to be dealing with at least for the next month. Hopefully, it will pass.”