The line will be delivered in the dulcet tones of a southern aristocrat and announce an end to the beginning, “Fore please, Tiger Woods now driving.”
It is the quintessential Masters sendoff and will break a competitive silence that has left the once foregone conclusion of Jack Nicklaus’ Grand Slam take in question and the game preoccupied for all the wrong reasons.
Before then, there is a lot of ground to cover, and, as has been the central theme throughout this sordid saga, there are more questions than answers. Among them, how will the galleries, fellow players and media react to Woods’ return? Given his five-month, self-imposed competitive hiatus, what will be the state of his game? Has the air of invincibility that at one time seemed worth a shot a side been diminished?
There are a few certainties, however. Among the things we won’t see or hear at Augusta National:
-Tiger Woods paired with, well . . . anybody in the annual Par 3 Contest. This may be a new, improved Tiger, but that exhibition does little for a man who keeps time with major championships.
-A stay in the Crow’s Nest. The dorm atop the stately clubhouse would be as good a place as any to avoid the inevitable scrutiny, but the room, which sleeps five, may be a little sparse for the multi-millionaire.
-“Next question.” Either from Woods or whichever member runs his press conference. Expect him to talk, but those waiting for full disclosure should get used to disappointment. It’s simply not in his DNA.
-A line of potential playing partners for Rounds 1 and 2. Of course, there is no shortage of players who will do it, but not many who really want to. Golf Channel colleague Charlie Rymer suggested officials pair two former champions, say, long-time friend Mark O’Meara and Fred Couples, with Woods because whoever is on the first tee with him is every bit the ceremonial golfer that Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus will be.
-Extra Pinkertons for autograph sessions. Although it was out of character to the extreme to announce three weeks before the tournament that he will play the Masters, don’t expect a complete makeover. He could likely do more good with a Sharpie in his hand than a putter, but don’t count on it.
-Elin Woods sighting. The best news that came from Tuesday’s announcement is an indication that things on the home front have stabilized, but that doesn’t mean Elin will be front and center at Augusta National. If last month’s press event at TPC Sawgrass was any indication, the missus plans to stay out of the spotlight.
-Extra media credentials. Media gate passes for the year’s first major arrived via e-mail more than a week ago which means that shop is closed. Anything short of a resurrection of O.B. Keeler, the longtime former Atlanta sports writer and Bobby Jones confident, will be greeted with a polite, but firm, no.
-Second or third strikes. There are no mulligans on the first tee at Augusta National, nor will there be any for the galleries. Tolerance of inappropriate behavior is low during the best of years, but next month things will be Draconian by comparison.
-Q&As during the Champions Dinner. Forget who gets paired with Woods for the first two rounds, the guys that get seated next to him during the traditional feast are in for a long night. “So, Tiger. How ya been?”
There is also the question of what’s next? On Tuesday PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said he expects Woods to play a normal schedule the rest of the way, which would suggest his next start would be the Quail Hollow Championship in May.
We were talking with Quail Hollow tournament director Kym Houghman during last week’s WGC-CA Championship when Woods’ manager Mark Steinberg walked up and asked for a moment in private with Houghman. A circumstantial encounter to be sure, but interesting nonetheless.
Following Quail Hollow is the Players Championship, Memorial and U.S. Open, all events Woods would likely play under normal circumstances and events that would struggle to maintain the level of control the world No. 1 will enjoy at Augusta National.
All of which means Augusta National will only be a temporary reprieve for Woods. A place where only the golf will likely matter, where the words, “Fore please, Tiger Woods now driving” will not be met with a smattering of snickers. A place where he can finally return to what he does best.