Expect business as usual for Tiger's return

March, 17, 2010

I cannot tell a lie. There are plenty of times when being a golf writer is a pretty sweet gig.

For example, my favorite workday of the year: Sunday at Augusta National Golf Club -- just not the Sunday you're likely thinking about. Sure, the final round of the Masters Tournament is always entertaining, and watching the newest winner slide his arms into a green jacket is cool, but I'm talking about the Sunday before the tournament begins.

It is on this day that you will find the venue in its most natural and relaxed setting all week, as competitors mingle with members -- the former teeing it up in preparation for the event, the latter getting in one final round before stepping aside. No patrons are allowed through the front gates yet, and only a limited number of media usually attend, offering a unique, behind-the-scenes feel of the game's best players at the world's most famous club.

During the past few years, I've witnessed everyone from Gary Player to Phil Mickelson begin practice rounds on the first tee with nary another observer nearby. And yes, the same goes for Tiger Woods. Two years ago, in fact, I counted exactly 14 people in attendance -- playing partners and caddies included -- as he drove his opening tee shot into the right fairway bunker.

"Every year," he muttered to himself in mild frustration.

Needless to say, that bunker may be the least of Woods' worries when he returns from a 4½-month leave of absence after a personal scandal that received worldwide attention.

If Woods chooses to embark on this advanced scouting mission the Sunday before the tournament begins, it will mark his final hours of seclusion on the golf course before one of the most anticipated comebacks of all time.

Questions abound in regard to Tiger's return to golf at Augusta. Will he hold a pretournament news conference? Will he act differently on the course? Will his game be ready? Will he contend? Will he win?

All are legitimate queries that require more than a little guesswork on the part of the respondent. There is one, however, to which we can apply some common knowledge and previous observations: How will those in attendance act toward Woods?

Certainly it would be speculative to suggest that all patrons, as they're referred to at Augusta National, will be completely respectful of his performance. But you'd better believe that any answer to this question would conclude with a sincere yet intimidating "… or else."

I inquired with a spokesman for the club about any impending increased security plans and was told Wednesday morning that details are not yet available. As always, though, protecting the entire field is of the utmost concern, and officials "intend to conduct this tournament with the same civility" as in previous editions.

There's no reason to believe that anything less than a zero-tolerance policy will exist at Augusta during the week of the Masters. I have to imagine that anyone feeling the need to loudly voice displeasure with Woods' personal issues -- especially during his backswing -- will be escorted off the property without warning.

At a regular-season PGA Tour event, well, some fans might not mind paying the penalty to garner some headlines for such an outburst. At the Masters, though, each badge comes affixed with a number, and officials can track which patrons will lose their invitation for coming years. With a massive waiting list, these folks can easily be replaced outside the ropes for future editions of the tournament.

Although the words "circus" and "zoo" have been attached to the atmosphere that awaits Tiger, don't expect a football game type of crowd to break out at Augusta National. The other word we've heard lately -- in regard to both Woods and the tournament -- is "control." Neither will allow his return to get out of control in any possible way.

As for me, I can't wait to set foot on the grounds once again on the Sunday before the tourney begins. Yes, it will be the proverbial calm before the storm, but I expect a certain buzz to emanate from within the confines of the famed pines and azaleas.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.

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ESPN Senior Writer




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