After giving two truncated, almost surreal interviews to ESPN and the Golf Channel, Tiger Woods practiced at Augusta yesterday, and, according to a close friend who has no reason to say anything negative, nope, he is in "vintage form." Considering how rusty Woods must be — even when he has come back from injuries in the past, he has played in tournaments before his first major — that seems unlikely. It's a critical fortnight for Tiger, both on the course and off, but his problems and issues, as always, are everyone else's problems and issues. Even with sponsors sprinting away, the business of Tiger is still alive — gasping for air, sure, but not exactly terminal. Can that business survive? Is there steam left in the Tiger Woods Gravy Train? Here's a look at those people and entities with the most on the line over the next two-plus weeks.
The PGA. Much like Mike Burry, the "hero" of Michael Lewis's The Big Short, a few muted voices have whispered that the PGA Tour has spent the last decade benefiting from a Tiger Woods Bubble that it wasn't prepared to see pop. Those voices have been proven correct. (Unfortunately, unlike Burry, they weren't able to profit from it.) The PGA events this season have been quiet, mostly ignored affairs, newsworthy only when a golfer makes a comment about Tiger's impending return. A few tournaments still don't have sponsors; Torrey Pines, usually a highlight of the Tour, required a last-minute cut-rate deal with Farmers Insurance to avoid being called something like "Golf Open." So far, the PGA has been in too much shock to deal with some of the perennial problems that Tiger's success hid: decreased participation among youth, a financial crisis that has hit the tour's B-to-B sponsors disproportionately hard. They, as always, need Tiger to come bail them out. (Ratings are down more than 18 percent from last year at this time, though that will surely be temporarily fixed at The Masters.) But no one knows what's going to happen at Augusta. What if Tiger isn't a factor? (He missed the cut at a major just last July.) What if the experience is so unpleasant for him, on and off the greens, that he takes a few more months off? The PGA had no backup plan three years ago, and it has no backup plan now.
Augusta Security. The Masters has been the site of Tiger's greatest golf triumphs, but that's not the only reason he chose Augusta to make his return: It's also golf's panic room, a safe haven where the gnarly riff-raff is kept far away, the golf equivalent of the Vancouver Olympics shooing away the homeless. Media — carefully selected and weeded by the Masters overlords — are restricted more than at any other tournament, and the Champions Locker Room, where Woods will prepare, is off-limits to everyone. Every Tiger appearance will have the feel of a presidential motorcade: No one at TMZ or "Page Six" is likely to even sniff the air that he has walked through. That said, the Augusta security team is not exactly the Secret Service. Paparazzi are a resilient sort, and they'll use every trick imaginable to sneak in some Tiger access. If anyone gets close, there will be hell to pay.
The Golfing Press. Speaking of that media ... "serious" golf reporters will be allowed at Augusta National, and that's a group that has spent the last decade holding Tiger Woods's hand and occasionally handing him a tissue. Still: These are actual journalists, even if their salaries have essentially been paid by Tiger for years, and they've taken enough criticism for their past Woods Worship that they're beginning to draw a line in the sand. Golf reporters famously refused to show up at Woods's sexta culpa press conference, CBS refused the five-minute chit-chat Woods offered them, and everyone's more than geared up to take a shot at Ari Fleischer's newest client. (Fleischer's recent foray into advising fallen sports stars — Woods, Mark McGwire — has succeeded only in providing more negative publicity for his clients. It's no wonder Fleischer excused himself from Tiger's team.) In a few months, if all returns to the "normal" everyone desperately wishes for, Woods will receive the Just Golf questions. But for this particular weekend, golf scribes will be watched to see if they hit Tiger with the difficult ones. (Though most of these questions, judging by the lightning-round peppering given to Tiger by ESPN's Tom Ronaldi and the Golf Channel's Kelly Tilghman, essentially come down to, "So, just how sorry are you?") For once, it would be surprising not to see golf writers meet the challenge. For the first time since Tiger receded after his "damaging" interview with Charlie Pierce in Esquire, they'll have the opportunity. Unless, of course, the PGA takes the unprecedented step of denying a post-round press conference, which would cause its own uproar.
Jim Nantz. If the CBS broadcaster can sell his "pageantry of Augusta" and "tradition like no other" pablum with the same faux authority this time as he has for the last 23 years, he deserves every Sports Emmy they mold.
Nike. Almost every other sponsor — save EA Sports, which is reportedly considering suing South Park for its mockery of their Tiger Woods 2010 video game last week — has jumped ship on Tiger, but Nike has stayed loyally onboard (though he's decidedly less prominent on their Nike Golf site than he once was), and with good reason: Nike Golf barely existed before Tiger took it over, and now it's one of the company's most successful brands, despite past criticism about the clubs. Most analysts think the brand is surviving without him, but every day without a conquering Tiger is a scary one for Nike. Unlike Accenture, AT&T, and Gillette, Nike used Tiger to sell golf. They need him to play and thrive.
Other Golfers. No matter what they might personally think about Tiger's personal misgivings, the non-Tiger "field" has seen their earnings rise along with Tiger's ascendancy. He's long been as much golden calf as competitor. We suspect every single one of them wants to win the Masters and for Tiger to finish second. The downside to that is all the questions that come with it: Each of the 94 golfers playing this year's Masters will be asked about Tiger at least once, probably more. One of them is going to slip up and say something they shouldn't.
Jack Nicklaus. Less than a year ago, the golf legend had all but accepted that Tiger would break his record of eighteen majors championships. Tiger's still stuck at fourteen, but Jack's still convinced: "Tiger's personal life is none of my business. His goals have not changed and his goals are to win more majors than I did, and that's fine. His chances of doing that are quite good." Maybe. But Tiger will turn 35 this December: He's running out of time. Nicklaus, perhaps the best late-in-life golfer of all time, won only six of his eighteen after his 34th birthday and never faced anything close to what Tiger is going through. His off-fairway life has already slowed down the way he plays golf, the activity he was put on this Earth to do. If Woods shocks everyone at Augusta, he'll be well on his way to beating Nicklaus and proving himself the greatest golfer ever. But you can't help but wonder if Nicklaus, who has always revered his record, secretly wonders if he might have dodged a bullet.
Tiger Woods. This goes without saying, of course, but all eyes will be directly on Tiger every second he's on the course. Tiger is used to that, but not like this: Can his preternatural focus save him this time? He's in an impossible position because, with so many non-golf fans watching, the only way his redemption arc can fully begin is by winning the whole tournament. Problem is, it's hard to win a golf tournament, especially when you've spent more time in rehab than on the driving range. Plus, for all of Augusta's alleged decorum, someone's going to yell something untoward at him from the gallery. Can he snap at them, like he has done in the past? Or does he look contrite? And how easy can it be to focus when you're contrite? ("Contrition" and "athletic success" aren't exactly spiritual brothers.) If he doesn't win, if he ends up in the middle of the pack, can he move the narrative forward? Or is he stuck in the same cycle? So many conjunctions. So many questions. Tiger Woods can only win by winning. Even that might not be enough.