Commentary

The mystery of Tiger Woods' return

The longer he keeps us guessing, the likelier he'll come back to golf as a better man

Originally Published: February 16, 2010
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

The announcement could conceivably come this Friday. Or next Friday. Or maybe not at all.

Maybe Tiger Woods isn't coming back -- not this month, this spring, this year. And while that scenario might kneecap the PGA Tour, perhaps we're forgetting that a flawed man is trying to salvage his life, his reputation and possibly his marriage.

What's good for Woods isn't necessarily good for golf. The longer his silence lasts -- and it's been more than 60 days since he issued a statement on his Web site -- the more plausible it becomes that Woods is putting matrimony over majors, family over fairways.

As usual, Friday is the day that matters. That's the weekly drop-dead date for a player to enter the following week's tournament. And so far, Woods has taken a pass on the first eight tournaments of the 2010 season.

[+] EnlargeWoods
David Cannon/Getty ImagesIt isn't out of the ordinary that Tiger hasn't played this year -- at least up 'til now.

Nothing unusual there. He hasn't played at Kapalua since 2005 and at the Sony or Bob Hope Classic since never. He skipped Torrey Pines a year ago, hasn't teed it up at Riviera since 2006 or at Pebble Beach since 2002 (though he likely would have played Pebble as a pre-U.S. Open scouting mission).

But it is unusual for Woods to skip the Match Play, which begins Wednesday. And if he isn't there, you can forget about an appearance next week at a tournament whose name could be linked to Woods' predicament: the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

Anyway, Woods hasn't been at golf's largest beer garden since 2001. Can you imagine the raucous reception each time he emerged from the grandstand tunnel that spills out into the amphitheater seating of TPC Scottsdale's par-3, No. 16? He'd hear cheers. He'd also hear some nasty rip jobs from the booze-impaired.

The Honda Classic? Hasn't played in it since 1993.

Doral in the second week of March? Possible.

Forget the Transitions Championship the following week, but an appearance at The Tavistock Cup (a non-Tour event at his home course of Isleworth) on March 22-23 could happen. And I don't know what to think of Woods starting his season at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at the end of March. Arnie would have Woods' back, but like the Tavistock gig, does Tiger want to make his Tour debut in the same city where his personal nightmare began on Nov. 27?

After that, there's the Houston Open (zero Tiger visits), followed by the first major of the year, the Masters.

Woods' 2009 season didn't start until late February, so his absence this time of the year isn't unprecedented. But the circumstances are. A reconstructed knee dictated his schedule last season. A personal life in chaos dictates it this time.

Meanwhile, a growing conga line of players wonders out loud why Woods hasn't spoken publicly about his situation. Tom Watson, whom I admire and respect, went so far to say recently that Woods must "take ownership of what he's done. He must get his personal life in order."

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods & Arnold Palmer
AP Photo/Scott AudetteArnie had Tiger's back, literally, at the 2001 Arnold Palmer Invitational. He'd try to protect him this year if Tiger decides to play.

This from the same Watson who fiercely protects his own privacy, who has dealt with the heartache of divorce, and who successfully battled alcohol-related demons. Watson, more than anyone, should know that taking ownership of your personal life is exactly that -- personal. Come to think of it, I don't recall him issuing any weekly updates during his marital difficulties.

Whenever Woods decides to talk is OK with me. And if he decides to keep quiet, I'll live. That's because there's a huge difference between what Woods did and what, say, Mark McGwire did.

McGwire owed us an explanation, however convoluted, because he cheated his profession, his game, his peers and anyone paying to watch him hit home runs in the summer of 1998. Woods cheated on his wife, not on you or me, or his scorecard, or his fellow players.

In a strange way, the fact that we haven't heard from Woods since his Dec. 11, 2009, online apology is encouraging. It could mean he is applying the same focus to his family -- taking ownership, right, Tom? -- that he has to his golf swing or to his surgically reconstructed knee. If so, that's a good thing.

Of course, Woods' self-imposed golf banishment couldn't come at a worse time for the PGA Tour. The economy is in the dumper, which is why the Tour did a red-tag discount for a corporate sponsor of the San Diego tournament stop.

No Woods means no boffo TV ratings. And no boffo TV ratings means lower rights-broadcast fees for its product. Nothing personal, but America doesn't tune in to watch Steve Stricker.

When Woods first announced his "indefinite break from professional golf," I was sure he'd return shortly before the Masters, a tournament he has won four times. And if not Augusta, then he'd definitely be back before the U.S. Open in June, which is being played at the same Pebble Beach course where Woods won by a mind-boggling 15 strokes in 2000. And if not Pebble, then he'd absolutely come back for the Open Championship at St. Andrews. The Old Course is where he won in 2000 and 2005.

Now, who knows? The uncertainty annoys some of his peers and concerns some of his friends. They question his stubbornness and his advisors; but most of all, they question his silence.

Silence shouldn't automatically be considered a negative. All that really matters is that Woods comes back a better man, a better husband and a better father.

A better golfer? No rush job required.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

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