- Jason Sobel, Senior Golf Writer
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The most befuddling golf story of the 2009 season -- before Tiger Woods' off-course scandal, at least -- was the 14-time major champion's failure to increase that total in each of his four attempts.
It wasn't just that Woods didn't ultimately receive the hardware at these tournaments that was so puzzling. It was that he appeared primed and ready to capture all of them, having won in each of his final preparation starts before the majors, only to come up short in the ones that matter most.
If we learned anything from Woods' process of readying himself before these events, it's that no amount of advance success equates to subsequent victory. There is no foolproof plan, no singular strategy that suggests an advantage over another. In other words, every player in the field starts at zero, whether he won in his previous start, missed the cut by a mile or -- most importantly, considering the recent news -- hasn't competed all season.
This lesson should serve us well as we collectively critique and analyze Woods' decision to return to competitive golf at the upcoming Masters after a self-imposed 4½-month leave of absence.
The knee-jerk assessment is to believe that a player needs to work his way back into the game rather than taking a head-first plunge. The four-time green jacket winner has only plied his craft in private practice rounds and driving range sessions since November. His first shot in front of a wide-eyed, inquisitive and, yes, massive gallery will take place in the opening round at Augusta National Golf Club -- not exactly the time or place to be working out kinks in his swing.
Then again, Woods -- who hasn't missed a Masters since his first start in 1995 -- has always preferred to hone his game through practice rather than competition. Excluding the PGA Championship, which is currently preceded by a World Golf Championship event each year, he has never once teed it up during the week before a major since turning professional in 1996. Of those 48 instances, he has won on 13 occasions -- a rate of just over 27 percent.
While Tiger's philosophy seems to be the right one for him, it hardly stands as the lone school of thought on the subject.
Phil Mickelson, who has won three majors of his own since 2004, almost always opts to compete in the final tournament before a major. This year, in fact, he has chosen to play in each of the last two events before the Masters in an effort to get his game ready for Augusta.
"I am not scoring as well as I need to heading into Augusta, which is why I'm adding Bay Hill," Mickelson said after finishing in a share of 14th place at the WGC-CA Championship on Sunday. "I need to get in contention in one of these events coming up to really give myself the best chance heading into Augusta. So I'll end up adding Bay Hill and Houston and see if I can get a little bit better scoring down."
Meanwhile, three-time major champion Padraig Harrington insists he's still trying to figure out the right formula for preparation for these events.
"If I competed two weeks before a major, that would really take a lot out of you," the Irishman said recently. "So I need to play one week, because I haven't got the discipline if I was off; some players have great discipline on their weeks off, but I know I get very involved in my technique and my swing and things like that. So I need to play a tournament for that reason. But yeah, definitely, having two big weeks before a major would get me too tired. Mentally it would catch up, getting into contention."
Woods has never subscribed to either theory, never believed he could improve his chances at a major championship by playing one week earlier.
That especially holds true at the Masters, which unlike the other three majors, of course, is contested on familiar ground each year, making it a more reasonable site for Tiger's return than the others.
"This tournament, more so than any other, it's easier to prepare for," Woods said before last year's edition of the event. "Augusta National does just an amazing job of letting the pros get ready, and it's been certainly one of my favorite places to play."
Make no mistake: The No. 1 reason Woods is coming back for the year's first major is because he wants to claim his fifth green jacket, putting him just one shy of the all-time Masters record held by Jack Nicklaus.
Returning at Augusta does, however, come with a few advantages that might have assisted in his decision.
Unlike at other regular-season PGA Tour stops, tournament officials at the Masters have strict control over which media entities will receive credentials and which ones won't. Needless to say, those who haven't covered the event in past years likely will not be granted entrance this time around, either. That should limit the number of reporters covering Woods' every move, and should all but eliminate the presence of most tabloids.
And while galleries to witness Tiger's return might swell to unparalleled proportions at other tournaments, Augusta National doesn't oversell badges to its patrons, meaning there are only a finite number of observers who will be craning their necks from outside the ropes in an effort to catch a glimpse of Woods' first event this season.
During his career, Woods has seen every possible scenario between major preparations and the tournament itself. He has won in his last start before a major and followed with a win, won in his last start and followed with a loss, lost in his last start and followed with a win, and lost in his last start and followed with a loss.
Never before, though, has he failed to play a single tournament before a major championship. We could call his impending endeavor a great unknown, but really, isn't that true of all majors?
Only once since World War II has a player made his official season debut at the Masters and earned the title that week. Ben Hogan accomplished the feat in 1951, just over two years after a near-fatal car accident.
Woods might become the second man to achieve this, or his comeback attempt might fall decidedly short. Based on his usual strategy for preparing for majors, though, it would be wrong to either credit or blame his result on the decision to forgo all tournament appearances before the Masters.
Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.
Golf fans now know when Tiger Woods will make his return to the golf course. So why the Masters? And will that choice hurt his chances at a fifth green jacket? ESPN.com's Jason Sobel examines the decision.