Commentary

Pros certainly not writing off Tiger

Originally Published: April 4, 2010
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

Tiger Woods will return to competitive golf after a 144-day leave of absence at the Masters Tournament, which is like …

… a plumber returning from a 144-day absence to fix Kirstie Alley's clogged toilet …

… a financial advisor returning from a 144-day absence to square away the Madoff account …

… a marriage counselor returning from a 144-day absence to guide Sandra Bullock …

You get the picture.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Roberto Schmidt/Getty ImagesThe last time Tiger Woods slipped on the famed green jacket after a Masters victory came in 2005.

Coming back to competitive golf was never going to be an easy assignment for Woods, but coming back at Augusta National sounds like some kind of self-prescribed professional death sentence. Sure, the media scrutiny will be softened and the fans -- sorry, patrons -- will be more respectful of his efforts, but that first tee shot Thursday will be his first that matters since he won the JBWere Masters in Australia on Nov. 15.

I asked several players in the Masters field whether they could take 144 days away from playing tournaments and expect to contend at the Masters.

Heath Slocum: "Me? No chance. I have to work my way back into competition mode."

Camilo Villegas: "It would be a tough one."

Charl Schwartzel: "It would be difficult. Not a lot of people can do that. I'm one of the guys who needs to play a bit more."

Jerry Kelly: "No, but I haven't won it four times."

I then asked those same players whether Woods -- who has won it four times -- could pull off the feat.

Slocum: "I think if anyone can do it, Tiger proved after his knee surgery that he can jump right back into the fire pretty easily."

Villegas: "He's a smart guy; he's a great player; he's the No. 1 in the world; he's been for a long time. He'll be ready to play."

Schwartzel: "Four-and-a-half months off is a long time, but I don't think he's been sitting on his ass. He's definitely practicing and playing. He's not the No. 1 for nothing."

Kelly: "You know, he has those shots; he's pulled them off. There isn't anything physically -- it's just all in the mind. If he's as strong as he always is, he'll be fine."

It says something very telling about either Tiger or his competition -- maybe a little of both -- that oddsmakers have listed him as a prohibitive favorite to earn the green jacket once again, despite the fact that he has yet to hit a single shot that matters this season.

"Do I think Tiger Woods can be a competitive factor at the Masters? I can't believe you're even asking that question," Stewart Cink said. "We're talking about Tiger Woods, the best player that's ever played golf. I've seen the players who are usually in that conversation. I've never seen anybody that plays golf like Tiger Woods does. So the answer to that question is yes, I believe he can be a factor."

Even when Woods' life isn't shrouded in scandal, though, he's hardly a lock to triumph among the azaleas. He's competed in 13 editions of the Masters since turning professional and won four times -- a stellar record, but hardly the slam-dunk, no-doubt-about-it choice that many make him out to be on an annual basis.

The prevailing sentiment is that he might be a worthy candidate to contend but will be hindered by the length of his time away from the game. Makes sense, right? Well, sure, but so does this: From a golf standpoint, the long layoff may actually benefit Woods.

Think about it. For a guy coming off his first season back following knee surgery, fewer reps is probably a good thing. All that downtime spent in rehab and taking care of his personal, ahem, affairs meant he could rest any lingering aches and pains and return physically stronger.

"There are advantages, I think," said Colin Montgomerie, who took a lengthy leave of absence in 1996 before returning to win his return in Dubai. "You haven't really paid much attention to people's form, to where they are, what they are doing. You just play your own game, and suddenly, you know, bingo, you're 1-up playing the last. I think you might find that there could be the odd disadvantage to him coming back, but I think that at this stage, there are more advantages than disadvantages. He's physically fit. He knows how to swing a golf club. He knows how to win. He just hasn't done it for a while. … He's the best player that's ever played and he will adapt accordingly."

No one in the Masters field is ready to concede victory to Tiger, of course, yet as much as I tried, I couldn't find one player who believed he couldn't -- or wouldn't -- be in contention on the back nine Sunday at Augusta.

Scratch that. I found one. Happens to be another four-time champion.

"No, no. I think I can't fathom taking five months off and going to Augusta, unless you have to, unless circumstances make it that you have no choice -- then I suppose that's what you do," Arnold Palmer said when asked about the prospect of making such a return at the Masters. "But I think that the sharpness of your game and your approach to playing at a major championship, whether it be the Masters or the Open or any championship, is how sharp you are.

"You can't get very sharp not playing. Even just practicing won't do it. To be sharp, you have to compete. You have to be in the mood to compete. Now, you can say a couple of weeks, that would be one thing. But five months? No."

Well, there you have it. Either Woods will look very much like the Tiger of old, proving his fellow competitors right … or he will struggle in his return at Augusta, showing The King to be some kind of soothsayer.

No matter what, at least he can look at the bright side: It's better than returning after 144 days away to unclog Kirstie Alley's toilet.

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

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.