- Jason Sobel, Senior Golf Writer
- 0 Shares
Longtime pro David Toms once classified the atmosphere for competitors at Augusta National Golf Club as "walking on eggshells." It's the reason Lee Trevino, raised in a low-income environment, never felt comfortable there, choosing to change into his spikes in the parking lot rather than the clubhouse. It's why announcer Gary McCord, who once used the term "bikini wax" to describe the putting surfaces, is no longer part of the broadcast team.
There is no more buttoned-up operation in golf than the Masters Tournament, which offers the public a glimpse into this ultimate secret society for one week every April.
No doubt this was a major factor in Tiger Woods' decision to return to competitive golf at the year's first major, where media scrutiny will be limited and on-site observers will likely be more respectful of his efforts than at a regular-season PGA Tour event.
Considering Woods' whirlwind trip through the tabloids ever since his single-car accident in the early-morning hours of Nov. 27, there is expected to be more interest in this year's Masters than any in recent memory. Woods had previously been so private that he was never exposed for any personal situations, but he has spent the last 4½ months gracing the covers of magazines and Web sites that cater to the frenzied market for celebrity gossip, his extramarital trysts with numerous mistresses becoming public knowledge around the world.
Such interest in his affairs has spawned the idea that the scene at Augusta National this week will turn into a "zoo" or "circus," which seems wholly unfitting for a venue in which officials will reprimand patrons for anything more than a brisk walk, enforcing the policy that states, "There is no running at the Augusta National."
The Masters is not only one of the toughest tickets in all of sports, but it's one of the most difficult events for media to gain access. Tournament officials carefully examine each credential request and many go unfulfilled. That was certainly the case this year, though a large number of "alternative" organizations didn't file these requests until well after the Feb. 1 deadline, which came six weeks prior to Woods' announcement that he would return to golf at the Masters.
That doesn't mean these media outlets won't find ways to cover their newest star celebrity.
"Tiger Woods will make golf and turn it into something that it has never been before with this tournament," Harvey Levin, executive producer for TMZ, told ESPN's "E:60." "There will be a record number of people watching golf who have no interest in golf -- and maybe will develop an interest in golf, by the way -- but this will be a highly intensely watched match. And yes, it will be watched not necessarily for [Phil] Mickelson, but it will be watched because everybody wants to see Tiger, everybody wants to see how Tiger does."
Many organizations may not have direct access to Woods through the official credentialing process. Augusta National officials do not disclose the official credential list, but a spokesman confirmed that no outlets which haven't covered the tournament in the past will be credentialed this year. Even so, expect a fair number to cover the Masters in some shape or form. That includes mobilizing on Washington Road, outside of the famed entrance gates to the course, or simply purchasing badges for the tournament.
During practice rounds, any patron is welcome to bring a camera onto the grounds, which means that tabloid media who purchase a badge can indeed take photographs. No media -- even those officially credential -- are allowed inside the ropes at any time, but nontraditional outlets won't have access to competitors at designated places in the locker room, behind the clubhouse and in the press room.
How will the nontraditional media overcome such limitations? Most won't tip their hand as to their coverage plans for the week.
Barry Levine, executive editor for the National Enquirer, which hasn't been credentialed in the past, told "E:60": "We can't talk about our news gathering in advance of any new story."
Others were a bit more forthcoming on the importance of the Woods story to their ongoing news cycle.
"The next step of this story is what is going to happen to Tiger Woods and to his marriage and to his game," acknowledged Eloise Parker, editor for OK Magazine, to "E:60." "Now obviously from our perspective, we're very interested in how his relationship with his wife is going to develop at this point. For us, if this story still has legs, it's going to be the reconciliation, the divorce, Tiger coming out in public -- those are the things we are interested in right now."
"The Tiger Woods story is just the beginning of this soap opera," said Caroline Schaefer, editor for US Weekly magazine, to "E:60." "When he actually comes back, that's going to be a huge story. When Elin, his wife, decides what she's going to do -- is she going to file for a divorce? Where and how much money she's going to get? This story definitely has legs and for a long time."
It will certainly be enough to bring more than just staunch golf fans to the television set both before and during the four days of tournament coverage. Woods will answer questions from a multitude of reporters in a 30-minute interview session on Monday at 2 p.m. ET, which may receive as much coverage as the golf itself three days later.
While Augusta National and its broadcast partners CBS and ESPN have refrained from consistently billing this solely as Tiger's return, there's no secret as to the major drawing card for this year's edition of the event.
"The Masters is always a big deal, [but] this is going to be the Masters on steroids," said Howard Kurtz, media reporter for The Washington Post, to "E:60." "There are going to be thousands of journalists that are going to ascend on Augusta, because you not only have the sports narrative -- can Tiger regain his form and be competitive? -- but you have a guy trying to salvage his reputation, trying to put the tawdry stuff behind him. And it is going to be huge, in a way that we probably have never seen before. The Super Bowl and World Series combined."
That should equate to mega-ratings for the four-day tournament, which received a high of 17.12 million viewers in the Sunday 7 p.m. ET half-hour last year, during which Angel Cabrera defeated Kenny Perry and Chad Campbell in a three-man playoff after Woods finished in a share of sixth place.
"I would not be surprised if the ratings for the Masters approached double what they were last year, because you have all the golf fans who will be tuning in, all the Tiger fans, Tiger detractors will be tuning in and you have all the other people who, basically and typically, find golf boring, find the Tiger story fascinating," Kurtz added. "They want to see how he handles himself. I want to see how the television stations handle him and whether they will be kept at a distance, and can never ask him any question other than, 'How did you sink that putt?'"
Meanwhile, other players who are sinking putts will largely remain unaffected by the swarm of Woods-related coverage.
Ever since the accident of Nov. 27 ignited a chain of events that led to one of the biggest personal scandals in sports history, Woods' fellow competitors have been asked to comment on his situation without having had any prior knowledge of his wrongdoing. With Tiger now speaking for himself, these players are now largely off the hook for answering such questions, as he will be answering them on his own.
"I think it's obviously going to be the biggest thing in sport that week. Not that Augusta has to shy away from anything, but especially with Tiger coming back, I think it's going to be unbelievably big," Ernie Els said. "It's going to be a huge event, and I think one of the positives from Tiger's perspective, I think doing his press conference Monday and getting it out of the way for his sake and everybody's sake. ... It's going to be all about Tiger and him coming back and everything. So I think we will all be sideshows until Thursday morning. And I think we're fine with that. Everybody's fine with that."
If Woods fails to win -- or even contend -- at Augusta National, much of the blame will be placed on his personal issues and his failure to overcome them on the game's biggest stage. If he does win his fifth career green jacket? Expect this story to still be covered by both traditional and tabloid media, but with more of a focus on the golf than the affairs.
"I think so much is on the line if he can win this tournament. It's huge," said TMZ's Levin. "I mean, I believe he can do what Kobe Bryant did. You hardly remember that. It's funny, because we wrote a story the other day and we referenced Kobe Bryant, and we were all kind of stunned, 'Wow that happened in 2004.' It becomes a fuzzy memory, because Kobe Bryant is such a winner."
As Woods' friend and fellow pro Charles Howell III claims, "If he puts that green jacket on, it will all go away."
Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.
5dMike Fish and David Purdum