Don't bet against Tiger at Augusta

Originally Published: March 17, 2010
ESPN.com

After having a few questions answered on Tuesday about Tiger Woods' golfing future, many more popped up to take their place. What will Woods face in his return? What kind of shape will his game be in? What kind of reaction will he get from the fans and the media at Augusta?

ESPN.com's Bob Harig and Jason Sobel discuss all those topics and delve into greater detail in their e-mail chat.

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

I don't know about you, Bob, but I haven't spoken to anyone in the past few months -- relatives, friends, golf fans, non-golf fans -- who hasn't asked the inquiring question on everyone's mind: When is Tiger Woods going to return to competitive golf? Well, now that we've got that one out of the way, these queries have already quickly morphed into another that prompts pure speculation: So, how do you think he's going to fare?

We'll get to that later, but first let's talk about the decision to return at Augusta National without getting in some tournament rounds beforehand. I could call it surprising, but really, nothing about Woods should surprise us anymore.

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

All along, I have felt he needed to play a tournament before the Masters if he truly had thoughts of winning his fifth green jacket. But what if he's not ready to play yet? If that is the case, then this decision is really not surprising at all. It was hard to believe he'd skip a major championship. And it is hard to believe he would play tournament golf if he is not ready. Tiger has never been one to use tournaments to sharpen his game.

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

I think you're sort of on the right track, but not completely. This isn't about being ready to compete once again; it's about being ready to win. When Tiger returned from knee surgery last year at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, I wrote at the time that he was coming back for that tournament because it offered the best chance for a victory. After all, he had to beat only one opponent each round. And I feel the same way this time.

Tiger might have been prepared to play at, say, next week's Arnold Palmer Invitational, but if he didn't feel like he was ready to win the golf tournament, he wasn't going to show up. Unlike Phil Mickelson, who almost always competes the week before a major, Woods almost never does, so his preparations likely will be similar to every previous Masters appearance. Besides, last season he won in each start prior to the four majors, then went 0-for-4 at the big ones. It's not as if playing well beforehand equates to victories.

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

True, but it could be about playing in tournaments, period. There is certainly a competitive rust factor that has to be chipped away. He will not have played a tournament round in more than 4½ months. And nothing can simulate that.

Granted, it is not his preferred way of preparing anyway, so he is not like so many others who need live action to get them ready. But no tournament action? The one thing I'll say that should not be forgotten: He has the opportunity to play as many practice rounds as he wants at Augusta National between now and April 8.

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

As much as people want to talk about the limited media access and patron badges available at the Masters as factors in his decision, you've got to believe that being so familiar with this course was paramount in the process. Tiger hasn't missed a Masters since he was a teenager, and with very few discernable differences to the venue this year, it should provide a comfortable surrounding for his return.

Experience plays such a major part in the relative success or failure of so many competitors -- from understanding where to hit an approach shot with a specific pin location to knowing the subtlest of breaks on the greens. Returning to this tournament makes more sense than coming back cold at any of the other three majors, which are, of course, hosted by different venues each year.

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

To me, this is more of a golf decision than it is worrying about any of the other factors.

Sure, nothing is going to change at Augusta. They won't sell more tickets. They won't admit more media. It would have been much different next week at Bay Hill, where so many figured he could return for numerous reasons. But if his game isn't ready, what's the point? And Bay Hill does not prepare you for Augusta in terms of the golf course.

As you said, the nuances of Augusta are so important. There is a reason rookies don't win there and why experience counts for so much.

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

We all know that at Augusta National, fans are referred to as "patrons," tickets are "badges" and bikini wax is strictly prohibited. So something tells me the word "circus" will also be off-limits when describing the atmosphere around Tiger's return.

Then again, that might not be an appropriate designation anyway. I'm just not sure the scene can grow to a level of overflowing galleries filled with disrespectful fans -- er, patrons. There are going to be so many security folks -- both uniformed and plainclothed -- trailing his group that if observers so much as twitch a muscle during his backswing, they'll find themselves back at the Waffle House on Washington Road in no time.

I expect a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to any sort of heckling or abrasive behavior. And really, if someone actually scores a chance to witness the Masters firsthand, it would pretty dumb to throw it all away in the name of discourtesy.

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

There is a lot to speculate about with regards to Tiger's return, but not when it comes to how the Masters and Augusta National operate. As you are well aware, Masters badges cannot be bought by anyone. The club keeps a list of patrons and mails them a renewal every year.

The waiting list would extend down Washington Road to I-20. But there is nothing that says Augusta National has to offer you those badges the next year. They have a number on them for a reason. If there is an unruly fan or someone who makes a scene, the security guards will simply take down that badge number and that particular patron can say goodbye to one of the most coveted tickets in sports.

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

Yeah, I really don't expect any major outbursts directed toward Woods from the paying customers.

There's already been speculation that some of the tabloids will pay top dollar just to get inside the front gates. But really, what advantage can be gained, what damage can they do by simply being on site?

I've also been asked a lot recently about how Tiger's fellow players will react to his return. It would be a stereotype to generalize all of them together, but collectively they understand what he brings to the game and how important it is to have him out there. That said, I think Paul Casey had the best line. When asked what he would say to Woods on the first tee if they were paired together, he said, "Nike One. Blue dot."

Kind of sums it up right there.

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

Yep, they're not going to be asking him what he's been up to for the last four months. I think they will welcome him back, support him, and hope that this is the first step in a return to normalcy, if not for him, at least for them. Because as we all know, this has been the subject hovering over the tour despite his absence. But now that he is back, is it crazy to think that he can win?

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

Well, as you know, I reserve the right to wait until the week of a tournament to make predictions; it just doesn't make sense to do otherwise. I want to see how the course is playing, get a gauge on the weather outlook and check which players are in form.

Of course, that last one doesn't really apply to Woods. But as a four-time champion and still the world's No. 1-ranked player, you'd better believe he'll be on my short list of potential contenders entering the week. The bookmakers have enlisted him as the prohibitive favorite once again -- and once again, they're right.

With no one else garnering multiple wins so far this season, it's hard to imagine someone else -- take Steve Stricker, Geoff Ogilvy, Ernie Els or Camilo Villegas as examples of those who have already won in 2010 -- being a better bet to win the green jacket than Woods. I mean, the guy has been gone for only four months and isn't coming off a physical injury. I certainly think he has a much better chance of winning than missing the cut. What do you think?

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

I think it is going to be very difficult for him to win. In each of the past four years, he's been just close enough to walk away scratching his head in frustration. And that was after plenty of prep work going in, including a victory last year at Bay Hill just two weeks before the Masters.

It's not as if he has fallen to a bunch of world-beaters. Since Phil Mickelson was putting on the green jacket in 2006, the tournament has been won by Zach Johnson, Trevor Immelman and Angel Cabrera. Exactly no one picked those guys to win. The point is that despite his immense abilities, Tiger sometimes gets beat by people you would never expect. That is golf.

But I will end with this: Would we give any other player who had not competed all year a chance to win the Masters? No way. With Tiger, it would be foolish to dismiss him.