Tiger Woods returning to golf at The Masters – now what?

Tiger Woods isn’t going for an official tune-up before returning to championship golf.

Woods announced late this morning that he will return to play at The Masters – the first major of the year – April 8-11 at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga. The Washington Post points outs that Augusta is traditionally very strict about who it issues media credentials, meaning that tabloids and paparazzi that have fanned the flames stories and photos related to Woods’ out of control infidelity would not be given official access to get close to him.

That, obviously, doesn’t mean they won’t try by other means.

It also means that The Masters will take on added significance at the tail end of what is arguably the best week for sports fans annually.

The first weekend in April – which feature the Final Four in Indianapolis – caps off with the national championship game on Mon., April 5th. That same day is the real Opening Day for Major League Baseball, ushering in spring even though you’re likely to see fans in the Midwest and Northeast bundled in jackets and scarves for the first few weeks of the season.

The evolution of Woods’ superstardom has unquestionably raised the profile of The Masters beyond a tournament that will merely attract casual golf fans that don’t follow the sport regularly the same way Wimbledon draws in otherwise disinterested tennis watchers. For much the same reasons the New York Yankees have legions of fans, so too has Woods. It’s natural for people to want to see storied teams and athletes at the top of their profession.

Woods initial breakthrough came for his moonshot drives off the tee and the social relevance of a mixed-race phenom breaking to the top of a sport long with the perception of being lily white. The same type of marketing machine that allowed Michael Jordan to transcend basketball was oiled to robotic precision in building up Woods’ image, even if he didn’t he didn’t play golf with Bugs Bunny against a troupe of sinister aliens.

Now, after the proverbial fall from grace, can Woods reassert himself as a dominant force in golf? At 34, the clock is starting to tick, but the on-the-course nuts and bolts is the smallest part of the equation except for sports geeks like me. The bigger question most people, who care a little or not at all about golf, is the public perception piece.

On the surface that may seem impossible. But look, for example, how quickly Kobe Bryant (a year or two) and Alex Rodriguez (an immediate World Series title) moved past their serious problems.

For some even the thought of embracing Woods after he treated his marriage and family with such casual disregard may be unthinkable, and that is understandable. That perception will begin to change for many – perhaps more than we’re willing to admit – should Woods slip on another green jacket early Sunday evening of Masters weekend.

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