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Thoughts on how a very famous golfer must approach a really, really big upcoming tournament

Orin Starn is a cultural anthropologist at Duke University, which makes him a deep thinker beyond the depth of sportswriters. So I sat up straight this morning when reading a news release quoting Starn on Tiger Woods’s return to golf at the Masters. He said:

"This Masters – and I don’t think this is an exaggeration – will be one of the biggest sports events in American history: a nationally broadcast carnival of curiosity, speculation and interest covered by the media like a presidential resignation or the moon landing."

Wait one minute here. The man is talking about moments that will be in history books forever. Richard M. Nixon remains the only president of the United States ever to resign. Neil Armstrong’s giant leap took us all to a place we had imagined but only imagined. At those moments, the world stopped spinning and no one dared blink.

Now comes the Dukie deep thinker saying we will pay that kind of attention to a recovering philanderer playing golf.

Sadly, he’s probably right.

He certainly has company in imagining this story as an epic of our times. The ESPN.com star, Bill Simmons, drawing on the full powers of his intellect, has written – twice, in indelible crayon – that Tiger’s comeback will be more difficult than that faced a generation ago by Muhammad Ali. After all, Simmons opined, there was no TMZ and 24/7 news cycle back in the day, and we are all agreed – aren’t we? – that the Internet’s sewer rats are a more powerful force than that which threatened Ali, for Ali faced 24/7 threats only from the Klan, the Selective Service, the FBI, the Department of Justice, and the U.S. Supreme Court, not to mention living with a sentence of five years in a federal penitentiary, the theft of his heavyweight championship title, and dark mutterings by a murderous faction of the Nation of Islam that only two years earlier had assassinated his mentor, Malcolm X.

By the way, Ali stood tall against them all as opposed to skulking off to Mississippi. For the best four years of any athlete’s life, let alone an athlete in sport’s most demanding discipline, Ali was not allowed to enter any ring anywhere (his passport having been invalidated). Poor, beleaguered Tiger lost four months of golf’s Silly Season and a few days of sun on his yacht.

Anyway, I e-mailed Orin Starn: "What’s your guess for Tiger’s first press conference at Augusta? Another prepared, scripted statement? Or take questions, handle ‘em, get it over with? And, really, a ‘presidential resignation’? A ‘moon landing’? That big???"

"Hard to say about the press conference," Starn said, "but I’m sure Ari Fleischer [Tiger's public relations expert, his skills honed as George W. Bush's press secretary] will be the one figuring that out – and that, if the [previous] apology was any indication, it will be effective with the right touch. It seems obvious that everyone from [Tim] Finchem [PGA Tour commissioner] to many everyday golf fans want him back and I think his sailing is going to be very clear, especially as it seems now that Elin has found her way towards being with him again. And, yes, I do think it’s going to be a world-class media frenzy; after all, all the major networks interrupted their coverage to broadcast the apology."

"Oh, Elin’s back?" I said. "I’ve lost track."

"Yes, according to, I believe, The New York Times, she’s been seen with him lately at Isleworth. Aren’t you keeping up with every single minute detail of this riveting drama? :-)"

A Nexis search of Times stories of the last month uncovered no such report. So I took Starn’s smiley as signal that he didn’t much believe it himself but he’d heard it somewhere. And isn’t that what has been happening in this? Nobody knows, but everybody has heard. Beyond the police report of Woods driving his Escalade into a fire hydrant and a tree, there has been one legitimate news story – legitimate in that it was more than a one-source account, a piece done by the Times on Woods’s dealings with a Canadian doctor known for prescribing performance enhancing drugs.

When Woods does his first press conference at the Masters – if he does one at all – he will be tempted to read yet another statement of contrition, apology, and promise to be a better person, husband, father, son, and then walk away without another word. The purpose would be to avoid questions from inquiring minds. That is an understandable impulse; it would be a mistake. He is a bright guy who has long dominated the parry-and-thrust game of interviews.

Besides, unless that press conference is different from every one I have ever attended, it will be kind, gentle, and within a whisper of obsequiousness; difficult, tendentious, argumentative, inflammatory, prying questions are best sustained in one-on-one situations, not in mass interviews where the subject always has control, if only by crafting answers that turn hostile questions into indictments of a sensation-seeking media.

The mistake in making only a prepared statement would be that it puts another row of bricks atop the stonewall separating him from the people who thought they knew him. If he is to rehabilitate his reputation, he can not continue to hide. He has to show there’s a man, pathetic as he may be at the moment, inside the facade those people have come to recognize. The best way to do that is to walk tall into the press room at Augusta National Golf Club – on Tuesday, as is his tradition – and say, "Ladies and gentlemen, I have no statement to make. Ask your questions. I’ll answer as long as I can and as best I can without hurting my family. But, really, I’d like to talk about golf. I miss golf."

The assembled literati would ask the necessary, newsworthy, edging toward Escalade-pills-alcohol-will-Elin-be-here-and-if-not-why-not questions.

Ten minutes in, they’d talk about golf.

How many zillion balls did he hit at Isleworth getting ready? How does he feel mentally, physically? When did he last go four months without a competitive round?
 
The primary golf question: Will he play well?

I think he will. He’s the best of all time, out for only a minute really, back on a course he loves, walking among people who are the most courteous sports fans in the world.

Gary Wiren, a PGA Golf Professional Hall of Fame instructor, said, "When the average Tour player is absent from the competitive scene for a long stretch of time, they usually come back with their ball-striking abilities intact, but their course management, focus, routines, and thinking are a bit rusty."

A pause . . .

"But Tiger Woods is not ‘the average Tour player.’ He will contend, if not win. I believe Las Vegas has it about right, 3-1 odds on a Tiger victory."

Before Sunday, though, we will know how it’s going for Tiger.

If birdies bring roars, he’s on the way to redemption.

If silence, there’s much much more work to do.

Dave Kindred’s next book will be "Morning Miracle," an inside-the-newsroom account of two years in the life of The Washington Post. Now a contributing writer at Golf Digest, Kindred is a Red Smith Award winner and member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached at inkstained1@aol.com. He can be followed at Twitter.com/DaveKindred and facebook.com/people/Dave-Kindred/509353295
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