Tiger Woods will end his four-month, self-imposed exile by returning to one of golf's biggest stages, the Masters, on April 8. Woods has won the tournament, and with it the Augusta National Golf Club's fabled green jacket four times. “The Masters is where I won my first major and I view this tournament with great respect,” Woods said.
In 1986, Geraldo Rivera was host of a two-hour prime-time television special entitled “The Mystery of Al Capone's Vault.” The event was hyped for weeks and drew an estimated audience of 30 million, the most watched syndicated TV special of its time.
As Rivera prepared to open the mobster's “secret vault” found during renovations at the Lexington Hotel, a medical examiner stood by in case any bodies were discovered in the vault. A representative of the Internal Revenue Service also was present to collect any money contained. The camera honed in, America moved to the edge of its seat and Rivera pried open the vault to reveal ... some dirt and a few empty bottles.
Twenty four years later, Augusta National Golf Club will be the locale for a similar event. On Monday, at the Masters, Tiger Woods will hold his first news conference since authoring a sordid series of headlines that sabotaged his privacy and ravaged his personal life. We say “first” news conference because this meeting will tolerate, if not entertain, questions from the media in attendance.
The minutes — and perhaps the details — of Woods' opening-round performance on Thursday will occupy the news throughout the land. The photos will be the first images to pop up on your web browser, the words will be the first muttered by the various nightly news anchors, the topic of conversation will be foremost at the office break room.
Should Osama Bin Laden be captured on Thursday, should a cure for cancer be discovered, should intelligent life be encountered on Mars, they will all make for nice sidebars to what takes place in the amphitheater inside the gates in Augusta, Ga.
In anticipation, the Masters has notified the attending news organizations that seats inside the interview room will be limited to one per organization. Thus, there will not be significantly more members of the press in attendance than other years, tabloid teases notwithstanding. There weren't for the Martha Burk Battle, there won't be for Tiger's Testimony.
But there is a healthy portion of the press that might not be there as early as Monday, which perhaps Woods is banking on — he usually speaks on Tuesdays. There is a percentage of the media that might skip another predictable exchange with the always measured and unavailing Woods. If not identical, the transcripts usually have a fraternal twin quality to them. As Bob Dylan's “little neighbor” mutters underneath his breath, “nothing is revealed.”
So, with everyone watching and listening, Woods will, in effect, open the secret vault. And while there might be a bottle or two of water nearby, there won't be any dirt. When it's over, the transcript will be not unlike all of those transcripts of the past. When it's over, like Rivera's prime-time fizzle, it will be much ado about nothing.
Woods might be asked an intrusive question or two. But those questions will be dismissed or ignored. No matter how many text messages Joslyn James reveals, Woods will make it Mark McGwire clear he is not here to talk about the past, or his phone records, or his driveway. He is here to talk golf, period.
There will be creditable discussion to be had on that topic, such as how one puts aside the many intrusions, personal issues and weeks of inactivity to compete, cold turkey, in one of golf's major championships. And remember, since we last talked with Tiger, his aura of invincibility also took a hit on a golf course. Y.E. Yeng caught and passed him during the final round of the PGA Championship, the first such occurrence at a major.
The game's premier player might offer a compelling thought or two to those conversations. Or he might just reach to the shelves for stock answers. Either way, those looking for revelations, soul searching anguish, more TMZ time, are in for a letdown of iPad proportion.
If you peel away the Hollywood gossip layers that linger outside the barriers of Augusta, this annual championship will not be extraordinarily different from many others that included Tiger Woods. The carpets at Augusta National are decidedly green, not red.
There will be substantive residue from the events leading up. Woods' galleries promise to be even larger than the massive gatherings that normally tailgate his rounds — if it is indeed possible for galleries to be measurably larger and still get around the course.
Speculation will percolate over whom the Southern aristocrats might select to walk with Woods on his journey through the opening rounds. The Masters isn't like other majors, where protocol is followed and formality is served. Augusta can scribble whatever names it chooses into that opening threesome. Perhaps the portion of the audience tuned in for its pop culture fix is envisioning Jesse James and John Edwards in the group. Be still my Mary Hart.
But the pairing will more likely include Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk, Padraig Harrington, Kenny Perry or Mark O'Meara, personalities that are unaffected, veterans with whom Woods is comfortable.
Once the ball goes in the air, what the general public is going to hear and see is exactly what they would normally hear and see from a Masters, the same golf-saturated schmaltz they normally hear, the kind that normally sends many of them reaching for a remote.
This is Augusta National, ladies and gentleman. Golf and only golf will be celebrated. Players will hit their little white balls, watch where it goes, walk to it and hit it again. If you're looking for crashes, turn to NASCAR. If you're looking for fights, try a hockey game. If you're looking for juice, turn to Major League Baseball.
Jim Nantz will not channel A.J. Hammer. There will be no colorful chronology of Tiger's troubles, no analogies about the speed of the greens at Augusta and the women at Perkins restaurants. You won't hear David Feherty reciting humorous Irish blessings for strained marriages. You might not hear any reference to tabloid tribulations whatsoever.
You will see pastel colors and tiny bridges. You will hear birds singing, pianos playing and the traditional golf exaggerations. You will melt into the Masters, and chances are you will see Woods play reasonably well, maybe remarkably well.
He has won on this course four times. He has finished no worse than sixth in nine of his 13 professional starts at Augusta. His scoring average of 70.99 is the best of any who have played there as often, a stroke better than the green jacket giant himself, six-time winner Jack Nicklaus.
Woods made a similar leap at Torrey Pines in 2008, another course he owns. After eight weeks off, he came back from knee surgery and limped through a Monday playoff to win a U.S. Open. How do you differentiate between eight-week rust and 16-week rust? How can anyone pretend to know what Woods, the No. 1 player in the world, the prince of unprecedented, is capable of doing?
If he wins another Masters, with all that surrounds it, the golf story will be significant. Many would call it his ultimate moment, bigger than the record-shattering '97 Masters, more stunning than his 15-stroke win at the 100th U.S. Open, more dramatic than Torrey Pines and the Battle of Wounded Knee. Who is to say if Tiger ranks professional moments in such grandiose terms these days?
But it's entirely possible the months between competitions will be unflattering. The emotional hurdles and distractions might be too much even for Woods' legendary focus. It just might be that he won't win the Masters, just as he did not win 44 of the 58 majors he played in before November.
That's golf. And for all the hype, all the curiosity seekers who will tune to the 2010 Masters looking for something more, that's ultimately what they will get. Welcome to Al Capone's vault.