CBSSports.com senior writer Steve Elling and golf writer and columnist Scott Michaux of the Augusta Chronicle try to digest one of the most surreal, bizarre and media-saturated weeks in golf history.
Whatever perception Tiger Woods created among viewers at last week's awkward statement reading, there's one hanging chad left -- when is he playing next?
ELLING: No question, the guy covered more ground than most of us expected, even bringing religion into the fray, but his return is the one key facet that remained unsaid. It's the biggest issue, period, to some fans. Got a Ouija board? I have the strong impression that he has no clue when he will next play, especially since he didn't disclose how long his second stint in rehab will take. The Florida Swing, when Woods usually plays at least twice, starts next week. As a billion of us analyzed his words, the depth of the hole in his soul and his reputation became increasingly clear. If we are to take him at his word, this guy has some heavy lifting to do before he even begins thinking about playing again. He betrayed friendships, alienated fans, his tour peers, sponsors, but most of all, his family. Even if his wife kicked him to the curb today, it could take weeks before he felt ready to play. For the first time, it feels like we might not see Woods between the ropes anytime soon. That would seem to include that little affair down your way, in Augusta.
MICHAUX: I must have been the only guy who never thought Woods would return for the Masters -- or even that he should. He has a lot on his plate right now and he's unprepared for tournament golf, much less in a major-championship arena. Not only that, it would seem like a pretty shallow PR move if he were to bench himself only for the preliminaries and show up for the big game. It would be like those college coaches who suspend their impudent players for the first quarter of a football game but make sure they get back on the field when it counts. If Woods really wants to make a go of his marriage and fix it -– and it seems he genuinely does -- then he needs more time. Plus, missing the Masters is the kind of sacrifice needed to illustrate his sincerity to both his wife and his fans. By June, Woods will have been away from the game for six months. I don't know if that's enough time to generate the healing process or not, but it's a good start. He'll have completed his inpatient therapy by then and had some time to spend alone with his family, out of the spotlight. And he can enjoy the therapeutic relief of the practice range, honing his game. My hope is he'll be ready to return for a tune-up at the Memorial and then salvage the rest of the major season starting with the U.S. Open. But that's just my selfish hope as a fan of his golf.
It didn't take long for somebody to track down Woods' caddie, Steve Williams, who said "nothing has changed" with regard to how he will herd the cattle when his boss returns to play in tournaments. Is he part of the problem?
ELLING: It's hardly news that when Williams caddies, he's about as embraceable as a timber wolf. He greatly contributes to the persona of Woods as the invincible, bullet-proof warrior, the hardass with the steely stare. Williams has done plenty of Woods' wet work over the years, yelling at photographers -- in many instances, they were positioned exactly where they were supposed to be -- and dressing down fans who he believed crossed the line. To me, that's the rub as it relates to Woods going forward. No question, Williams doesn't engender the warm-and-fuzzy feeling that will help Woods win back a single alienated fan. But it could be ugly out there for Woods, at least for a while, and he might need somebody like Williams to watch his back. I know we're supposed to take a stance here, but I can envision a defensible need for having a former rugby player standing between me and a potential heckler. Now, if Williams comes even remotely close to making contact with a loudmouth fan, he ought to be booted immediately. In my mind, while Woods is away, the PGA Tour needs to come up with a codified list of what's going to be viewed as acceptable behavior for fans at events, because by golf standards, it could get unruly.
MICHAUX: The least-liked luggage carrier in the world just doesn't get that his universe has changed a little since last he slung a bag over his shoulder. If that's going to be his attitude -- that "nothing's changed" -- then he is going to be an impediment to Woods' chance of regaining acceptance with his fans. Williams needs to tone down his pit-bull image, period. Maybe he needs to use this time off for some anger-management therapy. There are plenty of other caddies out there who understand how to keep the peace with photographers and fans without being belligerent bullies. Phil Mickelson is no stranger to the circus and his man, Bones Mackay, does his job and protects his player without crossing the lines of civility. And if Stevie doesn't get the memo that he needs to lighten up, he might find himself looking for other work no matter how much Tiger might want to keep him. Woods deserves to return in a working environment that is respectful and fair. He might have to endure a few hecklers here and there, but I have more confidence that golf fans won't go too far. If it gets unruly, let tournament security take care of it. Williams needs to give him the yardage and solicited advice and keep his own head in the game. Otherwise, he will do himself and his employer no good.
It seemed like the highlight of the final day of the Accenture Match Play finale was when analyst David Feherty backed into a chollo cactus on Sunday. Give us one thing that would make match play more palatable to casual golf fans, and explain why.
ELLING: If the final two hours seemed a bit boring, it's because there was one birdie between the finalists over the last seven holes. Every time eventual winner Ian Poulter gave Paul Casey an opening, the latter did something unforgivably bad, like hit an easy layup shot into a fairway bunker. There weren't many hearty souls on the Dove Mountain property watching -- why would there be? There is one meaningful match on Sunday. It's a tough sell for people to drive 40 minutes from downtown Tucson if they aren't truly interested in the finalists, or to buy pricy tickets when they have no idea which eight guys will make it to the weekend. Those are the caprices of match play, of course, but that doesn't make the format palatable for casual fans, especially in the States, where it's an unfamiliar format. One tweak I would make to potentially help ensure more eyeballs -- give the four top-seeded players a bye into the second round. The big boys were long gone by the weekend, when cold weather, the one-man Woods circus and fan indifference delivered a triple whammy to the attendance. The players zapped the goosebumps on the back nine themselves.
MICHAUX: I actually thought it was a pretty good show, but maybe that's because I had Poulter in my golf pool and almost everybody else had Casey. I honestly don't know what the complaining is about. The match play is what it is -- a great event utilizing a great format. That it doesn't make for compelling TV has been understood ever since the PGA of America jettisoned the format for its major more than 50 years ago. That doesn't mean it needs to be kicked to the curb or pimped out just to make the less hard-core fans feel enthused. That said, I once suggested that they keep the final eight guys competing through the weekend to determine third through eighth place with sizeable money chunks for each spot up the ladder to ensure motivation. That would at least keep four matches on the course at all times. But since TV showed but about 10 shots in Sunday's consolation match, what's the real point? True golf fans can appreciate match play for what it is. And other than moving it around to different venues to increase the interest and expose it to different fans in different regions, it will just have to settle for being a darned good event that's not made for TV.