ORLANDO, Fla. -- Officials met again at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge on Monday to discuss security issues, fan contingencies and potential catastrophes.
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Because, if Tiger Woods elects to play in the Arnold Palmer Invitational next week, all three could be rolled into one.
"Chaos," Jim Furyk said of the likely scene when Woods returns. "It's going to be a zoo."
Funny he should use animals as part of his metaphor.
"When he walks into that locker room or dining area for the first time," British Open champion Stewart Cink said, "it's going to be like there's a giant elephant in the room."
As an expectant world already knows, for Woods to put his sordid past behind him, he has to crawl out of his self-induced exile at some point. Everybody associated with the PGA Tour is waiting for that day, whether it's next week, at the Masters or wherever, knowing the long-term gain will almost certainly require some short-term risk.
Last week, conflicting reports from multiple news outlets had Woods mulling a return Monday and Tuesday at the Tavistock Cup, played on his home course outside Orlando, followed by an appearance at the Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, where he's the two-time defending champion and a six-time winner. Other reports had him waiting until the Masters on April 8 to play.
|Even though Tiger Woods wasn't around at Doral last weekend, he was. (AP)|
Absent last week or not, a huge banner hanging near the first tee box at the Doral Golf Resort & Spa featured a panel photograph of several prominent players, including Woods, whose image looked down on fans, larger than life. He loomed, in other words, like the IRS filing deadline -- a fateful date everybody wants to get over with.
Players mostly want Woods back in the fold for a variety of reasons, but they expect it could be downright ugly for a spell. Furyk, who has been paired with Woods in tournaments and international cup competitions dozens of times, struggled for the right words.
"I think everybody looks forward to him coming back, they just don't look forward to ... I look forward to things being back to normal and business as usual," he said. "But that first week is going to be ..."
Awkward might be an apt term. There's a sense of anticipation, mixed with a huge helping of dread.
It's not hard to envision hand-written signs with witticisms like Tiger Slept Here scribbled on them, or females dangling car keys along the gallery ropes. He was twice mocked in San Diego by airplanes trailing banners for local strip clubs. It could also get abusive, which is the biggest concern of the players and events like Bay Hill, where extra security in on standby in the event Woods commits by Friday's 5 p.m. deadline.
"I think you're going to have all sorts," Padraig Harrington said. "Like, there's no doubt there's a lot of people, a lot of the solid fans who are disappointed, and I don't know how they are going to react.
"But I think in general, people will be curious. It will be a bigger deal. Golf has held him in such high esteem and obviously with this whole thing, from a golfing standpoint, it has been disappointing."
Imagine the fate of the poor schlubs who get paired with the guy at his first few events, especially if it's a more publicly open affair, like Bay Hill.
"I think that if you get into a situation where people are heckling and trying to irritate him, they are going to irritate the other players around him as well," Furyk said. "It definitely has a trickle-down effect. That could be a possibility, especially at Bay Hill. Obviously, Augusta provides more of a controlled crowd and controlled atmosphere."
The animosity in certain pockets of fandom is matched in certain factions of players. Two weeks ago on the driving range at the Honda Classic, a parade of players marched past a Golf Channel analyst and figuratively patted him on the back, offering congratulations for the scathing comments he had offered about Woods' remarks during his statement reading last month. One was a top 10 player, too.
A player with Orlando ties was asked about whether he had perhaps seen Woods practicing on the range and preparing to make a comeback, said that he hadn't, then turned and offered an unsolicited reaction.
"You want to know what I really think?" he said. "I could give a f---."
The anger is understandable. It's been exactly four months since Woods last hit a competitive shot, and for much of that time, players have been pestered with questions about his absence, if not prodded to answer questions Woods himself has evaded.
Other players fiercely defended Woods, however, and said that while the criticism of his personal meltdown might be warranted, players should keep in mind which dog is pulling this particular sports sled.
"You know what is sad about that?" Robert Allenby said. "Those guys forget what he has created for us. I played golf before he came along -- I turned pro in 1991. Tiger came along and the prize money quadrupled.
"If there is any one guy out there, and I don't care who they are, if they want to knock Tiger Woods, that's just not the right thing to do. He has put so much more money in our pocket and we should be grateful for that part, that he came along in our era."
Now we're experiencing the darker portions of that ledger.
Last week, the Sports Business Journal noted that weekend TV ratings on CBS and NBC are down 18 percent over the first 10 weeks of the season vs. last year -- and it's an apples-to-apples comparison, since Woods didn't play on Saturday or Sunday over the first 10 weeks of 2009, either. There could be several explanations, but during the outpouring of animosity that Woods generated in some quarters when the sex scandal started breaking, some fans threatened to literally tune out to the sport.
Perhaps they weren't kidding. To many, Woods' actions made golf a front-burner sport for all the wrong reasons. In part, that's why world No. 2 Steve Stricker said he believes Woods should play before the Masters, lest his uncomfortable predicament swallow the tournament whole.
"Whenever he comes back it's going to draw a lot of attention to that tournament and the focus is going to be on him coming back," Stricker told reporters last week at Doral. "I don't know if Augusta would like that to happen, you know? To turn it into Tiger's comeback instead of the Masters tournament itself."
Woods and his array of managers and handlers have so far declined to publicly identify where he will next play, leaving everybody in the lurch -- from tournament officials trying to conjure up security plans they might not need and fans pondering whether to buy tickets, to global media outlets trying to figure out what events to staff. As he has for four months, Woods is not answering any questions, which seems to be creating even more ill will.
The anxiety builds.
"I think we're all looking forward to having him back," Furyk said. "He's our best player, and we need him back. We're just looking forward to when it's business as usual, not the circus."
Hope he's not holding his breath. Then again, for believers that there's no such thing as toxic publicity, this might qualify as good news.
"He's going to be more popular than ever," Allenby said. "Everybody will want to see him, at least for the first couple of months. I mean, he's been in the news more often than anybody not in Iraq."
In that regard, Woods might attract more rubber-neckers than fans, which brings us full circle back to the initial concern: What fans are going to show up and how will he be greeted?
"I know people at home who have no interest in golf, and they are interested," Harrington said. "They watch Tiger Woods interviews. There is going to be a bit more attention on it. It does make it a bit more E! Entertainment, doesn't it, rather than CBS?"