PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- When he heard the news, Rocco Mediate turned to an associate on the practice putting green at the Transitions Championship on Tuesday and laughed.
Like many others, Mediate was monitoring the whereabouts of a certain exiled superstar and had wagered a few greenbacks on when he might pop out of his rabbit hole.
Mediate figured it would be next week in Orlando, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where Tiger Woods has won six professional titles.
|'I am sure when he comes back he will be 190 percent ready to go,' Rocco Mediate says of Tiger Woods. (Getty Images)|
"I just lost a bet," Mediate laughed.
Despite a professional layoff of 144 days, a span in which his unsettling personal life was dissected in full public view by tabloids, talk-show comedians, magazines and TV news shows, not many of Woods' peers would dare gamble that he won't contend when he makes his much-awaited season debut at the Masters in April.
We can debate how wild the scene might be, or to what degree the Augusta National folks can provide adequate cover from heckling or harassment, but there's one detail that few of his PGA Tour brethren bothered to dispute Tuesday when they finally learned of his comeback plans.
Five months off or not, Woods will be ready to rock and roll. If not top the charts.
"Absolutely, it's a no-brainer, of course he can come back and be competitive," said 2008 Masters champion Trevor Immelman. "I have no doubt in my mind that he'll be prepared. I think he'll be the favorite."
He'll be a marked man, no matter how you define it.
The Masters has a private security force, a tightly controlled fan base and a sense of decorum unlike any other tournament, so it doubtlessly made the most sense for a Woods comeback, from a practical standpoint. But he hasn't hit a shot since Nov. 15, when he won the Australian Masters. Woods has won after lengthy layoffs before, including a nine-week stretch before the 2008 U.S. Open, but this is new territory.
Exactly one player has won the Masters when making it his first start of the year -- the almost equally reclusive and enigmatic Ben Hogan, who won at Augusta in 1951 and '53 in his season opener.
"If anybody can, he can, because he seems to blow your mind every week with what he does," veteran Heath Slocum said of Woods. "But he's got a tough road. It's going to be different for him after everything he has been through, a different experience.
"It's going to be different for him, for TV, for the players, the media, everybody that's normally involved in a tour event or the Masters. It's going to be ... interesting."
Slocum paused. Was circus the word he was looking for?
"Very much," Slocum said.
The concern voiced by some is that the timing of the Woods comeback, in fact, will swallow the Masters whole.
"I think the Masters is bigger than that," former U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy said, somewhat hopefully. "If he contends, it will be crazy, obviously. But early-week, obviously the only talk will be that, but the Masters is bigger than that."
It's the highest-rated golf broadcast of the year for a reason, after all.
"Nothing can upstage the Masters, no way," Mediate said. "It's the Masters, man."
Woods is the man at the Masters, having donned the green jacket four times. Still, he hasn't won there since 2005 and there's got to be some rust from the layoff. True, he's not coming back from an injury like he was in 2008 and his golf game hasn't theoretically suffered.
But in some ways, this scenario is even worse than his wounded-knee circumstance of two years ago. Nobody has any idea how he will be received or how it will affect him, though the Masters presents the best platform for a return.
"It's probably the most controlled atmosphere you can possibly have," former U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk said. "Augusta's got that stigma or whatever you want to have it. You guys are different that week, fans are as well-behaved as they can get because everyone's afraid they will lose their ticket.
"It's just different. Everyone is in awe of that place from top to bottom."
But golf has never experienced a situation like this. Some fans are outright angry at Woods for what he did to the image of the game and hiding from it won't make it much better. Woods has yet to field a single question about the sex scandal, car crash or ties to a controversial Canadian doctor, and it's unclear whether he will do so at Augusta.
"I think there is a downside to saying he can go to a place that is well-protected. If you don't allow the people who really want to be there, media-wise, they are just going to make it up anyway," veteran Paul Goydos said. "I don't necessarily think that being well-protected is an advantage over the long run.
"I think he needs to face these people at some time. And if you don't face them, they are just going to make it up. They will come with their own answers. In the absence of facts, they will make it up. Yes, I agree that the Masters has a lot of power and it buys him a lot of time, but what price do you pay for that time?"
Time didn't matter much when Woods faced Mediate on a broken leg at Torrey Pines at the 2008 U.S. Open. He hadn't played since the Masters and won in extra holes, limping into golf lore.
"He had a hard time there, didn't he?" Mediate laughed. "When he has these layoffs, he just can't play. Would I be surprised if he won the Masters? Absolutely not. I am sure when he comes back he will be 190 percent ready to go.
"He has something to prove and he has never disappointed. I don't think he's going to come out hitting it sideways, put it that way.
"Here is one thing that is for sure: The No. 1 world ranking is not up for grabs."
The Woods sideshow will almost certainly have a downside for at least two players -- his partners in the first two rounds at Augusta. They will be caught in the eye of the storm through no doing of their own.
"It would be a disappointing draw, a tough draw to handle," Ogilvy said. "But at least if you play with him there you are insulated a little bit. But it's not the draw you would hope for."
Mediate predicted that the whole scandal scenario, while it might leave a mark on Woods' psyche, will have an unusual result.
"I think he'll be better," Mediate said. "Because he has faced things he has never had to face. He has faced a whole bunch of bad stuff and he's never had to deal with that with everybody.
"He has become a little more human to everybody else, which is probably good. But as a golfer, he has not become any more human."