Captive Audience

February 16, 2010

More important than what Tiger Woods says on Friday might be how he says it.

The last time Tiger Woods faced the public was as the winner of the Australian Masters on Nov. 15. Soon after that, he returned to his Florida home, and in the wee hours of Nov. 27 his life took a nasty turn right outside of his Windermere driveway. The world's top-ranked golfer would end up colliding into a fire hydrant and then a tree. But no hit was more damaging than the one to his reputation following a series of shocking revelations. He has not been seen in public since.

While the winding road to redemption began in private for Woods weeks ago in an isolated rehabilitation center, the first step toward reclamation of his image in the public's eye commences Friday at PGA Tour headquarters in a televised statement. Exactly what he will say is a matter of pure speculation, but it is a safe guess the words will come wrapped in a healthy layer of contrition, though perhaps short of specifics.

But even then, what will be left open to interpretation is whether we see a different Tiger Woods on Friday. Will he be the same remote, almost imperial presence who has floated above the masses and media for nearly 15 years, or will this be a more humble version of the best player currently swinging a golf club for a living? It will be the beginning of us re-learning who Woods really is.

Indications are that this statement will take place in a well-controlled environment. The amount of media will be limited and by all accounts it will be a one-way street -- a statement followed by no questions. Of greatest interest, perhaps, will be whether Woods gives any indication of a timetable for his return to competition.

Right now, the speculation has him returning as soon as the Tavistock Cup -- an exhibition played this year on his home course at Isleworth March 22-23 -- followed by the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando beginning March 25. That would give Woods some competitive preparation for the Masters two weeks later.

There are others who feel Woods may well miss the entire year, which would be a serious blow to his efforts to break the Jack Nicklaus record of 18 professional major championships. Of the 14 majors Woods has won, half have come on three of the venues being played this year -- Augusta National (4), Pebble Beach (1) and St. Andrews (2).

Anyone who claims at this time to have an answer as to when Woods will return almost certainly doesn't know what they are talking about. In fact, it may very well be that Woods himself still doesn't know when he will return. He is just now returning to the real world, which means he is just now going to find out how that reintegration feels and whether his reception reopens some barely healed wounds.

What none of us can speculate upon is the emotional toll all of this has taken on Woods, just as none of us can even remotely guess as to the state of his relationship with his wife Elin and the extent to which they are trying to save their marriage. We know Woods as a professional golfer. We have barely glimpsed him as a person.

The only one who knows what is going on inside Woods' head is Woods himself, and it is quite likely there have been many days in which not even he was sure of what he wanted and how he should proceed with his life. His recovery -- and let's use that word in the broadest possible sense -- is in its infancy. His mood will likely change many times in the days and weeks ahead.

We will listen carefully to the words Woods speaks on Friday, but we will also closely watch the way in which they are delivered. In what will certainly be a well-scrutinized statement, we will be searching his body language and his facial expressions for hints as to his state of mind and his sincerity. Much will be read into his statement and its delivery, and much that is read will almost certainly be wrong.

It is absurd to speculate on what kind of player Woods will be upon his return to competition. Who among us has any sense of his appetite for golf right now? Who among us can even begin to guess at his priorities? The damage to the car that Thanksgiving night was easily recorded in a photograph. The full extent of the damage Woods experienced as a person will only be understood as time goes by.

If someone were to say to me that Woods could return this year and become the first player to sweep the calendar-year professional Grand Slam, I would say I could see that happening. I have witnessed him do too many remarkable things since I first saw him hit a golf ball in 1995 to doubt his ability to perform the impossible.

But if someone were to say to me that he will never be the same dominant player because this entire episode in his life will have eroded his confidence, diverted his attention and demolished his air of invincibility, I would say I could also see that being the case.

That is what will make Woods return to competition one of the most dramatic moments in the history of sports. What kind of player will he be when he comes back? We will only know the state of the competitive Tiger Woods when we next see him with a golf club in his hands.

But on Friday we will begin to get an idea of the state of Tiger Woods, the person. We will listen to his words and weigh them carefully. We will watch his body and try to gauge the sincerity of his apology. The Tiger Woods we fell in love with was the player. The Tiger Woods we try now to forgive is the person. Let's hope we get to know the latter as well as we have the former. And let's hope we come to at least respect each equally. Friday is a start.