Tiger Woods' decision to to put his game on display the Masters was a statement all by itself.
Casually dropping a couple of bags of balls at the chipping area in his first public appearance at Augusta National? That was an even bigger one. His chipping looked smooth and confident in the practice area, and during his abbreviated practice rounds Monday and Tuesday.
Woods says he's ready to compete again--and if his short game truly lets him, it'll be a storyline out of a made-for-TV movie.
How likely is it that we'll see him in his familiar Sunday red playing deep into the afternoon?
As Hank Haney said in this piece I helped write in the current issue of Golf Digest, Woods has a terrific short game--when he doesn't have the yips. In the neutral, no-consequences setting of the practice area or in a practice round, when players drop a bunch of balls on every hole, it's possible to get into a short game rhythm that masks issue temporarily.
But the truth comes out in competition.
"When you go back to the course to play, the stakes are so different, and so are the surroundings," says Haney. "He's not in that rhythm of hitting practice shot after practice shot...In a tournament round, you might go 30 or 45 minutes between chips, and when it comes time to hit one, you get one chance."
And if he hits one sketchy shot, only one thing will be on everybody's mind--including Tiger's. What is going to happen on the next one?
Leaving aside the short game issue, there's also the matter of being tournament ready in the traditional sense. Woods has played six full tournament rounds since last year's PGA, and none since withdrawing from the Waste Management Open two months ago. Even if his short game was perfect, Woods' preparation hitting balls at home in Florida isn't the same as doing it at Bay Hill or Doral, in the heat of competition.
The reps aren't there, as Woods would say.
So what will we see when the real tournament starts Thursday?
Watch what kinds of short game shots Woods plays when the scores count. If he's using some of the same 4-iron bumper chips he tried in Scottsdale, he's playing in "limp" mode, and it isn't likely to be pretty.
If he's somehow managed to find something that lets him use a full array of shots around the green, it would be amazing to see.
Winning that 15th major would truly be a story for the ages.
In the real world? A round or two under par and a respectable showing that includes the weekend would be a huge, dramatic moral victory for a guy who desperately needs one, and a shot of adrenaline for a sport that needs one, too.