Will Bear's words affect Tiger's plan?
By Scott Michaux| Columnist
Sunday, January 10, 2010

Another PGA Tour season opener went off without Tiger Woods (seven consecutive years), but the game is afoot to predict when and where the scandal-besieged star will turn up.

The possibility that Woods might skip one or even all of the season's four majors is being bandied about. Jack Nicklaus fueled the debate with a challenge of sorts.

"If Tiger is going to pass my record, I think this is a big year for him in that regard," Nicklaus said Friday when asked in a conference call whether Woods' dilemma creates more doubt about him surpassing Nicklaus' standard of 18 major championship victories. "If he doesn't play this year, then obviously the chore will be a little tougher."

The long-held assumption by many -- including Nicklaus -- that Tiger catching the Golden Bear was an inevitability almost invariably took into account a big 2010 major season. With the year's first three majors being played on courses where Woods has won multiple times and by record margins, it was easy to assume he could close the gap -- perhaps with a sweep.

Of Woods' 14 major wins, seven have been claimed at Augusta National Golf Club (4), Pebble Beach (1) and St. Andrews (2). Nicklaus won half of his 18 on the same three courses.

Even Nicklaus thinks 2010 set up perfectly for the world No. 1. At age 34, it's prime time to make hay on such suitable venues. Though Woods is a regular in the mix at Augusta National every year, the U.S. Open won't return to Pebble Beach until Woods is in his 40s, while the British Open will return to the Old Course at five-year intervals when Woods is 39, 44 and 49.

"Certainly, this year with where the majors are -- Augusta, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews -- he basically owns all three of those places," Nicklaus said.

But that ownership was before Woods' personal life came crashing down on him after a late-night car crash the day after Thanksgiving.

"I don't know the answer to what he's going to do and what he's going to play," Nicklaus said. "I think he's the only one who can answer that."

That is certainly the case, but since the Woods camp isn't talking, just about everybody else is. Speculating on when and where Woods will return is the most popular hobby these days. The theories run the gamut from as soon as the Florida swing in March to next year to never.

"If he works on the emotional things he needs to heal, I could see 2011," John Cook, one of Woods' closest friends now playing the Champions Tour, told Golfweek . "It wouldn't surprise me at all."

"Those who say he won't play again are crazy," Butch Harmon, Woods' former swing coach, told Sky Sports. "People who say he probably won't play this year, I don't really believe that. If you want to put a timetable on it, I'd say you may see him in Florida before the U.S. Masters."

It all depends on Woods' primary motivations -- whether it's fixing his marriage, rehabilitating his image or closing the distance on Nicklaus. Here's one person's analysis of the possible choices for Woods' return:

- Doral or Bay Hill: If the marriage can't be salvaged, Woods might make a quicker return in an attempt to tune up with a start or two in March before the Masters. For golf fans, this would be the best-case scenario.

- Augusta: There is a school of thought that the Masters might be the perfect place for him to return because media access is restricted and the fans rank among the game's most respectful. Still, the frenzy of returning at a major venue would be intense and would be the ultimate test of Woods' mental strength.

- Quail Hollow: If he decides he needs to sacrifice a major start to show how serious he is about making changes, Woods might eye early May as a good time to reboot. He is very comfortable in Charlotte, N.C., and the Quail Hollow folks run one of the best tournaments around and would do everything possible to keep the media and fans from getting out of hand.

- Memorial: Assuming he really wants to play in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, which he hasn't skipped since 1995, a tune-up at Jack's place seems reasonable. Like Augusta, media access is restricted and he would be made comfortable.

- Pebble Beach or St. Andrews: Woods isn't afraid of coming directly off long layoffs and playing majors. If he's going to play the U.S., you would expect a warm-up start. If he chose to skip it, maybe he thinks an overseas return is favorable. It would be a long way from TMZ, but the British tabloids would be in overdrive.

- Torrey 2011: If Woods skips the first three majors, don't count on him playing at all in 2010. Taking the whole year off would either show how serious he's trying to save his family or just how deeply he's scarred from the embarrassment he's brought on himself. It would also end his streak of 14 consecutive seasons with a victory, three behind another Nicklaus record.

- Never: Even if he had to give up half his nearly billion-dollar fortune in a divorce settlement, Woods is certainly set for life and might opt to just disappear. His enjoyment of the spotlight seemed dimmer already in 2009 before the fall. He might decide it's not worth it anymore if the joy of competition is gone.

Whatever happens, the doomsayers who cry that golf will be irreparably damaged are missing the point. The game will survive as it always has even if the television ratings and sponsorship dollars drop.

"The game had Bobby Jones, the game had Walter Hagen, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Nicklaus," Nicklaus said. "The game always survived that. The game will continue to go forward. Tiger is a big influence, probably the largest one we ever had. And certainly, we hope he comes back and plays. It's not all about one person. The game is a big game."

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

From the Sunday, January 10, 2010 edition of the Augusta Chronicle
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