AUGUSTA, APRIL 1, 2009—Ten months removed from reconstructive knee surgery, Tiger Woods will return to action at next week's Masters. It will mark the sports world's first sighting of him since he made like Willis Reed to win the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, and his first glimpse of a golf landscape that has undergone seismic changes in his absence. Some alterations to the sport will be obvious. At Augusta National, for example, after years of so-called Tiger-proofing to make the course longer and harder, the green jackets have decided to use the 6,450-yard member's tees and installed moving walkways throughout the hilly course. What's more, holes 11, 12 and 13 have been rebranded as Amen He's Back! Corner.
Interest in Woods is so acute because he has maintained a Pynchon-like seclusion since the operation to repair his torn left ACL last June, communicating with the public only through cryptic musings—"Anyone else heard the rumors about a Gossip Girl spinoff? I need to know!"—posted late at night on his Facebook page. The only confirmed sightings of Woods have been at Mommy & Me gatherings throughout central Florida, and according to sources in his daughter Sam's music class, the Tiger who shows up at Augusta National will be markedly different from the one who limped out of sight last June. He is said to have added 17 pounds of muscle, most of it in his left leg. Gone will be the trademark swoosh on his cap, replaced with MAYO CLINIC, which took advantage of golf fans' newfound interest in medical issues and became his newest big-ticket sponsor. Woods will also unveil a reconstructed swing designed to reduce the torque on his left knee: After carefully studying a sequence of photos of Charles Barkley taken at 1999's American Century Celebrity Golf Championship, Woods has incorporated a pronounced hitch in his downswing. It is a testament to his tremendous athletic ability that he is still able to drive the ball up to 210 yards.
To chronicle the return of the world No. 1—yes, Woods had piled up enough points to retain his lofty perch while idled—ESPN and CBS are planning wall-to-wall coverage. (A tiny camera has been embedded within Woods's knee, so viewers can gauge how well his surgically repaired ACL holds up during the Masters.) Television executives are giddy about Woods's return, since ratings have plunged 93% without him. It's been so bad at Golf Channel that instead of providing live coverage of the Fall Series, the network ran an endless loop of Woods's 2006 appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. The Tour has been similarly desperate to maintain interest in its product, resorting to such fan-friendly initiatives as awarding extra FedEx Cup points to players for every autograph they sign (a hit!) and adopting the slogan These Guys Aren't Half Bad (a bust).
Few beyond the most dedicated Tour diehards noticed, but plenty of new plotlines emerged while Woods was sidelined. The 2008 British Open and the PGA Championship were among the most fiercely contested tournaments in recent memory, as Tiger's absence afforded most of the players the only good chance they'll ever have to win a major. Why, with Woods out of the picture, even Ernie Els felt confident enough to drop the sports psychologist from his payroll, and Phil Mickelson was emboldened to put a driver back in his bag. What no one predicted was that Shaun Micheel would sweep the British and the PGA. His career had stalled two years earlier because of a medical condition that lowered his testosterone, but he credited his rejuvenation to repeatedly watching tape of Woods's ballsy victory at Torrey Pines.
Woods will no doubt be motivated to put these upstarts back in their places at Augusta. If that's not enough to make him want to crush the field, there's also the trash talk aimed his way at the Ryder Cup. After the U.S.'s lopsided victory last fall, a handful of European players were quoted as saying that the outcome might have been different had Woods played. As was noted, if you throw out Tiger's singles results, his Ryder Cup record is 7-12-1. Also, the U.S. has lost four of the five matches in which he competed.
The question on everyone's mind is, Can Woods continue his advance on Jack Nicklaus's record 18 major championships? Everyone, that is, except his agent, who might also be wondering about Tiger's viability off the course. Before blowing out his knee, Woods was on pace to become the first billionaire athlete, but the marketplace has changed dramatically since he went under the knife. Without its star pitchman, the Buick line was folded by General Motors; nobody would have noticed if it weren't for the two eponymous tournaments that vanished from the Tour schedule. And then there was his acrimonious split from Nike. Woods reportedly was upset with the company's I AM STEWART CINK ad campaign, which debuted after Cink won the FedEx Cup on the strength of four consecutive runner-up finishes.
Most of all, the 2009 Masters will help answer a question that was posed recently by Today correspondent Rocco Mediate: "Does Tiger still matter?" Just as pickup basketball players used to tuck their hair behind their ears in homage to Steve Nash, in the aftermath of Torrey Pines there was a distinct uptick in grunting noises and grimacing on golf courses across the country whenever a player missed a fairway. That was then. Now only a few diehards in red polos pretend to double over in pain after bad shots. Woods's astonishing win at the Open, and the ensuing jolt of his surgery, was the biggest story in sports in 2008. Can we ever care as much about him as we did during those emotional days last June? We'll soon find out.
NOW AT SI.COM
Your one stop for offbeat humor and the wackiest sports stories and links, including Hot Clicks and the Daily List, is SI.com/extramustard.
In the absence of its star, will the PGA Tour UNDERGO SEISMIC CHANGES?
ILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER