Tracking Tiger

Twinge of Payne had to hurt

Augusta’s chairman delivers cutting remarks

By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / April 8, 2010

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — At his annual news conference yesterday, Augusta National chairman Billy Payne noted the significance of Tiger Woods’s return, but had some scathing remarks for the four-time champion.

“It is not simply the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here,’’ said Payne. “It is the fact that he disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids. Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we saw for our children.

“Is there a way forward? I hope yes. I think yes. But certainly his future will never again be measured only by his performance against par.’’

Payne’s comments, which came at the end of his opening statement, are the strongest yet by one of golf’s power figures. When asked to expand on his thoughts, Payne declined. But it was clear that the off-course actions by the world’s top-ranked player don’t sit well with the leader of the exclusive, all-male club that runs the Masters.

“I hope he now realizes that every kid he passes on the course wants his swing but would settle for his smile,’’ Payne said. “We at Augusta hope and pray that our great champion will begin his new life here in a positive, hopeful, and constructive manner, but this time, with a significant difference from the past.’’

Apology appreciated
Before taking questions during his news conference Monday, Woods issued an apology to his peers on tour for putting them in the unenviable position of having to answer questions about his off-course scandal.

Not necessary, Phil Mickelson said.

“He doesn’t owe me an apology,’’ Mickelson said. “I mean, in the last 12 years, he’s done so much for the game of golf. I don’t know if there’s been an individual who has capitalized more on the opportunities that he’s brought to the game of golf than myself. He doesn’t owe me a thing.’’

Others appreciated the gesture.

“If it was necessary or not, I don’t know, but I thought it was nice,’’ said Steve Stricker. “We’re really in no position to answer those questions. Everybody’s in the dark. We’re all speculating.’’

Said Geoff Ogilvy: “I don’t think anyone personally held it against him. There might be a few players that were grumpy about it, but we have been answering questions about Tiger for 15 years, so it’s not any different.’’

Swoosh there he is
Nike has a new Woods commercial, featuring the voice of his late father, Earl Woods. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that the black-and-white spot shows Woods looking into the camera, with the voice of his father saying, “I want to find out what your thinking was; I want to find out what your feelings are. Did you learn anything?’’ ESPN and the Golf Channel started airing the ad yesterday.

Practice, practice, practice
For the third straight day, Woods opted for an early-morning practice round, starting at 8 a.m. and getting in nine holes with Mark O’Meara. Woods’s on-site preparation for this Masters has been extensive. He visited twice before tournament week, each time playing for two days. His tournament-week preparation began Sunday, when he arrived, registered, and played an afternoon nine with O’Meara. Full 18-hole practice rounds followed on Monday and Tuesday. After his trip with O’Meara around the front nine yesterday, Woods spent time chipping and putting at the new practice facility, then signed autographs for nearly 10 minutes. As in years past, he chose not to play in the Par-3 Contest.

Jacked up
When Woods said Monday that his focus was on becoming a better person in the wake of the scandal, he added, “If I win championships along the way, so be it.’’ In light of that comment, Jack Nicklaus was asked if Woods — owner of 14 major championships — still sees eclipsing Nicklaus’s record of 18 as a high priority. “Of course he does. Why do you think he’s here?’’ Nicklaus said. “He’s here to play golf. That’s what he is, he’s a very good golfer. He’s excited about wanting to play, and I think that’s great for him.’’ If Woods is to make a move on Nicklaus, this might be an important year. He has won half of his 14 majors at this year’s venues: Augusta National (1997, 2001, 2002, 2005), Pebble Beach (2000 US Open), and St. Andrews (2000, 2005 British Open).

You bet
Despite the five-month layoff, and the fact that he hasn’t won here since 2005, Woods has been established as the betting favorite by bookmakers in Britain, where sports wagering is legal. Woods is listed as 3 1/2-to-1. “He’s favored to win the tournament, and those guys who set the odds know a lot more than I do,’’ said Padraig Harrington. “I would not be surprised at all.’’

That 70 show
Interesting stat as Woods gets ready to play his first round with Matt Kuchar and K.J. Choi at 1:42 p.m. today: In 15 Masters starts, Woods has never broken 70 in the first round. His best first-round score is 70, shot four times (he went on to win three of those). His highest score is 76, which came in 2003.