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Media Frenzy Follows Tiger Woods’ Return to Golf

April 8, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Tiger Woods teed off in round one of the Masters Tournament, following his absence because from play following revelations of marital infidelity. Jim Lehrer reports on the game and the reaction of fans in Augusta, Ga.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight: the many layers to the return of Tiger Woods.

The world-famous golfer played in the opening round of the Masters tournament in Augusta, Georgia, today. The married father of small children had not played since the news broke of his secret sexual life with many women.

Today was a major media event broadcast live, even, in 3-D on ESPN.

Sportswriter and author John Feinstein joins us from Augusta now. He’s the author of several golf books, including the upcoming “Moment of Glory.”

John, welcome.

JOHN FEINSTEIN, sportswriter/Author: Thanks, Jim. Good to be with you.

JIM LEHRER: Does today’s event justify all the attention it received today?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Jim, I’m not sure anything justifies the attention that Tiger Woods has received in the last couple of months. But, certainly, the day itself has been spectacular in every possible way.

Tiger Woods is playing very good golf. He’s four under par, still finishing his round, a couple of shots behind the leader, Fred Couples, right now. Tom Watson, who’s one of the great players of all time, is only one shot out of the lead.

But you would think — there are 96 players in this field, Jim, but you would think, based on what has been going on here this week, there was one player in this field.

JIM LEHRER: What was the effect of Tiger Woods’ absence on golf up until today?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, very simply, Jim, everything in golf doubles when Tiger Woods is involved, quite literally. Television ratings double. Corporate involvement doubles. Overall fan interest, ticket sales double.

There are two groups of people who watch the game of golf in the Tiger Woods era. One are the golf fans, who just want to see whomever is playing and whomever is on the leaderboard. The other are people who only want to watch Tiger Woods.

And, since this all began, on November 27, it’s interesting that people have sort of broken into two camps. The golf fans want to know what he did, why he did it, how it came about. The Tiger Woods fans just want to see him doing what he was doing today, which is playing golf.

JIM LEHRER: If he’s going to have — he’s — is it — comeback, of course, is the word here. Is his comeback dependent on his continuing to play great golf?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Absolutely, because that’s what made him rich and famous.

And his golf game is what made him the billionaire — he’s the first athlete billionaire ever. And if he’s going to continue to be a major figure in sports and out of sports, he’s got to be a great golfer.

If he becomes just an OK golfer or even a very good golfer, then the interest in him will go down, and people will assume that the events off the golf course affected the way he played on the golf course. So, for him to remain a superstar in the pantheon of sports and outside of it, he’s got to continue to be a dominant player, not a good or very good player.

JIM LEHRER: Is it — can he play golf well enough to overcome what got him to this difficult situation? In other words, the scandal, can that really ever go away in the minds of most Americans?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, I think the scandal’s going to stay there. And I think this is part of his resume, much the same way Monica Lewinsky will always be part of Bill Clinton’s resume, no matter what he did as president, no matter what great work he and President Bush I have done together as ex-presidents.

This will be part of Tiger Woods’ resume, whether he breaks Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships — he’s at 14 right now — and goes on and wins 25, or not. But, having said that, I think he can continue to be a great golfer, for the simple reason that one of his great strengths as an athlete is his selfishness.

That’s — Tiger Woods has always only cared about Tiger Woods and about his golf. That’s probably the reason he acted the way he did away from the golf course, but it’s also the reason why he can go out today, having not played in five months, and play as well as he’s played.

JIM LEHRER: And the — the legacy of Tiger Woods is dependent on how he plays from this point on, though, is it not?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: The golf legacy is.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: But his legacy as a human being is totally changed by what’s gone on these past few months.

His father once claimed that Tiger could be as important a figure in the world as Gandhi. I think that ship has sailed.

JIM LEHRER: That ship has sailed.

JIM LEHRER: What about the — the — the simple issue of money? What is now on the table that wasn’t on there until this morning at tee time — or tee-off — sorry, this afternoon at…

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, he’s…

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Right. He teed off at 1:42 this afternoon.

JIM LEHRER: One forty — yes, right.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: You know, he’s lost a lot of sponsors during this period. Many of them have gone away.

His number-one sponsor, however, Nike, has stayed with him, because he’s so important to them, and, as you probably know, released a new commercial last night that’s very controversial in which Tiger is standing silently looking into the camera while you hear his father’s voice asking him, you know, what were you thinking? What have you learned from this?

And a lot of people think the timing of the commercial was terrible and the tone of the commercial is terrible, that the time to stop selling Tiger Woods as a great person has long passed, and they should simply sell him as a golfer.

But you know as well as I do, Jim, the way corporate America works. If he starts winning, if he wins this week, the sponsors will come running back to him.

JIM LEHRER: Just like nothing ever happened.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Exactly right, because they want to sell product, and Tiger Woods has always been able to sell product.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

John Feinstein, good to talk to you again. Thank you.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Thank you, Jim.