PALM HARBOR — Tiger Woods is returning to competitive golf at the perfect time and place, according to some of the PGA Tour professionals in town to play the Transitions Championship at Innisbrook.
Woods announced on Tuesday he will play for the first time in more than four months at the Masters, the first major tournament of the year, on April 8-11.
Woods has won the Masters four times and has never missed the tournament since turning pro in 1996.
"This doesn't surprise me in the least,'' 2008 Masters champion Trevor Immelman said. "It makes sense to come back there. They can control what they want to control there.''
And that control was a big reason why most of players agreed with Woods' decision to return at Augusta. The Masters is one of the most guarded tournaments on the schedule. It is not run by the PGA Tour, and fewer media credentials and tickets are distributed. Players are protected, and Masters officials have a zero-tolerance policy for unruly "patrons.''
"The reason he will be okay there is fear,'' 14-year professional Stewart Cink said. "The series badge at the Masters is the most important ticket to hold on to if you're a sports fan. There's a very high fear of losing that ticket. If anybody gets out of hand, which I don't think will happen, then the tickets will be taken up.''
Fear will provide the perfect bubble for Woods to return, Jim Furyk agreed.
"It makes a lot of sense because it is the most controlled atmosphere you could have,'' Furyk said. "Everyone is different that week. The fans are as well behaved as you can get because they're all afraid they're going to lose their ticket. Everyone is in awe of that place.''
Woods' decision to play in the Masters was the buzz Tuesday at Innisbrook. He has not played in a tournament since his famous SUV crash on Thanksgiving night outside his home at Isleworth in Orlando. Later revelations of marital infidelity sent Woods into hiding. His announcement Tuesday was the second time Woods has made a public statement since the crash.
"The major championships have always been a special focus in my career and, as a professional, I think Augusta is where I need to be, even though it's been a while since I last played,'' Woods said in his statement.
Woods' last tournament was the Australian Masters in November, which he won. He remains the top player in the official world rankings. Despite the long layoff, Tour veteran Rocco Mediate has no doubt Woods will come back as strong as ever.
"Would I be surprised if he won the Masters? Absolutely not,'' said Mediate, who lost an epic playoff to Woods at the 2008 U.S. Open. "I can assure you when he comes back he will be 195 percent.
"I think he'll be better. He's faced some things he's never had to face. He's faced a whole bunch of bad stuff. He's become a little more human to everybody else, which is probably good. But as a golfer he has not become a little more human. Here's one thing that's for sure, the No. 1 ranking is not up for grabs unless he quits. I'll say he wins five before the year's out.''
Woods' last Masters win was in 2005. He chose to bypass two Orlando events: next week's Bay Hill, which he has won six times, and the Tavistock Cup exhibition event Monday and Tuesday.
How Woods will be treated on and off the course, and how he will play, remains to be seen. But Mediate said he would be shocked if it wasn't like the old days when Woods gets between the ropes.
"I don't think he's going to come out and hit it sideways, no matter what anybody hopes or thinks,'' Mediate said. "But he does have a tough road. He's been blisterized for this.
"I'm sure he can't wait to hit his first shot.''
Furyk added: "Never say never with that guy."