Ventre: Can we talk golf? OK, Tiger will win Masters

While a concerned nation debates furiously over the long-term ramifications of Tiger Woods’ return to golf, one of the key elements — in fact, the crown jewel of his overall plan — is set to kick in very soon:

He will win the Masters.

Yes, I know there is intense debate occurring on either side of that aisle. I mean, let’s face it. This is uncharted territory. We’ve been living with the status quo for a whole four months now. Some people like what they have — lurid tales of steamy women and X-rated text messages. But others long for a new direction, like Tiger appearing in an actual golf tournament again.

It is an issue that threatens to tear our country apart. But before we dive into the scalding brew of overheated golf discourse, let’s first focus on what we can all agree on. That might lead us to common ground, which in this case is the 18th green at Augusta.

Tiger has won 14 major championships. He has won 98 tournaments, including 71 on the PGA Tour. He didn’t do all that by allowing himself to careen off course while playing golf; he saved that for his free time. (In Tiger’s bio on his own Web site, it says, "In addition to his playing exploits, Woods is busy off the course, too.")

Whatever your opinion is of his recreational activities, it’s fair to say his brain has been a steel trap when it comes to locking onto a goal in golf. Now, is that trap in need of repair after all the time it has been involved in extramarital match play? Quite possibly, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

The bet here is that Tiger will use the Masters the way a high-powered business executive uses a weekend spa. The tournament is familiar ground — he has won it four times — so it will feel like a refuge. He is more likely to attract vocal support from the galleries there than he will at any other event. He will be placing himself in a positive environment where he can block out distractions and concentrate on golf.

Tiger may be dumb when it comes to jeopardizing his family life and alienating endorsement partners, but he’s brilliant at his sport and keenly aware of his place in it. He knows there is no quicker path to erasing the memories of his illicit harem than by replacing them with images of him donning another green jacket.

I don’t think it’s as simple as saying, “Tiger knows that winning is the best thing for him, so therefore he’ll win.” Yet these are extraordinary times. He knows it, and his determination to succeed will exceed anything the public has witnessed before.

He will not only want to win, he’ll want to slay the field, like he did in 1997 when he won his first Masters by 12 strokes. Before that, the last time somebody won a major by 12 strokes was the British Open in 1870, by Young Tom Morris, in a 36-hole format. And to my knowledge, Young Tom didn’t do that after being hounded for weeks by TMZ.

The other side of the equation is the rest of the Masters field. Who will be gunning for Tiger? Who will want to take this opportunity to exploit Tiger’s rust and smack him down when he is considered vulnerable?

Can’t think of anybody? That’s because there isn’t anybody.

Certainly there are golfers talented enough to win the tournament. But there isn’t a soul among the entrants who can come close to having the same amount of motivation and desire to win as Tiger Woods has at this moment in time. Rather than challenge him, most of them will probably dart across the fairway like frightened squirrels.

The prevailing opinion among most of the players in the Masters — whether they want to admit it or not — is that the 2010 edition is already Tiger’s tournament. He made that clear when he chose it for his return.

The TV cameras will be focused on Tiger almost exclusively. His gallery will look like New Year’s Eve in Times Square compared to the meager handful of loiterers who will tag along with some of the other contestants.

And I pity the fools who wind up in Tiger’s group in the early rounds, and paired with him on Saturday and Sunday. Imagine you’re playing with Tiger and most of the free world, as well as much of the confined portion, is rooting for the story of the decade, and there you are, trying to keep it together to spoil it all. You’d be as welcome at Augusta National as Martha Burk.

Approaching the 2010 Masters, Tiger reminds me of Jason Bourne, the government-trained assassin in the series of films based on the Robert Ludlum books. Outwardly, at least after the scandal, he is conflicted, confused, unsure of himself. But deep down, he remains a cutthroat, ass-kicking machine, who when challenged will summon his experience, training and killer instinct to cut a swath through the enemy. He would probably only have to karate-chop Phil Mickelson once in the stomach.

There will be those who will doubt Tiger’s bold plans and wonder if the buildup to it was based on trickery and deception. Many will clamor to keep things as they are, which would mean more tournament victories by guys such as Hunter Mahan, Dustin Johnson and Camilo Villegas.

Rather than take sides, I would like to build a bridge between the two factions and create a world where Tiger can make a dramatic and triumphant return to the Masters — and the tour — so players like Mahan, Johnson, Villegas and others can continue to bank more money than they ever dreamed of.

A win by Tiger will be a win-win with immediate benefits that extend to everyone involved. And when it happens, it will seem as though all the ruckus leading up to it was worth it.

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