Augusta, Ga. — On the day Tiger Woods arrived at the Masters, he changed out of his spikes after playing nine holes, walked across the parking lot and went upstairs to the office of Augusta National chairman Billy Payne.
Payne would not discuss details of their Sunday afternoon meeting.
Based on his blunt criticism of Woods during his annual press conference Wednesday, they probably weren’t talking about how Woods was hitting the ball or his chances of winning a fifth green jacket.
“It is simply not the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here,” Payne said. “It is the fact that he disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids and our grandkids. Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we saw for our children.”
They were the strongest words from a Masters chairman since Hootie Johnson’s famous “point of a bayonet” reply to Martha Burk in the summer of 2002 when he defended the club’s right to an all-male membership.
Payne was one of the Augusta National members who stood among the Georgia pines to the right of the first fairway on Monday, the first time Woods played before a gallery since being caught cheating on his wife five months ago.
No other golf official has been so outspoken about Woods’ behavior.
No other major is like the Masters.
Even though Woods is a four-time champion and the No. 1 player in the world, he is at Augusta National by invitation, just like the other 95 players who will tee it up on Thursday.
Woods had already played his final practice round — nine holes with Mark O’Meara — and left the course when Payne held his news conference. The chairman saved his thoughts on Woods for the end of his opening statement.
“Is there a way forward? I hope yes. I think yes,” Payne said. “But certainly, his future will never again be measured only by his performance against par; but measured by the sincerity of his efforts to change.
“I hope he now realizes that every kid he passes on the course wants his swing, but would settle for his smile.”
It was the final press conference before the Masters begins with more scrutiny — more curiosity — than ever of Woods. No one knows what to expect from his game because Woods has not competed since winning the Australian Masters on Nov. 15.
“He should do pretty good — he’s coming off a win,” Robert Allenby cracked.
Woods has appeared to be as interested in his behavior as his performance during the practice rounds. He is smiling more, making eye contact, even signing more autographs.
Woods attended the Golf Writers Association of America dinner Wednesday night to receive his player of the year award.
It was the 10th time he had received the award — but the first time he had ever stayed long enough to watch other players receive their awards. Woods typically leaves early. This time he stayed for an hour, leaving as dinner was being served.
Payne declined to discuss what type of security was in place, nor was he overly concerned that the return of Woods might overshadow a tournament that attracts the largest golf audience of the year.
“We are very secure in who we are, and the Masters has almost now a 74-year history,” Payne said. “We just kind of do things our way. We are not threatened by other big news stories or things like that.”
Even so, there has been little attention on anything else this week.
Ernie Els, the only player with multiple PGA Tour victories this year, was not invited to the media center for an interview this week.
Steve Stricker is No. 2 in the world, with four victories over the last year putting him among the best players who have never won a major. He was introduced at a press conference Tuesday as an eight-time PGA Tour winner who has played on three Presidents Cup and one Ryder Cup team and is making his 10th appearance in the Masters.
“A major,” he said. “Is that the way I’m supposed to answer that?”
There are four teenagers in the field, and three Italians.
There have been only minor changes to Augusta National, yet a week of hot weather has left the course firm and fast, and players concerned how tough it will get when it counts on Thursday.
Also overlooked, even though it has been known for months, is the return of Jack Nicklaus. He will join his old rival, Arnold Palmer, to hit the ceremonial tee shot at 7:40 a.m. Thursday to get the Masters under way.
Palmer said he was disappointed when Woods did not play at Bay Hill two weeks ago. Nicklaus refused to share his thoughts on the mess Woods has gotten himself into. It is rare for Nicklaus to refuse to answer questions.
Nicklaus was surprised, however, when Woods decided to make the Masters is first tournament back. He recalls Seve Ballesteros coming to Augusta National in 1986 complaining about not being sharp because of not playing enough.
Ballesteros was leading in the final round, but he hit into the water on the 15th and helped pave the way for Nicklaus to win a sixth Masters.
“That was purely somebody who had not been playing a lot of competition,” Nicklaus said. “And Tiger not being sharp, you know, he understands that himself.”
Woods does not tee off until 1:42 p.m. with K.J. Choi and Matt Kuchar. He should be making the turn when ESPN’s live coverage begins.
In some respects, it will be the start of a new era for Woods.
Payne certainly hopes so.
“We at Augusta hope and pray that our great champion will begin his new life here tomorrow in a positive, hopeful and constructive manner, but this time, with a significant difference from the past,” Payne said. “This year, it will not be just for him, but for all of us who believe in second chances.”