Sooner or later, Tiger Woods is going to go back to work.
When and where he returns to the PGA Tour is the great unknown. His self-imposed "indefinite" break from the game after the disclosure of his shocking extramarital gymnastics could last weeks, perhaps months.
A few have even speculated he may take the entire 2010 season off to straighten out his private life, but if you buy into that theory you don't know much about Woods. He will be back sooner than later, because golf is not only what he does, it's who he is.
It says here there is no way he will miss the Masters (April 8-11), no matter the condition of his marriage or the progress of his self-examination.
He will not, he cannot, pass on an opportunity to draw one step closer to Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championship titles, a record that is Woods' life mission.
The number of chances is finite: four per year until a golfer reaches his mid-40s, when his skills begin to decline. Woods knows each start in a major is precious and any major he skips is one he can never get back.
He has won 14 of them and turned 34 on Dec. 30. He is still in his prime, but don't think he isn't aware that his physical decline may be hastened by a reconstructed left knee that may still be giving him problems.
Also, the major championship venues this year are set up for Woods to make a run at the Grand Slam. The U.S. Open is at Pebble Beach, where he lapped the field by 15 shots in 2000, and the British Open is at the Old Course at St. Andrews, where he won by eight shots in 2000 and by five in 2005. The PGA Championship is at Whistling Straits.
It all starts at the Masters, a tournament he has won four times.
From Woods' perspective, there could be no better place to play golf than the insulated Augusta National Golf Club. The Masters is run not by the PGA Tour but by members of the club, who carefully orchestrate every detail of the tournament week.
Woods might hear the occasional heckler during practice rounds because those tickets are sold through a lottery. Once the tournament proper starts, however, the galleries consist mainly of patrons who have had their tickets for years if not decades. They are knowledgeable, genteel golf fans who will hush when Woods is over the ball and applaud his good shots.
He also will face minimal media scrutiny at the Masters, which accredits only professional journalists who cover golf on a regular basis.
He will do his traditional Tuesday news conference sans TMZ and "Entertainment Tonight" and the moderator -- an Augusta National member -- will ask that questions be limited to golf. For the one or two who don't comply, Woods will have well-rehearsed answers. Then it will be on to business.
It's highly likely Woods will play at least one tune-up event before the Masters, just to get the feel of competitive golf again. So peg his return to the Arnold Palmer Invitational, March 22-25 at Bay Hill, one gated community down the road from his home in Windermere, Fla.
Palmer has been a grandfatherly figure to Woods and will be protective of him. Again, it will be a controlled atmosphere, with the PGA Tour bending over backward to accommodate Woods and making sure distractions are kept to a minimum.
It wouldn't surprise me to see Woods return even earlier, say for the World Golf Championships-CA Championship, March 11-14 in Doral, Fla.; or the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, Feb. 16-21 in Marana, Ariz.
The sooner he gets back on the course, the sooner he can start to put some of his problems behind him. He'll never again be looked at quite the way he was pre-Thanksgiving, but the next athlete/celebrity pratfall is just around the corner and the public's fascination with Woods' personal life will wane.
He will go back to chasing records. Many golf fans, if not most, will go back to cheering for him.
Right or wrong, that's the way these things work.
Five things to watch on the professional golf tours in 2010:
PHIL MICKELSON: Lefty turns 40 on June 16, but we may not have seen his best golf yet. Putting lessons from Dave Stockton seem to have fixed his Achilles' heel -- short putts -- and he played masterfully down the stretch in 2009, winning the Tour Championship and the HSBC Champions in his final two starts. With or without Tiger Woods, Mickelson could have a monster year.
STEVE STRICKER: What does he do for an encore after winning three times and finishing second to Woods on the money list? The answer is to change nothing. "Strick" will stick to the formula that's worked since 2005, when he began one of golf's great comebacks by simplifying his swing and repeating it, over and over. The only thing missing from his resume is a major championship. Stay tuned.
YOUNG GUNS: Every year, there are fresh new faces burdened by unrealistic expectations. Perhaps 2010 will be different. Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, 20, already has risen to No. 11 in the world and plans to play a full-time PGA Tour schedule. Rickie Fowler, 21, who has a background in motocross racing, is a pedal-to-the-metal rookie with star potential.
MICHELLE WIE: She finally had her breakthrough year, leading the U.S. Solheim Cup team to victory and revealing an emotional, passionate side. Then she won the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in November, her first victory of any kind since she was 13. Wie seems poised to finally live up to enormous expectations -- and just in time for the LPGA Tour, which has contracted to 24 events.
PGA CHAMPIONSHIP: The 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits set records with more than 94,000 tickets sold and overall attendance surpassing 300,000. The event generated $76.9 million in spending. Can the Kohler Co. duplicate those numbers for the 2010 PGA? It's a tall task because the Straits' novelty has worn off to an extent and the economy is less friendly. But a bold plan for on-course amenities will improve the spectator experience.