There has been much talk about Tiger Woods picking the Masters for his comeback appearance because of the tightly controlled environment at Augusta National, thus providing a comfort zone for the world's most famous golfer to resume his career after his self-imposed exile.
His return is being billed as the biggest television ratings bonanza in golf history, given the tabloid-crazed aspect of his sexual escapades in a world with a seemingly insatiable appetite for such coverage.
"Tiger's return to competitive golf at this year's Masters will surely be one of the biggest stories the sporting world has seen," ESPN executive vice president John Wildhack said.
But is it possible, in this era of all-inclusive and ever-intrusive media coverage, that Augusta National's power is so strong that Woods' comfort zone will include no live TV coverage of his first round in front of the azaleas, over Rae's Creek and around the Georgia pines?
ESPN has the first two rounds of Masters telecasts, April 8 and 9, and is limited to 3 1/2 hours of live coverage each day -- 3 to 6:30 p.m. (St. Louis time). If Woods tees off early in the first round, he could be done before ESPN's telecast starts, thus relegating the monster media event to at best live on-line coverage of him on holes 11, 15 and 16 (where all players are scheduled to be shown) and brief "look-ins" of something he did a short time earlier during "SportsCenter" broadcasts that precede live coverage.
Masters chairman Billy Payne was not available for comment Thursday. But a source in Augusta said there "absolutely" is the possibility Woods will play outside live TV coverage. ESPN's Wildhack also was not available to amplify on his aforementioned prepared statement, but an ESPN source said "it is true" that Woods could play before TV coverage commences.
Tee times traditionally are not announced until the Tuesday before play starts on a Thursday.
Under normal circumstances, it would be preposterous to even suggest such a situation could exist in 2010. But this is Augusta National, and the well-heeled private organization does what it wants.
That's why when club officials were concerned in 2003 and 2004 that activist Martha Burke might organize a boycott of advertisers because Augusta had no women members, Masters officials simply ordered the removal of commercials from TV coverage and membership assumed all telecasting costs. Ever seen that done with any other sporting event?
And that's why analyst Gary McCord was yanked from CBS' coverage after quipping in 1994 that some greens were so slick that the grounds crew must have "used bikini wax" on them, a remark that didn't sit well with Augusta's august hierarchy. McCord hasn't done a Masters telecast since.
And that's why Masters officials allow only a small amount of TV coverage compared to other tourneys, and permit only four minutes of commercials per hour, about 10 fewer than the norm for golf.
CBS has the final two rounds of the Masters, and if Woods misses the cut or isn't in contention and thus plays early during the weekend, it also could be shut out of a significant amount of live coverage of his return -- its telecasts begin at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday.
Sean McManus, who runs CBS' sports and news divisions, wasn't available Thursday to discuss the matter, and a spokesperson for him said the network has no comment about Woods' tee-time situation. But McManus recently made no secret about the impact of Woods' return -- and he was speaking before it was known the comeback would be on golf's grandest stage.
"I think the first tournament Tiger Woods plays again . . . will be the biggest media event other than the Obama inauguration in the past 10 or 15 years," McManus told Sports Illustrated's Web site. "It is hard to overestimate how much interest there will be. Tiger Woods is the most famous, most recognized, most accomplished athlete in the world, and his celebrity and prominence is even larger than it was."
Now it's a question of how many people actually will see his return engagement -- live.