Bringing The Noise To Augusta

By Jeff Schultz
Updated: April 3, 2010

ATLANTA — When the first Masters was held in 1934, it wasn’t called the Masters at all but the Augusta National Invitation Tournament (Augusta NIT?).

Bobby Jones believed the name, Masters, proposed by Clifford Roberts, was too presumptuous.

Five years later, Jones got over those concerns and the Masters was born. We came to learn why. No golf club can equal the combination of Augusta National’s unique beauty and course design. No event can equal the tradition of the Masters.

No tournament can match its Sunday drama.

And for as much fun as it is to poke at the club’s green-jacketed fossils and their antiquated mindset on most matters, including, but not limited to, membership guidelines, there’s something charming about a major sporting event that charges only a buck for a soda and a buck-fifty for a sandwich at concession stands.

The Masters prides itself on being bigger than anybody who plays in it, much like the Super Bowl is bigger than any team. It’s possible that by the end of this week, that tradition will continue.

But not right now. These next few days will belong to Tiger Woods.

He holds a news conference Monday. He practices Tuesday and Wednesday. He plays his first round Thursday in over four months. He could be battling to make the cut Friday or possibly hovering near the lead going into the weekend.

Nobody can know. We only know it will be news, as will every glare or sneeze or missed putt or made putt or porn-star news conference that happens to be going on simultaneously.

Prepare for all-Woods, all-the-time, and that’s even assuming TMZ doesn’t break some story outside the gates about Woods judging Wednesday night’s “Miss Par 3″ beauty contest at the Augusta Hooters.

(This isn’t to be confused with the “Miss Green Jacket” pageant on Saturday, presumably only for those “Miss Par 3″ contestants who make the cut.)

Augusta National can control the circus inside the gates.

Credentialing, badges, crowd control – that all falls in the club’s private domain. But even they have limitations on focus, and news flow, and certainly wagering habits.

“Right now we’re up about 60 to 65 percent from what we normally would expect at this point,” said Richard Gardner, the sportsbook manager at Bodog, an online betting service. “We already have about 20 prop bets up on Tiger and we may have 20 more by next week.

“All you’re hearing about is the different odds on Tiger. Everything that seems to be happening is a direct reflection on him and the news surrounding him. You can see it in the way people are betting.”

Woods hasn’t played since the Australian Masters (a non-PGA Tour event) in November. But he is an overwhelming 4-1 favorite on Bodog’s board this week. The next closest: Phil Mickelson at 9-1.

Odds aren’t set by reality as much as they are by what people are thinking. Woods consumes our thoughts. From the time he crashed his Escalade into a tree outside of his Florida home in November, he has led the news in all of the wrong outlets — National Enquirer, TMZ, People — as well as the right ones for the same wrong reasons.

Golf Digest sort of went the other way. It cut ties with him, firing him as a $3-million-a-year instructional columnist. I guess this means it’s acceptable for a sports publication to have a $3 million conflict of interest with somebody it covers, as long as that athlete isn’t sleeping with porn stars.

Every day, there seems to be a new bizarre story. Alleged mistress No. 15 has emerged (Another porn star. Shocking.) Rachel Uchitel, alleged mistress No. 1, reportedly received a $10 million payoff to keep her from telling her story. (Question: If one of 15 mistresses gets $10 million, what would Elin Nordegren get in a divorce settlement?)

Augusta doesn’t have a public sale of tickets for tournament rounds. Imagine if it did. What could the club charge this year? What would the media credential demand be if it was thrown up to every bubble-head with a Webcast, as the NFL does with the Super Bowl?

They don’t want to hear this at Augusta National. But the interest in this year’s Masters is driven by Woods. He has been golf’s meal ticket for a decade. This week in Augusta, he’s the car wreck we can’t help but watch.

We want to know: Where’s his game? Where’s his head? Where’s Elin?

Will a fan scream something at him? Will he say something back? Will a process server with divorce papers manage to track down Woods during the week and say, “Tiger Woods? You’ve been served”?

Think that would be bigger news than Ernie Els shooting seven-under?

The Masters, one of sports’ premier events, returns this week. But at least until the weekend, it’s on the undercard.