CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The mess Tiger Woods created for himself most likely will never leave him entirely. But the time is coming, and perhaps soon, when the focus shifts almost exclusively to his game, his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus and his place in history.
That time is not this week at Quail Hollow.
And it probably won't be the following week in front of the party crowd at The Players Championship.
The Masters was the safest place for Woods to return from golf after perhaps the swiftest and most spectacular downfall ever by a sporting icon. Augusta National is synonymous with good manners. People go to watch golf. But while it was his first public display of golf, no other tournament in the world (except for maybe the Tavistock Cup) is so private.
That's what makes Quail Hollow such a big test.
The tournament is a sellout — even some of the caddies couldn't scrounge up tickets for their friends — and these tickets were sold to general public. Security has been beefed up, as expected. Even that won't keep someone from saying something stupid during the five hours or longer that Woods is on the golf course.
Are we back to normal?
Not when the PGA Tour sends out a notice that TV crews can begin setting up two hours before Woods' interview on Wednesday, and that print media can be seated 30 minutes before Woods speaks.
And not when the tour limits the number of seats in the interview room and inside-the-ropes passes for each media outlet. That wouldn't have happened a year ago. It might not happen a month from now.
Woods tees off Thursday at 7:40 a.m. on the 10th tee with British Open champion Stewart Cink and two-time major winner Angel Cabrera. That means he will be making his way along the "Green Mile" at Quail Hollow — as brutal a finishing stretch as there is in golf — on Friday afternoon when the crowd is gearing up for the weekend and has had plenty of refreshments.
Eventually, the attention will be mostly on his golf.
Cink began preaching forgiveness in December even before Woods confessed to extramarital affairs. He is hopeful that having one tournament out of the way will allow Woods, and those watching him, to get back to golf.
"It'll be a different crowd, but I wouldn't expect a whole lot of unruliness," Cink said. "I don't know if that's optimistic or what. That's just what I think is going to happen. I think people love watching Tiger Woods play golf. All that other stuff that's happened, people have forgiven him. And why not? We're supposed to forgive."
Forgive and forget?
That might be asking too much.
The best tonic for Woods is playing golf because that's what attracted so many people to him in the first place. It would help even more if he were to win, and he showed how close he might be with a tie for fourth at the Masters, despite not having played in five months. Still, even a victory pose in a red shirt won't erase five months of sordid revelations.
Such is the price Woods will have to pay for his reckless behavior.
"Now every one of you has good reason to be critical of me," Woods said when he spoke to family and friends in his first public apology at the TPC Sawgrass in February.
Woods goes back to Sawgrass next week for The Players Championship, the same clubhouse where he showed his face for the first time since running his SUV over a fire hydrant and into a tree on Nov. 27, setting off this sex-laden saga.
He will not be in the Sunset Room, set aside for corporate hospitality that week. He will be facing a crowd that celebrates misery, which is why so many of them camp out around the island green 17th hole on the Players Stadium Course.
Tee times are supposed to be random on the PGA Tour, although if a player winds up on the same end of the draw — either early on Thursday and late on Friday, or vice versa — a mechanism kicks in that allows officials to swap it around.
Woods hasn't played enough for that to happen, although don't be surprised if he winds up playing Thursday afternoon and Friday morning, meaning he would face the 17th hole at a benign hour.
It will be another step in his recovery, win or lose.
There will be more tournaments in different locations — the Monterey Peninsula, Philadelphia, Ohio, Britain, Boston, Chicago. Even as the attention shifts more toward his golf each time he tees it up, the past still will be fresh in those markets.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Yes, Woods was caught swearing by the TV mikes and flung a club from his hands. He was defensive in his TV interview after the final round, which received more attention than the effort he made to be more attentive to fans.
If anyone was expecting Woods to have a personality overhaul in one week, it was only because he set himself up for failure by saying he would change. Give that time. It's best to measure progress when the year is over.
Woods was anxious about the reception he would get at Augusta, relieved when he heard the warm applause.
More uncertainty awaits at Quail Hollow.
"I don't think it will be any more of a big deal than usual," Cink said. "We'll see. I guess I'll see."
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