Augusta ready for media circus

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will pull up stakes at the James Brown Arena after four days in Augusta on Sunday. If you miss your chance at seeing those performing tigers, another show rolls into town two weeks later.

The Tiger Woods & Co. Reconstruction Tour will officially commence at Augusta National Golf Club during Masters Tournament week. The star attraction will play at least two gigs April 8 and 9, with an option for two more rounds on the weekend.

“After a long and necessary time away from the game, I feel like I’m ready to start my season at Augusta,” Woods said in a statement announcing his return from the scandals that have scarred his family, tarnished his image and forced him to take a four-month hiatus from the game he’s dominated for the last decade.

This is such big news that the afternoon version of SportsCenter made it the subject of its entire one-hour show. And the NCAA Tournament started Tuesday night.

The ESPN folks even called to ask me if Augusta was prepared to handle the media storm that’s coming. The answer is simple: Augusta is as prepared as it always is to be the center of attention during the Masters Tournament.

We survived the Martha Burk insurgence of 2003. We can handle an extra golfer in 2010 – even if that golfer is the center of a worldwide fascination that is unrivaled in sports history.

The Masters could have fared just fine with or without Woods, but it won’t have to. The world’s No. 1 player hasn’t skipped Augusta since debuting in 1995. It’s the only event other than the U.S. Open that he’s never missed since first becoming eligible to play.

That he’s coming to compete for a fifth green jacket is never a bad thing – even if it might detract at times from the charm that makes the Masters what it is. Woods adds a buzz to a tournament like nobody else. If he somehow in spite of the rust gets himself into the mix on the back nine Sunday, the eyeballs watching the television coverage around the world could rival the day he heralded his greatness with a 12-stroke triumph in his pro major debut in 1997.

“Before we had people who didn’t care about golf watching because of him,” said former PGA champion David Toms. “Now people are really going to watch because it’s such a big story.”

They’ll be watching in ways and for reasons we never imagined. While the club will conduct the tournament in the usual fashion with the usual patrons and the usual media doing its usual genuflecting, Woods will be under a microscope.

And so will Augusta.

All the bombast and innuendo of the tabloid press, however, isn’t going to breach the perimeter of Augusta National during Masters Week. We’ll just need to put our blinders on when everything outside the gates gets put in the spotlight of a TV glare that doesn’t usually befall our little corner of the world.

I’m sure the TMZ’s and E! News and paparazzi will be filling up what’s left of the $400 a night hotel and motel rooms even without credentials to the tournament. Without access, they’re certain to throw the usual barbs at the commercialization of Washington Road that camouflages the golfing oasis that hides behind walls of bamboo and assorted greenery.

But who cares? Let them spend their money and take their pictures and make all the fuss they want outside of the golf tournament.

Inside, let’s hope that the Tiger drumbeat will be kept to an appropriate level and the tournament can provide the theater we’ve come to expect for more than 70 years. It’s hard to imagine patrons heckling the four-time champion or breaching the decorum that Augusta National tends to inspire in them.

And the golf media – often accused of glossing over Woods’ flaws – will hopefully ask the kind of questions that don’t dip into the tawdry details of his private affairs. Get to the gist of the story behind of the fall of the world’s most iconic star without wallowing in the muck. Then move on to the golf.

Most of all, let’s make sure that Woods’ return doesn’t overshadow what is always the best sports event of the year. Players strive their whole careers to participate in the Masters, and they deserve to enjoy the arena that’s been greeting golfers each spring since Horton Smith claimed the first invitational prize in 1934.

Woods said in his statement announcing his return that “I view this tournament with great respect.”

Let’s hope for the sake of the Masters and Augusta that everyone else does the same. Just because a good circus comes to town doesn’t mean everyone has to act like clowns.

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