Deliberating Tiger's plans for 2010

With the news that Tiger Woods has lost his first major sponsor after announcing his infidelities on Friday, we turn our thoughts to how he will fare once he gets back inside the ropes. When (or if) Tiger tees it up in 2010, what will be the state of his game? And what kind of zoo can we expect should he return to the game in the next year?

With so many things up in the air surrounding the world's No. 1 golfer, ESPN.com golf writers Bob Harig and Jason Sobel answer those questions and more in their e-mail chat, Alternate Shot.

For more than two weeks, the scandal surrounding Tiger Woods was a huge story about a famous athlete, but it wasn't a sports story. That changed on Friday, when Woods announced that he will be taking an indefinite leave of absence from professional golf, admitting for the first time that his previously termed "transgressions" were indeed "infidelities."

Now such personal decisions have not only affected his family life, they also have altered Woods' career, leaving many questions still unanswered. Obviously the foremost among them, Bob, is this: When will he return to competition?

And really, we still could pose that query without the first word, too.

I think he will return, but certainly the question as to when is wide open.

"Indefinite" leaves a lot to the imagination. Obviously you and I have no idea. Tiger might not know. Anything is possible, I suppose, from a couple of months to the entire year. But if I had to bet the house, I would not put it on him skipping the season.

In fact, I'd be willing to bet he won't skip a major championship. And yet, if he missed the Masters, as big a deal as that would be, there still would be the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and the British Open at St. Andrews -- and a lot of time between now and then.

Well, I think you nailed it there. Something tells me even Woods himself doesn't yet know when he will return, so for anyone else to ponder such a matter is pure speculation. That said, if I was absolutely forced to make a guess, I'd say this: If we don't see him back at Bay Hill, we may not see him at all in 2010.

Arnold Palmer's annual event would allow Tiger the chance to stay at his nearby home all week (you know the paparazzi would never leave him alone on the road) and play a course on which he owns a terrific winning percentage (he's won each of the past two titles), and it would give him one week of tournament preparation before Masters week. But if it doesn't happen by then, well, it wouldn't surprise me to see Woods forgo the entire year.

Good theory, but I don't think he'll blow off the whole year if he skips the Masters -- and I'm not convinced he won't be at Augusta National. But if he does take a pass on the year's first major, the sense of urgency for getting back will be gone.

If you think of this time away as one in which he works through his personal issues while also keeping his golf game in the back of his mind, he's then got plenty of time to get ready for three majors in a seven-week stretch (in the summer). And let's face it: Do you really see him skipping Pebble Beach and St. Andrews?

Again, it's all speculation. To answer your question, I didn't see him skipping early-season starts at Torrey Pines, Doral or the Match Play, either, so right now I think anything is possible. And I became even more leery about a 2010 comeback after it was confirmed recently that Woods' wife, Elin, had purchased a home in her native Sweden that is reachable only via boat.

I'm guessing that she will invite her husband along, too, which means Tiger will be further off the radar than ever before if it's a full-time move. When taking time off in the past, he was at least spending a good deal of his time at Isleworth, where he could hone his game at the private community's top-rate golf course and facility.

Just a guess, but I doubt there's anything like that near these new digs in Sweden.

I'm sure he can lug along a hefty shag bag to keep his game sharp, if he so desires.

Which brings us to this: How do we compare this layoff to the one he took last year heading into this season, the one forced by knee surgery? Anything to learn from that?

Obviously that was a forced deal, and for a long time, he could not physically swing a golf club. But the fact is, there is a good chance he will be away from competition for a long time.

I know he's been through a lot during the past few weeks from a personal standpoint, but I still think his return from this saga will be easier than the one he made earlier this year after being away from the game for eight months because of that injury.

Let's face it: Even though golf is thoroughly a mental pursuit, if and when he finds himself between those gallery ropes once again, he will remain the same player we've known since he turned pro in 1996.

After his father, Earl, passed away three years ago, Tiger took nine weeks off and returned at the U.S. Open only to miss the cut, later saying he wasn't ready. One month later, though, he triumphed at the Open Championship. The lesson is that no matter how difficult his off-the-course life is, the dude is still the most talented golfer in the world. And it's not close.

Very true. But is there any emotional toll from this? There was when his father died, although as you say, he got it together a month later.

Now, however, he might not have so much support. There could be some anxious moments at tournaments. I understand the notion that nobody is better between the ropes when it comes to focus, but never before has Woods had as much to block out as he will when he returns.

And as anticipated as his return from injury was back in February at the WGC-Match Play, just imagine what this return will be like -- whenever it is.

Very true. We'd all like to think that crowds at professional tournaments are respectful of the players and wouldn't try to inflict themselves into the competition, but you know there will be some who are so disenfranchised by all this recent news that all it would take is a few of them yelling the names of alleged mistresses in his downswing to severely impede his progress.

We've all witnessed Woods become overly angered about camera shutters and other seemingly innocuous noise and movement during his swing in the past. Upon his return, he may be wishing those were his only problems emanating from outside the ropes.

And he certainly won't win back any supporters by continuing the tradition of swearing and club-throwing. If he's even the least bit worried about keeping folks in his corner, Tiger should wear a perma-smile from first tee to 18th green every round, as unlikely as that might seem.

We are unlikely to see a personality makeover, but perhaps a few changes are in order. And it won't be easy, because it's simply not Tiger to smile and wave to the crowd or engage well-wishers.

But he can hang to sign a few more autographs, look a few young fans in the eye, try a little harder. I am not suggesting we view him as a sympathetic figure these days, but it is hard to imagine the embarrassment he is enduring right now. And whether it is deserved is not the point here. He'll have a lot to overcome when he returns, and it's not just a rusty golf game.

Having been witness to little children getting stampeded by overeager adults in hopes of garnering Woods' autograph, I've always thought he gets a bum rap for not signing as much as some other players. One of those kids is going to get truly injured someday, and Tiger will have that weighing on his already laborious conscience.

But you're right -- little things like that are going to be more important than ever. Already we've seen that the majority of golf fans will root for him as much as ever before, and some 15 percent -- perhaps seeing him humanized for the first time -- will actually root for him more than in the past, according to an ESPN.com SportsNation poll.

Still, anything he can do to help sway those numbers in his favor will only benefit him in the long run.

OK, so we know that first tournament back is going to be a zoo. But could Tiger minimize it at all by talking publicly about all this stuff before he comes back? Does he owe his fans something like that?

Or should we just expect him to announce his next tournament the Friday prior, with hysteria to follow?

This is way past owing something to the fans. If he felt that way, there would have been a news conference on his front lawn two weeks ago. Tiger has always committed to events at the last possible minute, so I don't see why that would change for his first tournament back.

After all, it doesn't really benefit him to give the world a month's notice. As for the first time he speaks publicly, I'm not sure it will be in a tournament media center after a Tuesday morning practice round. I've heard suggestions ranging from Oprah to David Letterman, but like just about everything else regarding Woods, it's all total speculation.

The truth is, we have no idea about what his future holds. Once again, Tiger has enveloped himself in privacy -- just the way he likes it.