Play, Tiger, play.

Play the Masters next week.

Play it even if you’re not sure that you’ve completely figured out your short game. We’ve already seen you at your worst this year, chunking and skulling the ball over and around the greens in Phoenix and Torrey Pines, and we still want to see you try again.

Play it because watching you remains one of our favorite pastimes, whether it’s to cheer you on or root for you to finish last. You’re relevant. You still matter to people. That’s a gift that doesn’t last forever.

Play it because you almost always fare better at the Masters than most people think you will. In this century, you’ve won it three times and finished in the top 10 eight more times. In the nine years since you last won this tournament, in 2005, you’ve finished out of the top 10 only twice, which includes last year when you didn’t play after undergoing back surgery.

Play it because if you do show up, no one really thinks you will play well, which will make it all the better for you if you do. The Masters was made for you, and you for it. Take 2010. Your life was a shambles after the 2009 Thanksgiving weekend nightmare of your own doing, and you came to the Masters having not played in a tournament all year. So what do you do? You shoot 68-70-70-69 and finish tied for fourth.

Play it because you missed it last year and you can’t miss it again this year. Here’s why. You’re 39. You love the place, and you’ll only have so many chances to play it in your best years. Jack Nicklaus won the Masters at 46, and perhaps you will too, but it’s certainly not going to get easier to win as the years go by.

So play it once more before you turn 40.

Unless you’re hurt, or worried that you could re-injure your back, play it, Tiger. For heaven’s sake, it’s the Masters and you’re you. It would be almost un-American to not have you there.

Astute readers familiar with the dozens of critical columns I’ve written about Tiger over the past 15 years might wonder if this is an April Fools’ Day joke.

It is not. The Masters needs Tiger Woods. And he needs the Masters. His game is in trouble. He shot a career-high 82 in late January, then withdrew on the 12th hole of the first round the next week with stiffness in his back. And that was the last we’ve seen of him this year.

For the first time in his career, he looks truly lost on a golf course. Some wonder if he’ll ever get back to some semblance of normalcy. It’s a valid question.

So he needs to go to a place where he will always be welcomed. He needs to go to a place he knows as well as any course on earth. He needs to go home.

Augusta National Golf Club will always open its doors to Tiger, and has ever since his first major victory, at 21 in 1997, when he won by 12 shots.

If Tiger doesn’t show up, the Masters will carry on, of course, but it won’t have the same energy. Rory is young and interesting and going for the career Grand Slam, but he doesn’t come close to moving the needle the way Tiger does. Phil is Phil, as entertaining and appealing as any golfer of this era, but he’s still not Tiger.

Tiger’s presence makes every tournament eminently more fascinating, and will continue to do so until we are certain he can’t be competitive anymore. That day has not yet arrived.

So, Tiger, what else do you have to do next Thursday and Friday? (And perhaps Saturday and Sunday?)

Play.