Tiger has a chance to be loved
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – There is no other way to put it: Tiger Woods was awful in 2010. He did not win. He did not really even contend, except perhaps for the magical 66 on Saturday in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, which was wiped out by a 75 the next day. He finished 68th on the PGA Tour money list, behind such standout performers as Michael Sim and Steve Marino. Steve Marino? Only Nancy Pelosi suffered a worse year.
That being said, this year’s slide may turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to Woods.
Take the example of the icon he is chasing, Jack Nicklaus. Nicklaus, too, believe it or not, went through his own awful stretch – the difference being it wasn’t accompanied by an off-course scandal.
Nicklaus didn’t win a single tournament in 1979 and during the first five months of 1980. At 40, he was more the Olden Bear than the Golden Bear. Then it happened – his Open triumph at Baltusrol, the sign on the scoreboard proclaiming: “Jack is Back.” Jack was back, alright, and more revered than ever. He went on to win the PGA at Oak Hill a few months later by seven shots. Woods is now perfectly positioned for a similar renaissance.
Failure had been the one problem with Woods since he turned pro in 1996. Yes, problem. Because though greatness generates its deserving amount of praise, it also can establish great distance between the performer and his audience. Every so often we want to see cracks in the armor, just wide enough to be assured the ones we idolize are flawed human beings, like us, and to find out if they can demonstrate a different – perhaps more impressive – type of heroism and the steel will to climb out of the abyss. We never saw that with Woods. He didn’t give us the chance. Until now.
If he can revert to the Woods of old – on the course, that is – he will become what he has never been: beloved. Just like Nicklaus was in 1970 after he dropped a few pounds and grew a little hair, and like Arnold Palmer has been since he changed the sport forever a half-century ago. Golf surely needs for this transformation to happen. The glimpses into the post-Woods universe, with the knee injury in 2008 and the poor play in 2010, were not pretty. That day will come soon enough. Woods turns 35 in a few weeks.
And it can’t be solely about how he scores. He’ll score just fine, as he did in the opening round at Sherwood Country Club on Thursday with an almost routine 65, which could have easily been a 62 or 63 if he had converted a few putts. He birdied each of the five par 5s. That was how he won the green jacket four times, and just about everything else.
It also will be determined by how he acts. In that regard, he can’t afford to be the Woods of old – distant, focused only on the task ahead, acting as if the fans were intruders instead of the people who have made him a fortune and the most well-known athlete on the planet.
All Woods needs to do is to engage in a little more interaction with the gallery. His game wouldn’t fall apart if he smiled more often and perhaps said a few more words to the fans. A great deal of them have forgiven him, and those who haven’t and probably never will would still admire his brilliance if he were to return to form.
However, if Thursday at Sherwood is any indication, Woods still has some work to do. In a fairly intimate atmosphere – the gallery numbered roughly 150 – he was all business as usual.
There is time. With the amount of golf Woods has played, he might be an old 34, but there is no reason he can’t be at the top of his profession for most of the next decade. The Nicklaus record of 18 majors (Woods has 14) is still within reach. So is Sam Snead’s mark of 82 career victories (Woods has 71). One lost year is nothing, not after everything he has accomplished.
Whatever happens at Sherwood this weekend won’t provide the real test, even if Woods regains the No. 1 ranking, which is certainly possible. This is an exhibition, not a tournament.
The real test will come in 2011, starting with his anticipated season debut in late January at Torrey Pines. The opportunity is in front of him to become more popular than ever. The question is whether or not he will take it.