And finally, the thud.
That was the sound of Tiger Woods falling from his perch as the world's No. 1-ranked golfer, official as of today when Lee Westwood ascends to the top spot. Westwood's new reign as No. 1 was determined by an algorithm so confusing, I'm having cold-sweat flashbacks to high school algebra class. In fact, the algebraic math involved in understanding the rankings is so universally daunting, I'm sure Tiger himself has sheet-thrashing nightmares remembering Finals Week, and like all of us, wakes up relieved that his current life's mess is at least more soothing than another gauntlet with high school math teachers.
[Photos: New golf great, Lee Westwood]
Back to the golf. Tiger isn't No. 1 anymore. This was a sentence so unthinkable at one time, it could be ranked next to notions like, "Einstein once looked at the test sheet of the guy sitting next to him in science class,” or "Mozart plagiarized all his symphonic melodies from his uklele-playing neighbor in the next apartment."
Truth is, Tiger falling from the No. 1 ranking is symbolic only. He stopped being the No. 1 player in the world way before today's World Golf Ranking.
With apologies to Hemingway, Tiger's fall happened two ways – suddenly, and then gradually.
The sudden part was nearly a year ago, Nov. 27, 2009, when he famously drove that Cadillac Escalade into that tree outside his Orlando home and was found half asleep, muttering and shoeless in the street. Even nearly 12 months later, the image of the uber-perfect Tiger – gorgeous family, a championship career unlike any in sport, wealth beyond the Sultan of Brunei's dreams, a billion-dollar smile and a fitness level to make Jack LaLanne drop and do crunches – in such disarray is jarring.
Worries about his health and safety soon faded into slack-jawed shock about the breadth of his embarrassing infidelities. Surely, Tiger wasn't the first unfaithful married athlete in history. In fact, recent rankings show he was No. 4,324,516 on the list of Recently Unfaithful Athletes. Instead, it was the swiftness of the tell-all stories from his girlfriends that were stunning. One after another after another after another … and soon, one sponsor after another after another after another – Gillette, Accenture, TAG Heuer, AT&T, GM – found a reason to distance itself from Tiger.
All in a six-week span.
That was the sudden part.
The gradual part was more intriguing. While we suspected that Tiger's return to golf would be rough, choppy and unproductive, half of each of our brains still wondered: Does this superhuman player have the superhuman ability to block out superhuman distractions and use superhuman concentration to play superhuman golf? After all, superhuman feats, thy name is Tiger Woods.
Moreover, when would he return? Tiger announced in the famous "Blue Curtain" speech of Feb. 19, 2010, that he did not know when he would return to playing golf. The smart money said he would be back for the Masters, because Tiger Woods missing the Masters is like peanut butter missing jelly. And the smart money was smart: He did return for the Masters, and he altered nearly all of our perceptions when he almost won the thing, finishing tie-4th, and stirring flashes of form with a Sunday 69 under the most intense of sports world scrutiny.
But Phil Mickelson wore green instead.
I say the fall was gradual, because then came a series of landmark incidents that indicated Tiger Woods was no longer playing the best golf in the world. Taken individually, each incident was surprising. Taken collectively, the incidents spoke loudly.
First came the missed-cut at Quail Hollow in May, and that Friday 79 where he appeared to quit on the back nine.
Next came the "WD at TPC," when Tiger shockingly walked off the course at Sawgrass on the Sunday of the Players Championship, citing a neck injury. This from the guy who won the guttiest U.S. Open in history, taming Torrey Pines and Rocco Mediate in 91 excruciatingly painful holes on essentially a broken leg.
A humdrum tie-19th at the Memorial in front of Jack Nicklaus further indicated to his top rivals that the No. 1 player in the world was not so No. 1-ish. Then came Pebble Beach.
If a geographical happening of longitude and latitude can make a spirit soar, the sight of Pebble Beach had a chance to play healer to Tiger's game and soul. After all, the signature win of his career came on the Monterey Peninsula, a 15-stroke win at the 2000 U.S. Open that stands alone as maybe the greatest single performance in the history of the game. And when Tiger cut a fairway wood around the cypress tree on the 18th hole Saturday, a golf shot that summoned roars and memories, it appeared he may have shed a seven-month ordeal of embarrassment and agony. He was in position to win the U.S. Open.
Except he shot 75 on Sunday, and Graeme McDowell was America's national champion.
At St. Andrews, all the same principles of Pebble applied for Tiger – place, history, comfort. And yet, an opening round of 67 for Tiger faded into a tie-23rd, and a guy named Louis Oosthuizen authored his maiden, in historic fashion, too.
And at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, Tiger Woods might as well have been David Horsey, Seung Yul Noh or Troy Matteson – since he finished tie-28th with each of the aforementioned gentlemen.
While this played out, all around Tiger in the spring and summer of 2010, things were happening on the golf landscape – important things, game-altering things.
Dustin Johnson damn near won two majors. Rory McIlroy, too. And Martin Kaymer won his first, at the PGA. Kaymer's game is so thoroughly ready, he can topple Westwood's No. 1 status next week. Rickie Fowler didn't win anything, but he gained enough time contending and playing on Tiger-free leader boards that he has a stature and air and quality all the others have – a golf resume free of Tiger-induced scar tissue. Each of these players is in his 20s, mind you.
By the time Tiger had his darkest-before-dawn moment, when he finished tie-78th at Firestone, ahead of only one player, the fall was complete.
Woods was no longer the No. 1 player in the world. He may have been ranked No. 1, because of complexities involving two-year's worth of points systems, but nobody thought of him as such. Probably not even, in the deepest reaches of his soul, Tiger Woods himself.
What happens today with the World Golf Ranking is a rare case of a machine being slower than a human. In a world where a Yahoo! search returns you results in thousandths of a second, the World Golf Ranking computer was slower than human intuition and the human eye.
Two questions are left.
Will Tiger make it back to No. 1? Yes, he will. The finalization of his divorce, plus the challenge of mastering a new swing coach's thoughts will stir in Tiger a new fire, and he will re-ascend to the top spot in 2011.
Will he stay at No. 1 for another 281 weeks, as he did until today? No, he will not. The landscape is new. Young players were born into a Tiger-free golf world, and the No. 1 spot will bounce among them and Tiger for the next few years. Tiger's nerve for putting isn't what it used to be, nor are his knees, nor is his aura of invincibility.
The World Golf Ranking computer is late to the party, and told us today what we learned all through the past year – all is changed in golf, changed utterly. It will never be the same.