Will Tiger be back in the hunt?

Last year, Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open, the last of his Major triumphs, on one leg. Perhaps that was a lot easier to accomplish than what he needs to do now to overcome the biggest crisis of his life and career. But, given his legendary fighting skills, there is no reason to suspect that he may not cross the hurdle and fulfil his destiny, writes Nirmal Shekar.

Nothing in the world of sport carries as much symbolism as the fall of an icon. For, the destruction of a much-loved idol is often instantaneous while its creation, and its development into a finished product, may have taken years to complete.

The Tiger Woods phenomenon did not happen on us overnight. But it took the American idol probably less than two minutes — the time it took Woods to drive his Cadillac Escalade out of the parking lot of his $8 million house in Isleworth, Florida, and crash it against a fire hydrant on a neighbour’s property — to dismantle it.

‘Just’ wars and unjust wars, Copenhagen and Iraq, job losses and livelihood issues, almost everything appeared to have dropped out of public consciousness for more than a few days as Woods-gate consumed acres of newsprint and dominated the airwaves and cyberspace.

Normally an issue that might have excited nobody but a bunch of client-starved divorce lawyers, Tiger’s tale unfolded like a sordid soap opera tailor-made to meet the demands of the digital era’s reigning culture of frivolity. Not surprisingly, it has since been commented on by almost everyone who might have had access to a keyboard and a broadband connection.

That, of course, doesn’t

“I am deeply aware of the disappointment and hurt that my infidelity has caused to many people, most of all my wife and children,” Woods said in a statement released on December 11 on his website.

“I want to say again to everyone that I am profoundly sorry and that I ask forgiveness. It may not be possible to repair the damage I’ve done, but I want to do my best to try.

“After much soul searching, I have decided to take an indefinite break from professional golf. I need to focus my attention on being a better husband, father, and person.”

While it is highly unlikely that we have seen the last of Woods, a winner of 14 Major titles and professional sport’s first billionaire, it is clear that he is in retreat for the time being, beaten by the only person who could have knocked him down for the count — Tiger Woods himself.

Therein lies the irony, without which this story might not have been worth anything more than a couple of Page Three paragraphs.

Self-destruction is seductive; and not anywhere as much for the self-destroyer as for those watching the act. This is particularly so when the person bringing misery on himself happens to be occupying a pedestal as high as Woods’.

“Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy,” wrote Scott Fitzgerald.

Tiger’s Tragedy, to be sure, has many versions. The white and black version — hero to zero — is the simplest, easiest to write and understand and, inarguably, the most popular but it may not stand the test of time.

For, the truth is, Woods was never a hero in the sense that Nelson Mandela is one, or even in the sense that Muhammad Ali is a hero. He never took a political position, he never identified himself with the downtrodden, he never looked beyond the fairways and greens to life’s many hopeless bunkers to try and make a difference to people’s lives.

He may appear selfish, and in the light of recent revelations about his nocturnal habits even hypocritical, but Woods never had any illusions of grandeur and wasn’t aspiring to the status of a gladiator.

The vertiginous fall of the world’s richest athlete — idolised by millions of youngsters — may have a single obvious proximate cause but the larger picture is much more complicated.

Now that our dreamboat has sunk, setting aside our moral indignation for a moment, it might not hurt to admit that we have always struggled to arrive at a nuanced perspective when it comes to sporting greats such as Woods. This is especially true in an era when advertising copywriters — always a creative lot in the sense that they often create something out of nothing — turn gifted athletes into infallible supermen.

In sport, there are mediocre athletes, good athletes, great athletes, even geniuses such as Woods. But there are no infallible supermen, on or off the field. This category simply does not exist. It is something that is manufactured for our consumption by clever PR people.

Yet, the fault may be ours. We are the consumers. And we look for the heroic and the iconic in our sports superstars. But it turns out that very few of them live up to our expectations over the long run. And Woods will not be the last one to disappoint us.

The history of sport is full of morality tales that should have, by now, surely helped us reassess our view vis-À-vis the sports superstar as a role model. But we tend to ignore all the warnings and continue to believe that top performers in sports are great role models.

Because we do this, because we are as gullible as we are, multi-national companies invest huge amounts of money into packaging a Woods or David Beckham into exactly what we desperately want them to be — and much, much more.

Sport lends itself easily to mythmaking and often facts can be lost in the haze of adulation. It took nothing more than a minor car accident to expose Woods. It has taken even less in other cases.

But the remarkable thing about sport is, it almost always offers a second chance: redemption is within reach. So it was for Diego Maradona, so it was for Beckham, and so it will be for Woods.

We will never again mistake him for Mother Teresa on the fairways, but we can expect him not to misuse his status as a supreme champion again.

“Time usually heals all wounds. He is a great athlete. He will figure it out,” said Jack Nicklaus, winner of 18 Major titles and the only player Woods has measured himself against.

The Professional Golfers Association (PGA) would certainly want Woods to ‘figure it out’ sooner rather than later. For the sport needs Woods more than he needs golf. Tournaments featuring him attract two times the television audience of events in which he does not play.

When the charismatic Bjorn Borg abruptly quit pro tennis at the end of the 1981 season, after being beaten both in the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals by John McEnroe, it was widely believed that tennis’ television ratings would take a hit. But McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Co. had tremendous popular appeal and the great Swede’s absence did not make a major impact on the game’s following.

This may not be the case in golf today. No golfer is anywhere near Woods when it comes to pulling power. No other sport is quite as dependent on one player for popularity as is golf today. Nobody has even remotely threatened to match Woods this decade. He has won 12 of his 14 Major titles in the last 10 years, a period during which he has triumphed in an astonishing 30 per cent of the tournaments in which he has played.

Golf is not a sport that lends itself to individual domination. Well, it wasn’t, until Woods came along, winning the first Major at the 1997 Augusta Masters, by 12 shots. He then won his first U.S. Open by 15 strokes. If you don’t know golf, that’s a bit like winning an ODI by 200 runs or a Wimbledon final 6-0, 6-0, 6-0.

Last year, he won the U.S. Open, the last of his Major triumphs, on one leg. Perhaps that was a lot easier to accomplish than what he needs to do now to overcome the biggest crisis of his life and career.

Then again, given his legendary fighting skills, there is no reason to suspect that he may not cross the hurdle and fulfil his destiny.

* * * WHAT OTHERS SAY

I think the mystique has gone. He is suddenly, and I hate to say it, more normal now. Let’s hope golf is not damaged by that. It shouldn’t be.

— Colin Montgomerie, European Ryder Cup captain

Obviously Tiger’s main priority now has got to be to rebuild his life. And at the age of 34, he can take as much time as he needs to get it right. But golf needs him back, and sooner rather than later.

— Paul McGinley, European Ryder Cup star

At a time when the world is having a tough time economically, we don’t need any more blows to our sport. With Tiger out, it’s definitely going to have an impact.

— Graeme McDowell, Northern Irish World No. 38

The tour isn’t all about Tiger. There are 200, 300 guys out here playing to make a living like he did. It isn’t just about one player. He isn’t bigger than the game. Unfortunately, he won’t be with us to make things run a little smoother but I think we can survive without him. We have in the past, and we look forward to his return when he does come back out.

— Boo Weekley, American Ryder Cup player

I think once he gets his mind focused again, and he gets back totally into this, it may be something that fires him up even more. We all want to see him beat Jack’s (Nicklaus’s) record. Probably the only one who doesn’t want to see him break Jack’s record is Jack. This may make him even more focused and a better person.

— Nick Price, Zimbabwe’s twice major winner

Indefinite is a scary word. That’s not good for us. But I’m sure he’ll get it worked out.

— Geoff Ogilvy, former U.S. Open champion

It was a shock because there is this stoic image of Tiger. I don’t know about his private life. I’m just surprised, just as everyone else is.

— Ryo Ishikawa, Japan’s youngest money title winner

The entirety of someone’s life is more important than just a professional career. What matters most is a young family that is trying to cope with difficult life issues in a secluded and caring way. Whenever Tiger may return to the game should be on the family’s terms alone.

— Mark Steinburg, Woods’ agent and friend

One thing people don’t understand is that we’re human. You’re not born with a menu on how not to do things wrong. You’re going to make mistakes like every human being. It’s just unfortunate that you’re in the public eye so much and a lot of people get hurt by it.

— Dwyane Wade, NBA’s Miami Heat guard