This time a year ago it was hard to fathom what laid ahead for Tiger Woods. Would his personal problems be a blip on the radar? Would he have renewed focus on his game? Would he even play in 2010? We got all those answers, and most of them were quite ugly. So rather than venture a guess at how he'll return with a fresh start in 2011, I'll just cling to the hopes that he's back to being the Tiger Woods that we've grown to know, and love, and hate.
If you forgot what it's like when Tiger Woods contends on a Sunday, just think back a couple weeks. The sports world didn't drop the NFL, but it definitely allowed golf to capture a nice sliver of the public's attention, and that was for an 18-man Silly Season event. The Chevron World Challenge!!! That's what we've always called a silly season, made-for-TV, Tiger gets his pals together for a weekend of golf and disguise it as a golf event.
Instead of a ho-hum tournament, Tiger charged out to a big Sunday morning lead with only one man able to catch him. Just so happens that man was Graeme McDowell, who chased down world number two, and in the process locked up his spot as 2010's global player of the year. Would those clutch putts on the 72nd and 73rd holes of the tournament created even a stir outside the hardest of hardcore golf fans had they been against Jim Furyk or Phil Mickelson? Or even world number one Lee Westwood? No way, no how, not even a blip on the radar as Americans vegged out in front of whatever NFL game was filling up the airwaves.
Put that into perspective. Tiger vs. Graeme stole the sporting public's attention, on an NFL Sunday, in December, in a silly season event. Imagine if that were the Masters? Even the Players?
When Tiger Woods contends, he raises the importance of the event, makes everything all the more dramatic. This isn't breaking news, mind you. But the showdown at Sherwood earlier this month certainly drove home that point.
He's So Fun to Root Against
When Tiger Woods isn't kicking everyone's butt, it's so much less enjoyable to root against him. For years I've picked sides and rode the Mickelson bandwagon. I have a soft spot for the lovable loser, the guy with the flaws in his swing and mental game, the physique that's sculpted out of margarine rather than granite.
I'm a long-suffering Jets fan, so I know what's it's like to lose a lot. However, as a life-long Yankee fan who grew up knowing them as the hapless Yanks of the 80s and early 90s, I can see why it will be all the more rewarding for Tiger's legion of fans to see him rise from the depths, the way all great athletes do.
Are you going to get charged up to see who can track down and steel Lee Westwood's spot? How will we judge rising stars like Kaymer and McIlroy if they topple Woods by default, rather than staring him down eye to eye? If the great one is no longer the favorite to win each time he steps on the course, is no longer the bigger-than-life talent, then there's also no upstart, no underdog. Without Tiger Woods, there's no Bob May, no Craig Perks, no Rocco Mediate. There's also no Phil Mickelson, relegated to always playing second fiddle. There are no Yankees for everyone to root against, there's just a bunch of Texas Rangers.
In the past, I've said Tiger was too perfect, too robotic in his ability to annihilate the competition, serving as a Terminator who was programmed to destroy all golfers and golf courses in his path, and keep the fans and the public as far as possible without costing him the millions upon millions of dollars Nike pays for him to be just likeable enough to sell swoosh shirts, swoosh shoes, and swoosh drivers.
It was easy to define why I didn't like the guy: He wasn't human, didn't have any flaws. But as we sit here in December, 2010, stop the presses. He defines the word fault. He embodies words like disloyal, disingenuous, and disengaged from reality. I'm not going to judge him, I'm going to celebrate him and his sudden dip into being human, being one of us, with faults and weaknesses. How will he respond? I'm hardly the only one waiting to see, and that's going to take interest in Wood from a general fascination and raise it to wild curiosity. The gawking of this year's Masters and the morbid interest in his personal life should wane and we can look forward to how this great athlete will resurrect his career after hitting low.
America loves a reclamation story, and even though it's hard to say Tiger fell far - from number one to two - the truth is he fell farther than any athlete in the modern era. His entire persona has crumbled, and his grip as the world's top ranked golf was assumed to be so strong that to fall one spot might as well be anyone else in the Top 10 falling out of the Top 100.
When it comes down to it, Tiger Woods has defined golf for more than a decade. He's been the measuring stick, but also the one who elevated golf to where it is today. As the recession eases and the PGA Tour continues to battle to keep sponsors, it needs Tiger Woods. Despite companies shying away from Tiger as an endorser, all they need to do is pop in the tape, and pull up the ratings from the Chevron and remind the people funding the tour just how great golf will be when Tiger's back on top.
I, for one, cannot wait to see it.
Photo credit: © Erik J. Barzeski, The Sand Trap .com.