Friday, December 3, 2010

The reinvention of Tiger Woods - Dan Wines

  A year later, I get the feeling it’s coming.  For the duration of 2010, Tiger Woods was a shell of himself.  His swagger gone, his spirit broken, he simply went through the motions.  He didn't seem to want to be there.  The relentless questions regarding his repeated extra-marital liaisons made him tired, weary, and to be honest, somewhat pathetic.  His play on the course suffered.  The previously “unbeatable if he wants to be” Tiger Woods was replaced by a child yelling at himself after every bad shot.  Every one with a microphone kept trying to predict when he’d turn the corner.  Some expected his return to Augusta to be the moment when Tiger said “screw it, I’m taking over.”  Others, more aware of what months off from golf does to anyone’s game, predicted it’d be at one of the other three majors.  They were all wrong, over and over again.

As each tournament came and went, Tiger walked off the course, in defeat, earlier and earlier.  While the leaders walked up the 18th fairway, Tiger climbed the steps to a jet and headed home.  I watched him quit at the WGC at Firestone Country Club in Akron.  No joke, the greatest golfer ever (sorry, Jack), quit.  No practice swings.  No advice from part-time caddy, full-time bully Steve Williams.  No effort.  No desire.  I’ve seen Tiger Woods play a dozen rounds of golf in person and never imagined I'd see that version. 

All that said, I have a feeling the golf world is in for one of the best years of Tiger’s decorated career.  The comeback trail started yesterday, at the Chevron World Challenge, a tournament he hosts.  His driver was good, his approach shots were better, and he didn’t leave himself long putts.  The result? Eight birdies, a bogey, and a one shot -7 lead.  Sure, it’s one round.  He could implode in this tournament, get in his own head, and spiral into 2010 Tiger.  Don’t count on that.

His behavior that lead to an image destruction like we’ve never seen before, nor will again, was humiliating.  Because of that, some people have already forgotten that prior to having his model wife destroy his car, cell phone, front teeth, and dignity, Tiger was a bit of a robot.  Every interview sounded automated.  Every move sounded calculated.  His routine was to dominate from Thursday through Sunday, and then go back to his private and sheltered life.  Then he played chicken with a fire hydrant and a tree, which he lost, and his whole life changed.  We watched with various degrees of interest.  At first, I laughed.  I’m a Lefty fan.  Then, as he went to “sex rehab” (seriously?) and his mistress list read like a football roster, I started to feel kind of bad for the guy.  Yeah, he screwed up, and he did it in such a stupid fashion it was hard to believe, but it got to the point where we were running out of mud to drag him through.  By the time the Ryder Cup rolled around, I found myself rooting for Tiger to regain his form.  I’ve spent over a decade rooting against the guy, and I suddenly wanted to see him dominate again.  He played fairly well in the Ryder Cup, an event he’s always played fairly well in, and he finally looked like a real golfer again.

That brings us to now.  The 65 he shot yesterday wasn’t his best performance, but it was by far his best performance since we found out he gave a Perkins waitress a tip.  His marriage, a large number of his endorsements, and a chunk of money are gone.  Lee Westwood is the new number one, almost by default.  He’s got a new swing coach, and because athletes are still largely entitled morons, a lot of the negative attention has found new targets.  There are three reasons I think Tiger’s desire to dominate is back and more intense than ever before.

First, he’s too close to Nicklaus’ record for major victories to let another year slip away.  It’s nonsense to think that at his age (turning 35 this month), he’s getting too old to get the job done.  He’s in better physical condition than any other golfer ever.  Phil Mickelson’s four majors have all come after the age of 34, and considering Woods’ superior conditioning, it’s a no-brainer to think he’s got plenty left in the tank.  With a renewed focus and less personal drama, I think he closes the gap by at least two this year.

Secondly, he’s not happy that Lee Westwood is number one in the world.  He wants that title back.  What was sometimes lost in Tiger’s “it’s all about the majors” attitude was just how much he valued that world #1 ranking.  It was mostly assumed he’d always be number one – until he wasn’t.  I think Woods will regain the top spot, and even if “it’s all about the majors,” he’ll hang on to it.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, Tiger cares about being “the guy”  in golf.  Never before in his career has golf seen such an influx of young, entertaining players.  Guys like Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, and Ryo Ishikawa are poised to steal some of the spotlight.  McIlroy and Johnson were close to getting over the hump in 2010, and I don’t get the sense that they’ll pull an Adam Scott and go from a future star to a relative disappointment any time soon.  In much the same way that NBA people expect Kobe Bryant to eventually pass the torch to players like LeBron and Kevin Durant, Tiger will someday be forced to turn the game over to the younger guys.  I don’t expect him to go quietly.

I anticipate that 2011 will be a banner year for the PGA.  With the infusion of this young talent and a focused, driven Tiger Woods, it’s coming, and I can’t wait.

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