Amid Tiger Woods’s many failed comebacks over the past five years, the golf world was consistent in all holding hands and wishing him well.
That Woods – the broken, no-hope Woods – was easy to like. Though the level of his game was profoundly diminished, his marketing shine remained at high gloss.
Like Arnold Palmer in his 60s, Woods had been transformed from a frightening competitor into a toothless rainmaker.
Then, beginning in February, Woods put together a nice little run. He’s made it through four tournaments in recent weeks without slipping a disc. He’s been in the leader group in a couple of them. We’re nowhere close to vintage Woods, but he’s as close as he’s been in forever.
So ahead of the most intriguing Masters in years, the poor-old-Tiger tone is shifting.
“I have not found one touring pro that thinks [Woods] is going to win Augusta,” Woods’s former coach, Hank Haney, said in a radio interview last week. “Matter of fact, they think it’s a joke that he’s the favourite.”
This is shaky stuff – anonymous Tour hecklers filtered through a guy with an axe to grind, wrapped in hyperbolic packaging (neither Vegas oddsmakers nor serious observers think Woods is “the favourite” for anything).
But even still, this may be the most hopeful thing that’s happened to him since chipping his Escalade into a fire hydrant. After an endless cycle of scorn and pity, somebody thinks he’s worth publicly resenting again.
It’s been so long that it is hard to recall Woods in his prime, the one who kept a Nixonian enemies list.
Haney was on it, along with several other former coaches and caddies. Woods did not appreciate it when the help started growing opinions.
Sergio Garcia had the misfortune to be cast as Woods’s nemesis, which prompted the latter man to break the former’s will. Vijay Singh and Greg Norman found their way onto the naughty list when they failed to show due deference. Then-U.S. president Bill Clinton got a verbal slap because he waited until after Woods had won Augusta by 12 strokes before inviting him out for a round.
Media hacks, tournament organizers, other people’s caddies – if you were close enough to the game to float into Woods’s line of sight, then you were worth hating once you put a foot wrong.
Even during the first stages of his decline, you’d get small flashes of it – a too-long pause between the end of a question and the answer. The way he’d bore his eyes into people who’d said or done something that irked him. The threat of a real-world outcome had faded, but the instinct to telegraph displeasure remained.
There were many ways in which Woods changed the game, but that may have been the one that really fascinated the millions he introduced to it.
Until Woods arrived, great golfers generally presented themselves as genial good ol’ boys. Things might get serious on Sundays, but every other day of the week was an extension of the 19th hole.
A bit of fun, a few jokes, everyone meant to sit down afterward, drink gin fizzes and tell stories. It was the only major sport in which participants were encouraged to interact with spectators while they worked.
If you were part of the club, you’d probably call it a gentleman’s game. If you found yourself outside the ropes, you saw it for what it was – a clique of rich swells. Woods would become rich, but he was never going to be one of the swells.
With that in mind, he didn’t approach golf as fun. He fashioned himself a sort of von Clausewitz of the sporting world. For Woods, golf was another form of war.
On any other field of play, all that fist pumping would’ve eventually sparked a brawl. But no opponent could bring himself up to Woods’s level of intensity. He alone was allowed the freedom to be a competitive boor, because he was that good and he gave it to himself.
Until Woods’s arrival, golf was incapable of appealing to the little guy. Woods bridged that divide. He often did it with a sneer. Golf may be the lever, but it’s that element of his personality that’s sold so many clubs.
À la John McEnroe, Woods was the outsider who didn’t care about being on the inside. His goal was making everyone who did seem ridiculous.
He didn’t just change a game. He changed our idea of what success looked like and how it carried itself. Woods was disrupting culture before that word meant anything other than causing a commotion in class.
Sadly, we haven’t seen that Woods in a long while. He’s been softened by age and disappointment.
After coming second at Valspar a few weeks ago, Woods recounted the moment through the lens of his children.
“They were so young when I was playing well that they don’t remember any of it,” he said. “So it was pretty neat for me to be able to experience this with them. They were saying, ‘Dad had a chance to win on Sunday, made a big putt on 17.’ ”
It’s hard to picture a 10-year-old and a 9-year-old having this sort of conversation – “made a big putt on 17.” It plays a little too perfectly into Woods’s latest incarnation as the human embodiment of a lifestyle brand.
But I also have trouble envisioning a middle-aged man who unironically says things like “pretty neat,” so I suppose anything’s possible.
Of course, everyone’s hoping this is the weekend Woods finds his way back near – if not right up to – the top. They want the new Woods, the one who will give us all the moist, comforting feeling that, no matter how terribly you’ve sinned, there is a path back to redemption.
Seeing him smiling again on a Sunday at Augusta would ring up TV ratings like a slots hit.
Speaking only for myself, I don’t miss the smile. If the comeback is real this time, what I want to see again is the sneer.