Back in the day, to use the old-man phrase Tiger Woods started using in his mid-20s, you'd see Tiger laugh. It was one of the great sights in sports, like MJ with his tongue hanging out. You'd see Tiger's mouthful of Chiclets on full display. He was brimming with life. What was so funny? Top secret, unless you were in the TW circle of trust. Maybe some blue joke told by Butchie, Butch Harmon, Tiger's swing coach going back to his college days. Or a chip that had no business of going in but found the bottom of the hole anyway. Did he hit the wrong club? Did the flagstick save him? That was for Tiger and Stevie, Steve Williams, Tiger's caddie, to know and for you to find out. Or try to, anyway.
\nAnd it was pretty cool, actually, the mystery of it all. It was like the conversation between the pitching coach and the reliever in the ninth inning of a one-run game. We'll never know what they really said. Watching Tiger was a fantasy. What would it be like to be so talented and successful and handsome and rich? What would it be like to have such a beautiful wife, to be so good that your bad shots go in, to be cracking up at jokes an hour before your tee time in the final round of a U.S. Open you're bound to win? And, short of being Tiger Woods his own self, what would it be like to be an insider to all of that? We could only guess.
\nAll that seems like a long time ago. Tiger Woods is not playing in the U.S. Open this week. Do you care?
\nHe's 35 now. He's divorced and living in a Florida waterfront fantasy house he couldn't possibly fill. His golf-course design projects are on hold. He and his longtime agent, Mark Steinberg, have recently left IMG, the only agency either of them has ever called home. Tiger no longer stars in his own commercials. Earl Woods, Tiger's confidante and putting mentor, died in 2006. Tiger's old friends, like Mark O'Meara and John Cook, talk about how little contact they have with him. Tiger's swing coach, Sean Foley, though an interesting theorist, is unproven on golf's grandest stages. A doctor who treated Tiger, Anthony Galea, is the subject of a federal drug investigation. When other players Bubba Watson and Paul Azinger and John Daly talk about Tiger now, there's no awe in their voices, but they're loaded with free advice.
\nThe last time Tiger played in a tournament, at the Players Championship last month, he quit after nine holes and 42 strokes. Last week he announced, in a statement on his website, that injuries would keep him out of this week's U.S. Open. He is still rehabbing and recovering from what he has described as a "sprain" in his left medial collateral ligament and a "strain" on his left Achilles' tendon.
\nOf course, as usual, we don't really know what it's all about, but nobody's making any noise about the public's right to know. Once the Tiger Woods guessing game was fun. Now it's just annoying.
\nThe tables have turned. Your marriage OK? You still have your job? Your car paid off? You can walk 18 holes? Sounds pretty good. The Big Grand Life, all that booming 1990s excess, seems pointless these days. In 2000, Tiger won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by 15 shots. Your jaw dropped. But you know what? They still give you the trophy even if you win by one.
\nTiger would probably give anything to trade spots with you and sit in a booth at Bob Evans with a friend and order a tall stack with the pot roast hash and talk Dirk. He'd give anything to have 14 of those extra shots from Pebble to dole out here and there.
\nLast month, Tiger called Jack Nicklaus to tell him he wasn't playing in the Memorial. A week or so ago, he called Mike Davis, the new executive director of the USGA, and told him he wouldn't be playing in the national championship at Congressional. He must have dreaded making those calls. The only thing more boring than doing rehab is talking about rehab. Tiger's last major victory was the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. It was his third U.S. Open and 14th major. Jack Nicklaus has four U.S. Opens and 18 majors. The life and times of Big Jack have always been Tiger's ideal. Jack's majors, when he was a kid. More recently, Jack's family life, his philanthropy, his design business. The worldwide respect he enjoys.
\nOf course, as most first-graders can tell you, to get respect you have to give it. When Woods returned to golf after the most intimate details of his private life were revealed in the most sordid ways, he talked about wanting to show more respect. For golf, for his playing partners, for his fans. It seemed like he might start letting us in, as Jack did all his career. (When Jack had news, he didn't post statements on his website. He talked to writers. How quaint.) By the end of his first week back, at the 2010 Masters, Tiger had returned to his old shrouded ways.
\nSince then, Tiger's gone one way and we've gone another. We'd all like to know the story behind a head tilted back in laughter while waiting for a green jacket. But the story behind the plastic cast attached to your left leg with Velcro straps? Eh.
\nTiger can have a relationship with the sports-watching public or not. That's up to him. Given the public indignities he and his family have endured, his ever-deeper retreat is understandable.
\nOur fascination with Tiger Woods is fading not because, for a while there, he was leading a private life so at odds with his public one. It's fading because his Act II seems a lot like Act I, without the amazing golf. It's fading because you can no longer imagine an insider's club to join. People used to talk about Team Tiger. You never hear that anymore. When Tiger quit midway through the first round of his last tournament, he got in a gleaming white Mercedes sedan and drove off alone. Maybe Tiger will someday catch Big Jack, you hope in more ways than one. But the path he's on now brings to mind another good golfer with a lot of money who found it hard to trust anybody. Howard Hughes.