Tiger Woods returns to action this week for the first time since finishing tied for 30th at the Frys.com Open.
Rob Griffith/AP
Thursday, November 10, 2011

Someday we might look back on 2010 and 2011 as the great setup, the long Tiger Woods intermission that ultimately made his final act that much sweeter. We knew he wasn’t done no matter how bleak it looked, we’ll tell ourselves. We knew his leg was okay, as he said it was, and that his woefully inconsistent golf game would inevitably come around under mentor Sean Foley.
 
Maybe we’ll look back at this week’s Emirates Australian Open in Sydney as the week it all started to turn around, the week that Woods, about to not celebrate the two-year slump since his last victory (Nov. 15, ’09, Aussie Masters), finally won again. It was in Australia, of course, that his world began to fall apart, the Enquirer catching up to the company he was keeping and peeling back the edges of his secret life. So it’s fitting, we will say, that it was in Australia that his life began to come together again.

Let’s hope so. Golf news has been increasingly tabloid-y and ugly the last two years: Tiger’s wild women, his divorce, his rehab, his dubious doctor, his bitter ex-caddie. But it’s not confined to Woods anymore: Wozzilroy, Rory’s Chubby breakup, Greg and Chrissy, Adam Scott and Kate Hudson. If Tiger’s downfall brought the modern form of celebrity news coverage into the world of golf, then it may just take him winning again to pull us out of the muck.

Personally, I didn’t mind when Woods fell on his face. For me and others in my line of work he was a difficult, reluctant interview. Now I wish the whole scandal had never happened, not only because his aura of perfection was shattered, but because his game, what we all enjoyed watching for so long, disintegrated. Golf is less interesting with him doing all he can to tie for 30th place, as he did in his last start, at the Frys.com Open in October.

This was the first year with four first-time major winners since 2003—also less interesting. Rory McIlroy’s U.S. Open coronation felt big, but will he dominate the way Tiger did?

If golf is only as healthy as the quality of the news stories it produces, the game is in trouble. It wasn’t enough that a man throwing his hot dog at Woods at the Frys.com became one of the biggest golf stories this fall—overheard in the media room: “Is tube steak one word or two?”—or that we had to speculate as if we cared over the McIlroy-Chubby Chandler split. We now have our own “Brangelina,” the cutesy “Wozzilroy”— tennis player Caroline Wozniacki and boyfriend McIlroy—and yes, the endless and increasingly nasty saga of frenemies Williams (Steve) vs. Woods (amazingly still calling the guy “Stevie.”)

Oh, and McIlroy and Lee Westwood don’t seem to like each other very much, either.

Even as his sex scandal churned at top speed and it became clear his reputation would never be fully repaired, Woods never looked like he would fall this far, to 58th in the world, but he has, leaving a Grand Canyon-sized news void that we’re filling with garbage. Who jilted whom and what should be done about it? Some of this is typical off-season chatter, but maybe the junk food isn’t sitting well because there wasn’t enough meat on the season.

Charl Schwartzel, McIlroy and Bill Haas had transcendent moments, but they left me wanting more and wondering about the marketability of a rotating cast of relatively anonymous winners. If McIlroy can move back into the spotlight and remain there, then golf is back on solid ground. Ditto for Jason Day or Rickie Fowler. That would likely take time. Woods could save golf by Sunday.

Although no one did more than Woods to ensure his demise, it was a team effort. The media surely helped fuel the fire, and those of us covering the game bear some responsibility for the direction the coverage is taking. Charles McGrath filed an insightful column in the Sunday New York Times that was ostensibly about Lindsay Lohan, but it was also about us. "We need these people to feel superior to—and maybe sorry for—and to remind us that the whole system is a little creepy,” McGrath writes, “and that celebrityhood exacts a toll most of us would be unwilling to pay.”

For a time Woods never really paid the toll. He told some unfunny jokes he was surprised to see printed in GQ magazine—the way Williams was surprised to see his unfunny “shove it right up that black a-------” comment in print—but he went long into his career without a scratch. Then he paid the toll.

There have been reports that he’s hitting the ball better, but hold your applause. Woods broke the course record with a 62 at the Medalist Golf Club in Florida before the Frys.com but summoned that type of golf for only about nine holes at CordeValle. “I’d make a hell of an 18-handicapper,” he said at The Lakes on Tuesday. He looked at ease and laughed. His audience laughed. What’s so funny?

There was little doubt we were witnessing unprecedented excellence when Tiger was in his prime. Now, with seven-straight first-time winners in the majors, we don’t know. We could be seeing something as misleading as a hot streak at the blackjack table. Will Darren Clarke win again?

McGrath writes of “the unknowableness—the starriness—of the stars” in the heyday of the Hollywood studio system. It was better for everyone, especially Tiger, when he had that. Now we know too much. We know he’s human because he’s playing like one, because of his knee, because he tried to rebuild his swing and got lost, and because he succumbed to temptation. But couldn’t he just go back to being inhuman again between the ropes? He’s paid the toll. Now I hope he hits the gas and pulls golf out of Stupidville.
    

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