Count him out if you want, but Tiger's comeback story is still being written

Count him out if you want, but Tiger’s comeback story is still being written

Tiger Woods is seeking his 15th career major title this week at St. Andrews.
Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

Tiger Woods has not won a tournament all year. His scoring average of 71.19 is so un-Tiger-like that when he signs his scorecard, the Tour asks him for ID. At times, he seems as likely to drive his ball into the wrong fairway as the right one. Woods is 151st on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy, which is why he is 125th in greens in regulation, which is why he has not won a tournament all year.

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And this all leads to the question: Tiger, are you getting divorced?

As far as I can tell, that was the main line of inquiry for our friends in the British press at St. Andrews this week. Tiger refused to bite, and good for him. As much as media people say Tiger needs to answer questions about his personal life, the simple truth is that he doesn’t. The whole world knows more than it needs to know about his personal life. We’ve heard one sordid allegation after another — he slept with a Perkins waitress, he had affairs with porn stars, he is friends with two members of Nickelback. Unseemly, all of it, but at what point do we decide we’ve heard enough?

I have no idea how Woods will play this week. But I do believe two things:

1. The people who write him off are dead wrong.

2. Those people are doing him a favor.

America loves a good comeback story. But you can’t come back unless you go away, and this is especially true in Tiger’s case. The reason people lost respect for Tiger is not just that he got caught cheating on his wife. It’s that he had everything and he wanted more. I don’t know if people want him to stay married or not — I suspect a lot of people would roll their eyes if that happens, and think it’s just another fraud — but I do think people would like to see him get humility injections.

Suffer a little, Tiger. Show that it hurts. Then we’ll welcome you back.

If Tiger had won the Masters in April, it would have been a remarkable and mostly unwelcome achievement. There is a reason that when J. DALY pops up on a leaderboard, the gallery roars — we all know John Daly has lost as many personal battles as he has won, and we want to see him succeed. Tiger can’t get that reaction unless he struggles.

He has played some truly lousy golf this year — understandably, considering the circumstances. But he is still a talent unlike any other on Tour.

Consider: He finished fourth at the Masters after five months as the star of a new reality show, “Did You Say You Don’t Want To Be On A Reality Show?” His life exploded, and before he could pick the shrapnel out of his back — or, you know, play a competitive round — he finished fourth at Augusta National.

Then, last month, Tiger finished fourth at the U.S. Open.

Now he is the betting favorite at St. Andrews, where he has won two Opens. This, even though he is using a new putter and may be, according to various reports of questionable accuracy, getting divorced.

And I ask you: could any other golfer in the world even think about pulling that off? For half the guys on Tour, finishing fourth at any major would be cause to buy a new jet. Tiger does it twice, amid unprecedented coverage of his personal failings, and people want to know what’s wrong.

Something probably is wrong, but he’ll right it. He always does. His swing coach, Hank Haney, quit and said Tiger was reluctant to listen to him. But Tiger has always had ownership of his swing — remember, after he fired Butch Harmon, he went a long time without even confirming that he was working with Haney.

Only Tiger knows if his recent spurts of lousy golf are the result of his swing or his swinging. But there is a tale of redemption ahead of him, of a man finding his way back into the good graces of the public. And for evidence, Tiger can look at a sports icon who passed away.

George Steinbrenner and Tiger Woods don’t seem to have anything in common. But they do. Both had huge early successes but turned off the public by acting like spoiled rich guys who could do whatever they wanted. When Steinbrenner was in his early 60s, his team hadn’t made the playoffs in more than a decade and he was banned from the day-to-day operations of his team for spying on one of his stars.

If Steinbrenner had passed away or sold the Yankees then, he would have been widely regarded as one of the worst owners in American sports history. A lot happened to change that obituary, but most of it falls under two headings: he won, and he softened. He seemed to learn his lessons. And at least for a little while, the sight of the once-dominant Yankees dominating again brought a certain wave of nostalgia for much of America. (It has since gotten old, but that’s another column.)

With every tee shot into the trees and every confrontational question at a press conference, Tiger Woods becomes a more sympathetic figure and moves closer to another public embrace. The longer this goes on, the more he fails, the more people will welcome him back when he wins another major.

One thing has been a constant in Tiger Woods’s turbulent life: he hates failing, even for a week, a round or a hole. It’s why Americans cheered for him in the first place, and why we will again.

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