Given LeBron James' "Decision," Tiger Woods could probably meet up with Big Ben Roethlisberger after the British Open for a night on the town at any college bar in America without taking too much heat.
Not since Gary Condit, the congressman who had an affair with murdered intern Chandra Levy, disappeared from news coverage in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks has a media pariah been so completely bailed out by a bigger story.
Add that to the obscene amount of money that Woods is hemorrhaging to Elin Nordegren in their divorce, and fans are almost back on his side.
Most people who watch golf aren't doing so because they love Lee Westwood or Jim Furyk. Rory McIlroy and Anthony Kim are fresh and exciting, and Phil Mickelson may be an idol to white-collar Americans, but golf only really catches our attention when Tiger Woods is winning majors by 10 strokes.
We want to forgive the guy because the sport needs him. There's no way around it.
The problem is, Tiger hasn't had it since the 2008 U.S. Open. It's about time to actually get worried about his chances of breaking Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championships, let alone obliterating it like we expected just a few years ago.
You could probably trace the unraveling of Woods back even farther, to May 2006, when his father, Earl Woods, passed away from a heart attack.
In the direct wake of Earl's death, Woods played some of his best golf, taking home the British Open and the PGA Championship before ending the year on a tear of six straight victories. It seemed like Tiger was doing it for Dad, and he sure was successful in doing so.
But then, the first chink in the armor occurred at the 2007 Masters. Woods entered the last day at Augusta in the final pairing with Zach Johnson, but Johnson came away with the victory. This was the first time that had ever happened to Woods.
The 2008 U.S. Open, arguably Woods' greatest victory ever, may have been an episode of misguided bravery in retrospect. Earl had been Tiger's principal source of guidance on and off of the course for Tiger's entire life. He prevented his stubborn son from making unilateral decisions. If he had been around, who knows if Tiger would have risked further injury by playing at the U.S. Open?
While we may never really have an answer, it was some time in the 2007-2008 period, after Earl was gone and Tiger had completed his "do it for Dad" season, that he began to make his now famed text messages and voicemails and became bros with playboys Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley.
After we fast-forward to 2009, we remember Tiger winning PGA events, often in dominant fashion, but never quite being his former self in majors. Still, it seemed almost impossible to believe when Tiger blew a 54-hole lead to Y.E. Yang at the PGA Championship. Who?
Woods from the early days would have never done that. Neither would have Woods from the 2005-06 era.
Physically or mentally, something was already wrong with Tiger.
When all of the craziness after the now infamous Thanksgiving car crash began to unfold, fans almost forgot that Woods had already been "off." Everybody focused on the grade B adult film stars, cocktail waitresses and Rachel Uchitel.
In 2010 though, Tiger has been a statistically very different player. Basically, he's now ordinary. The guy used to hit it farther than just about everybody. While 2008 and 2009 had been his first seasons averaging under 300 yards per drive since 2003, his average continued to decline. This year, he is at 293.3 yards, good enough for 22nd on tour.
Always a scrambler, Tiger used to find a way to make well over two-thirds of greens in regulation for most of his career. In 2009, his GIR decayed to 12.3, his worst since 2004, and in 2010, that number is drastically lower at 11.2.
Where does focus and mental makeup most directly manifest itself on the golf course? Most would say with the putter. Tiger's career averages pre-Uchitel nearly always equaled 29 putts per round, give or take a few decimals. In 2010, he's taking 31.7 putts per round. That's a massive increase, one that is likely what cost him this year's Masters.
It's hard to concentrate when everybody is rooting against you. Look at Kobe from 2003-07. He was inconsistent and struggled to keep chemistry with his teammates. It may be writing history in hindsight to say that once we got over what Kobe had done, he started playing at a championship level again, but there was some level of correlation.
So, now that we are rooting for Tiger again, maybe his putts will start to fall.
His performance at the British Open has been unimpressive, functionally leaving contention with a plus-1, 73 whimper on Saturday. He certainly didn't provide the fist pumping and refusal to lose that we so loved him for in the past.
Something is clearly wrong with Tiger Woods. Is it that he can't focus in light of all of the negative media attention? Or his divorce? Or because he is no longer the object of universal adulation? Is it that he has been missing a strong father figure, somebody to act as his moral and golf compass? Was the exit of swing coach Hank Haney another turn indicative of such? Or are we talking about a guy who simply isn't physically the same?
Whatever it is, Tiger isn't a 20-year-old phenom anymore. He's 34, old in any major sport other than golf. They say golfers peak in their mid-30s, and that it's rare to see majors won after 40.
We surely aren't looking at Tiger's peak and have to seriously ask if he will ever be "Tiger" again.
The clock is ticking.
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