AMIDST all the confusion, obfuscation, pointless secrecy, distasteful cursing, habitual spitting, comically baleful stares, ongoing swing changes and any other business that fills the life of Tiger Woods, at least one thing is now abundantly clear.
In his decision not to become a US Navy Seal, the 14-time major champion, for once, did himself a favour. Such an arduous and dangerous profession is surely no place for an apparently delicate wee soul who last weekend couldn’t finish a round of golf on a dead flat course because of a limp-inducing niggle that later proved to be no more than a “mild” strain of his left Achilles tendon.
As ever, though, this latest in an increasingly long line of premature withdrawals by the man many believe to be the best golfer of all time left in its wake more questions than answers.
How much influence did his very poor final-round score have on Tiger’s decision to hirple back to the clubhouse? Why, if he was in such excruciating pain, did he not seek immediate medical attention? How did he so easily manage to place himself in the driving seat of the courtesy car he would then pilot to who knows where? And where did this seemingly debilitating injury occur?
Only two days before, Woods was proclaiming himself fully fit and clear of even minor aches and pains for perhaps the first time in years.
So it is that it becomes ever more difficult to believe even the most banal of Woods’ perennially guarded utterances. Justifiable cynicism surrounds the well-censored views he deems suitable for public consumption.
More than his well-chronicled character flaws, however, the saddest part of the ongoing Woods saga is the fact that he is no longer the player he once was. Not even close. And just as disappointing is the growing notion that he may never again scale the sorts of heights that saw him win three of golf’s four biggest titles by at least eight shots.
Those halcyon days are gone, lost in the fog surrounding an increasingly haunted figure, one incapable of answering even the most straightforward question with even the slightest degree of civility.
The knowledge that he is but a shadow of his 2000-self has to be part of what eats away at a man who, despite his nickname, has all but lost his stripes.
In love with the process of rebuilding his swing (no other truly great player has ever overhauled his method more than once) this latest edition – the fourth – is perhaps the least promising in a technical sense. Certainly, his once almost peerless short game has never appeared more clumsy, awkward and inept.
In other words, it all looks like hard work. That both his mind and body should, at least sub-consciously, rebel at such an arduous and time-consuming process is, at the age of 36, no real shock when one stops and thinks about it.
It cannot be helping either that immediate blame cannot be heaped upon the head and theories of Woods’ latest instructor, Sean Foley.
In the last month, the diminutive Canadian – whose father is a Scot – has guided two other players, Hunter Mahan and Justin Rose, to victory in World Golf Championships. So the problem is either between Tiger’s ears, or in the body that has broken down so often over the last few years.
Well, it’s that or his increasingly unreliable putting. The mind goes immediately to the six-footer Woods missed – with something to spare – when losing to compatriot Nick Watney last month in Arizona. Such a horrendous gaffe would have been unthinkable in his pomp.
The Woods psyche, of course, will not be calmed by the knowledge that his former coach, Hank Haney, is about to publish a book, The Big Miss, that details aspects of his life and times he would surely prefer remain private. News, too, that the ghost writer on the project, the highly-respected journalist Jaime Diaz, has just been appointed editor of America’s best-selling weekly golf magazine, Golf World, is unlikely to soothe Woods’ increasingly fevered brow.
And yet, despite all of the above, when the world of golf pitches up at Augusta National in just over two weeks for what will be the 76th playing of the Masters Tournament, Woods will, quite rightly and logically, be one of the favourites. On a course seemingly made for his game – or what used to be his game – the four-times champion will tee up fancying his chances. Which is as it should be. Even with his life and body in turmoil over the last 24 months, he has contended in the last two “toonamints”, finishing tied fourth in each. So he is still, at least, one of those to beat, even if it has been seven years since he last finished first at Augusta.
But even being just another good player is a long way from where Woods once was. The king is now no more than a mere courtier, stripped of both his crown and, more importantly, the aura that so intimidated what passed for his competition. That last bit of the Woods armour is a thing of the past. His presence on a leaderboard no longer strikes fear into the hearts of otherwise doughty competitors, as was obvious only two weeks ago when, briefly energised by a good day on the greens, Tiger roared again through the field at the Honda Classic.
A closing 62 was the end result, a round that would, in days gone by, have surely had Woods’ fellow players metaphorically fleeing for the hills. Not any more though. Admittedly armed with a comfortable lead, the new No.1, Rory McIlroy, was more than equal to the task of seeing off the old master.
McIlroy, in so many ways, is Cinderella to Tiger’s Ugly Sister. Blessed with a relatively normal working-class upbringing, estimable parents who are not afraid to tell him when he is headed down the wrong path and a friendly, outgoing nature, the young Ulsterman is the very antithesis of the growling and unfriendly Californian. Nice and nasty have never been so easy to identify.
So what next for Woods? The answer remains important, not least for those involved in the business side of golf. To the vast majority of television watchers, he is still the only show in town. Viewing figures continue to soar whenever he is even close to contention. So he retains at least a prurient interest for the casual viewer.
Speaking at last weekend’s WGC Cadillac Championship, McIlroy was quick to acknowledge that continuing reality.
“Tiger has been the face of golf for 15 years,” said the US Open champion. “If he’s coming back to his best or something near his best, it’s great for the game. He can spark an interest in golf that no one else can. It’s great to see him back and in contention. I’d love to have battles with him coming down the stretch and it would be great to do that at Augusta.”
See what I mean? No fear. Tiger, your days are numbered.