Tiger Woods: King of the recovery shot

BOSTON — Tiger Woods’ golf game has so many virtues that it is difficult to single one out. But if fans were forced to choose their favorite, I have no doubt it would be Tiger’s uncanny ability to hit recovery shots. Time and again, he finds himself in an impossible situation on the golf course and not only finds a way out of trouble, but most often winds up smelling sweet.

It is not easy to replicate that kind of success in life, but Tiger is about to try. On golf‘s greatest stage, the Masters in Augusta, Georgia, he will not only resume his golfing career, but begin the painful process of trying to transform himself from the anti-hero of a sordid soap opera back into something that begins to approach his former elevated stature in the sports world.

Had he asked me — rather than Ari Fleischer, who brought such credibility to President George W. Bush’s White House during the invasion of Iraq — I would have counseled him to bypass the Masters and begin his comeback later. (In golfing terms, the choice of Fleischer as public relations advisor proved to be a double bogey and he was quickly shunted aside.) With the Masters so central to his golfing legacy and his pursuit of the record for major championship wins so central to his golfing mission, Tiger — by skipping it — would have punished himself in a way that gave far more credence to his public expressions of regret and apology.

Fortunately for us fans, credibility seems to be something of an afterthought here. (Tiger’s assertion that none of his inner circle were aware of his extramarital sexual escapades was about as convincing as those drug cheats who insist they succumbed to temptation just that once.) So even in a year that boasts the riches of an Olympics and soccer’s World Cup, Tiger’s tournament this week could be the most compelling sports story of the year. The Masters, steeped in antiquated and arcane traditions, has bowed to this decidedly modern moment by allowing ESPN to broadcast Woods’ first tee shot live before blacking out the opening round until a brief late-afternoon slot.

Peruse a betting site like Bodog.com and you can get down on everything from whether Tiger will win the tournament to whether his wife will be captured on camera to whether he will be subjected to heckling. I certainly hope he won’t be booed or heckled. There’s no need for a public pillorying. But I also hope he won’t be greeted with a thunderous ovation, suggesting undue sympathy for a man who admits to being the victimizer and who brought all his myriad problems onto himself. (I make an exception for anyone who also plans to give Jesse James a rousing cheer the first time he makes a public appearance.)

Despite all appearances to the contrary, this is not simply a morality play. And it is actually more interesting as a golfing saga. We had essentially ceded the title of “greatest golfer ever” to Woods, a distinction that would be punctuated whenever he finally broke Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships. But though Tiger is just 34 years old and needs only five more major championships for the mark, it no longer seems absolutely dead cert. Tiger has only won two majors in the last three years, a pace that, if continued, would have him shooting for that record 19th title sometime after he turned 40.

He has aged a great deal in the past few years. Multiple knee surgeries have slowed his pace and no doubt this family crisis and public humiliation has exacted a toll. Even before it, Tiger had begun to appear somewhat vulnerable. In the 2009 PGA Championship, Tiger took a lead into the final round and — in a fate normally reserved for his rivals — blew it, losing by three strokes to an obscure, South Korean journeyman named Y.E. Yang. Now the personal scandal presents another and different kind of challenge. Tiger can resume his golfing career, but he can’t resume the behaviors that seemed so integral to his success.

In what has always been a “gentleman’s” game, Tiger has never been a gentleman on the course. He has brushed past fans and little kid eager for an autography or just a friendly nod and glowered at anyone who made the slightest noise while he played, as if they had belched in the middle of a eulogy. He occasionally tossed clubs in a fury over bad shot and also tossed off vulgarities without regard for his audience. And he designated his pal and caddy, Steve Williams, as his enforcer, sanctioning his crude, bullying approach to transgressors in the gallery.

Golf writers have cut him slack on his rude and immature behavior for fear of being cut off — the Tiger camp always had zero tolerance for critics — from the only golfer and golfing story that has mattered for more than a decade. But now Tiger is fair game, not only for journalists, but for every YouTube wannabe with a cellphone camera. And Tiger’s every dubious act will find a broad audience and, inevitably, threaten his rehabilitation as both an athlete and corporate juggernaut.

So the question is whether Tiger can now play a good guy on TV. At a Monday afternoon press conference at the tournament, Tiger insisted he is a changed man, intent on accepting his responsibilities as a role model — the ones he so obviously eschewed before — on and off the course. He says he wants to show his respect for the game and his appreciation for the fans even if it comes at the expense of his performance.

Now we will find out whether Tiger can learn to play nice and still be a champion. The answers should produce extraordinary drama — at this week’s Masters and beyond. If they prove to be yes on both counts, a redemptive success for golfer and human being, fans would have a Tiger worth cheering for.