BOSTON — The World Cup will continue to dominate the international sports headlines in the coming weeks. But over the same stretch, three men — arguably the globe’s most dominant athletes over the past decade — will compete in signature events at critical junctures in their career: Tiger Woods at the U.S. Open beginning Thursday; Roger Federer at Wimbledon next week; and Lance Armstrong at the Tour de France commencing July 3. I will take a look at these sportsmen.
First up on my tee: Tiger.
The last time Tiger Woods played the U.S. Open at California’s famed Pebble Beach course back in 2000, his performance ranked among the most memorable — Sports Illustrated called it the greatest ever — in the long history of his sport.
Woods finished the tournament 12 under par, while no other competitor broke par; his 15-stroke victory margin was the biggest ever in a golf major, breaking a record that had stood for 138 years.
It was Tiger, then just 24 years old, at the pinnacle of both the game and his game. He had begun the 2000 campaign with six consecutive victories and the Open triumph would be the first of his four consecutives wins at majors, what would come to be known as “The Tiger Slam.” (In the traditional parlance of golf, a Grand Slam occurs only if the golfers win all four tournaments in the same year.)
Not even the sky appeared the limit for Woods, who was already being ordained as the greatest golfer in history. At a minimum, Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships was doomed, perhaps even before the precocious Tiger turned 30.
But now a decade later, when Tiger tees off at Pebble Beach tomorrow for the first round of the U.S. Open, nobody really knows what to expect from the now 34-year-old superstar. While he arrived as a co-favorite with his longtime second fiddle, Phil Mickelson, those odds seem to reflect the amateur gamblers’ sentimental side, a notion ingrained in golf fans that Tiger can never be counted out because he is capable of anything.
Yet he would seem, from recent, erratic performances, more capable of failing to make the Open’s 36-hole cut than to win his 15th major title. His game, of late, resembles that of a PGA journeyman more than that of a champion. His body is betraying him from knees to neck and his psyche — once perhaps his greatest advantage on the golf course — now appears wounded, perhaps even fragile.
Indeed Tiger is barely recognizable from the cocky, but charming and charismatic kid of a decade ago. Back then he was the golden boy nipping at the heels of “The Golden Bear,” the bright Stanford kid with talent, smarts and an unwavering discipline instilled by his commanding, career-military father. The galleries this week may still greet him with polite and occasionally even enthusiastic applause, but it is his tarnish that shines through.
He is now sadly familiar to us from past experience, the arrogant athlete who knew no boundaries and whose public image was a charade. The young man who conducted himself with disregard bordering on contempt for everyone — his family, his fans, his sponsors and, perhaps even, himself.
If there is anything redeeming right now in Tiger — and I am not talking about any manufactured campaign of apology — it is that one senses some genuine shame and regret beyond simply the fact that he was exposed. But if the humbled Tiger is, in fact, nothing more than an act, at least he can still sees the harsh collective judgment reflected in our eyes.
Tiger’s greatest golfing asset was never that he was a straight shooter, at least not off the tee. And if he is particularly wild with his drives this week as he has been of late, Pebble Beach — with its narrow fairways and Pacific punishments for those who stray — could prove an awfully severe challenge. What always distinguished Tiger from all others was how he could recover from dire difficulties along the course. He possessed a seemingly miraculous ability to ignore the unplayable lie or the tree in his path and could not just escape his predicament, but land the ball close to the pin.
Those shots, like any high-wire act, require more than skill. They demand an unwavering self-confidence, an absolute faith in one’s ability and judgment. And those once-deep emotional reservoirs appear to have dried up. As a result, the miracles for Tiger have been in short supply. And in another test of inner resolve, those putts that once found the hole now slide past or lip the cup and, as if the punishment were ordained from above, fail to drop.
Just six months after the public scandal of infidelity and marital wreckage, Tiger’s struggle is a pretty compelling tale. Indeed the battle of a once-great champion to reclaim his greatness and ultimately to attain some kind of public redemption has elements of classic tragedy. And it goes a long way toward explaining why sports remains the greatest of all reality shows.
Tiger’s problems, of course, are hardly his alone. Golf has been struggling without him and desperately needs the Tiger of old or at least a reasonable facsimile to reclaim its audience too. But in terms of urgency, the U.S. Open looms particularly large because right now Tiger needs golf even more than golf needs him.