|Tiger Woods hits his tee shot on the 14th hole during Monday's practice round for the 2012 Masters Golf Tournament at Georgia's Augusta National Golf Club. (REUTERS)
AUGUSTA, GA. - It is 15 years now since Tiger Woods achieved a rite of passage in sport that shot him into the company of earth-moving figures like Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan — plenty of time to measure the meaning of his impact and, something much more basic, whether we might still be inspired to cross the road to assess the new belief that he may once again announce himself as a golfer of unique powers.
Cross the road, did we ask? Of course the world will be pressing in on Augusta this week with an obsessive interest in Tiger, who according to one leading British bookmaker is once again the betting favourite at 4-1 after his victory nine days ago at Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill.
The odds are improbable when you consider how recently his chances of marching beyond the majors’ mark of Jack Nicklaus were being so comprehensively dismissed but another question is, at least for some of us, more intriguing.
It concerns not so much Tiger’s capacity to pick up another Green Jacket — that one was answered comprehensively enough in Florida — but his continued ability to move the spirit of his audience along with the scoreboard.
Back in 1997 that reaction whipped through the old fruit plantation with the force of a forest fire. It was fuelled by belief not just in a phenomenally gifted young sportsman but also one marvellously in charge of his ambition and his life.
Now we are bombarded, not least by the publication last week of his former coach Hank Haney’s memoir- cum-character assassination, by claims that the hedonism which so disfigured his image as a sponsor’s dream was just one aspect of a deeply flawed and, frankly, unpleasant nature — one indeed that made it impossible to detach his brilliant gifts and celebrate them for their own sake.
How, after all, can you warm to a man who according to Haney is capable of the appalling atrocity of going to the fridge for a popsicle without inquiring if you too would like one?
Haney alleges that Woods is selfish and petty, a man with whom you wouldn’t want to share a supermarket line-up let alone a fox-hole. Woods, says Haney, lives in his own dehumanised world.
But then of course we come to the big question. When he chips in from the edge of the 16th green, or performs wonders around Amen Corner, will the majority of fans be renting the sky or thinking popsicles?
The guess here is that it will be rather more of the former — and for the same reason that when you listened for the nuances of Frank Sinatra you just managed to forget that outside of the spotlight his nature could be about as romantic as that of the average bounty hunter. So that youthful, all-enveloping smile of the Tiger was a mask. His image was carefully constructed. But, like Sinatra, he hit the most wondrous notes.
There is one certainty. If Tiger does confirm the renaissance suggested at Florida, if he does pummel the idea that the best of his golf is over, he is unlikely to reach out for any accommodation with the most severe of his critics. Tiger doesn’t do forgiveness, and if anyone doubts this they need to look no further than that first astonishing eruption in 1997.
After his first major was gathered in, he was asked if it gave him any special satisfaction that the serial winner of the European Order of Merit, Colin Montgomerie had been caught up in a severe case of collateral damage.
Before the tournament Monty had warned the young contender that he was entering a new world, one filled by old pros who knew what they were doing and were not likely to grant even the most promising of new boys an easy passage. Monty said the had better be prepared to learn some hard lessons. Naturally, in the third round he was paired with the runaway leader — and finished seven shots worse off before heading for a final round of 80.
So, did that make Tiger happy? He thought about it for a little while, then, with a smile that might have been mistaken for a sunrise, declared, “Big time.”
No, perhaps it isn’t the most sweetly forgiving of natures. But who will really care if Tiger once again prowls the dogwoods with serious intent? Not too many, certainly, who remember how it was that first time, when we didn’t know the kid in the red shirt — only his genius.
— James Lawton writes for The Independent newspaper in the U.K.