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Tiger’s Beat

The joylessness of watching Tiger Woods, the world’s once-best athlete

Stan Badz/U.S. PGA Tour

Tiger Woods is back, sort of. A couple of weeks ago, he was invited to play golf with Barack Obama, and the occasion had the feel of an official pardon, a suggestion that Tiger had sufficiently rehabbed himself, on and off the course, that he could again be welcome in presidential company. Lately, his game has also shown signs of twitching to life. Woods won the first PGA tournament he entered this year, the Farmers Insurance Open, by four strokes, and is now number two in the world, up from fifty-eighth in 2011. His next big test will come at Augusta next month, and what I haven’t been able to decide is whether to root for him or not.

That would have been a pointless question back in his prime, when Woods played with such ferocity and concentration that he didn’t seem to notice or care if we were watching, unless it was to shoot a death glance at some idiot snapping a picture during his backswing. He didn’t need rooters, nor did he feed off the gallery the way that, say, the goofy-grinning Phil Mickelson did, and he never warmed to the media. Gods don’t care what mortals think of them.What most of us felt for Woods back then was not love but awe. He wasn’t just the best golfer in the world, but as close to athletic perfection as I have ever seen in my lifetime. His swing was a marvel of grace and efficiency, and if you were like me, you couldn’t watch enough of it even as it made you feel in equal measure both astonished and a little resentful. He made golf look too easy.

And then overnight—the night of Thanksgiving 2009, to be precise—everything changed, or seemed to. There was the riveting spectacle of Tiger Woods, the most private and inaccessible of athletes, surrounded by handlers (including Ari Fleischer at one point) and wrapped in layers of public relations batting, caught on the front page of the tabloids looking dazed and glassy-eyed after his wife attacked his Cadillac with a golf club. After the drip, drip of embarrassing revelations—so lurid that we savored every one—Woods took some time off and checked himself into a clinic for sex addicts. When he came back, he was different. The shine had gone off him.

You never know who’s going to show up anymore: the Woods who shoots in the sixties or the one who can’t sink a putt and cards a 77. In the final round of the Honda Classic, his fourth outing this year, he lost two balls and plopped two others into the drink, and this, we’ve come to recognize, is the new Tiger. He used to be invincible on the weekends, Sundays especially, causing opponents to defeat themselves even before stepping up to the first tee, and now no one is afraid of him. All golfers have slumps, even Jack Nicklaus, whose record of 18 majors Woods covets more than anything. What’s remarkable about Woods is not that he tumbled, but that he tumbled so far. How did this happen? Watching Woods on the course, muttering to himself, flinging clubs, you get the feeling that he’s still trying to figure it out.

Illustration by Tang Yau Hoong

Of course the moralists among us think they know exactly what happened: Tiger made a mess of his personal life, became ensnared in a scandal of his own making, and now he’s being punished on the golf course. Here, too, there was an epic dimension. Woods is hardly the first golfer to cheat on his wife. Arnold Palmer, if you trust the rumors, is called “the King” not just for his accomplishments on the course. Walter Hagen, the first great American pro, was a famous womanizer who, when his wife caught him sneaking in one morning without any underwear, looked down at himself in pretend surprise and claimed that he had been robbed. But in the case of Woods, it wasn’t just one girlfriend, or two, or three; there were so many, we lost count. Woods’s downfall was poetic justice, we liked to think, and even made up in a small way for all those athletes who get away with everything.

But in fact Woods’s game had already started to falter before that fateful Thanksgiving evening. He failed to win a major that year for the first time since 2004. Frustrated, he parted ways with his swing coach, Hank Haney, and after a period of trying to coach himself, in August 2010, he hired a new one, Sean Foley, who took Tiger’s swing into the lab and began to rebuild it, practically from the ground up. They’re still working on it, and to me, this is by far the most depressing part of the story. If Tiger Woods, a superb athlete with state-of-the-art coaching and the leisure to bang hundreds of balls a day, still hasn’t fixed himself after three years, what hope is there for the rest of us?

A year ago, Foley said he thought the reason Woods wasn’t winning had more to do with his personal ordeal than with his mechanics. That seems reasonable, but it’s possible that his head was messed up in a different way from the one we imagine and that what really undid Woods was not humiliation so much as that, with no wife and children around, without a secret social schedule to juggle, not to mention all those Las Vegas logistics to oversee, he had too much time to think about his golf swing. The really amazing thing about Tiger Woods, it turns out, is that he won all those tournaments while leading a double, even a triple life, while most of us have trouble managing just one.

The other thing that happened to Woods is that he started to wear out, his knees especially. He will turn 38 at the end of December, which is not old for a golfer, exactly, but old to win majors. Nicklaus won only three of them after turning 38, including an improbable victory at the Masters when he was 46. Even since his tentative comeback, Woods’s performance in the majors has been horrific, and skeptics are convinced that part of his career is done. “I think he knows his time’s up,” Greg Norman has said.

Already there is a new Tiger: the Irishman Rory McIlroy, who, at 23, has won two majors and is sitting on top of Woods in the world rankings. He’s freckled, curly-haired, and endearing, lovable in a way Woods never was. Meanwhile, Woods still doesn’t need or even tolerate us fans very happily. He remains set on his solitary quest to become the greatest ever. But his tragedy, if you can call it that, is the tragedy of the ordinary. He’s become just like the rest of us, or almost like the rest of us, suffering from hair loss and aching joints and the occasional yips. Neither in victory nor in disgrace will he ever be as spellbinding to watch.