For nearly two decades, Tiger Woods was the closest thing golf ever had to a superhero.
He looked like one, single-handedly ushering out the era of bloated guts hanging over pleated khakis by molding himself into the form of a linebacker on the links. He acted like one, rescuing the game from the vise grip of the elite and bringing it to the masses – as much of a “steal from the rich, give to the poor” scenario as golf has experienced. And he was exalted like one, hailed as a savior in a pursuit too steeped in tradition, his mere presence intimidating fellow competitors.
Like any superhero, though, he’s also had his kryptonite. Injuries? Everyone’s dealt with ‘em. Swing changes? Those, too.
No, Tiger’s kryptonite isn’t anything physical or technical.
His kryptonite is embarrassment.
Think about it: This is a player who for so long thrived on invincibility. He relished being The Man, the game’s ultimate alpha male. He reveled in pre-tournament debates centered around picking him or the rest of the field. Call it an ego or just an advanced stage of confidence, but his comfort level always existed within an atmosphere of awe.
Through his first 47 1/2 holes of this season, however, Woods hasn’t just failed to look invincible. He’s been embarrassed. Humiliated. He’s left the masses – the same masses to whom he once brought this purported elitist pursuit – snickering and pointing at his inability to find a fairway and incompetence around the greens.
All of which might help to explain his quizzical Wednesday announcement that he’s temporarily leaving competition to work on his game away from the spotlight.
Maybe he’ll be gone for two weeks, maybe much longer, but Woods insisted that he won’t return until his game is “tournament ready.” It was a message both cryptic and curious, as if he wanted to make some major declaration regarding a leave of absence, only to throw in a last-minute caveat that he might soon return.
If there was inherent doubt in his statement – and there certainly was – it's only because Woods himself put it there. It’s another layer of uncertainty to already rampant speculation about his impending future.
All of which leads to this question: How will he know his game is tournament ready prior to playing in another tournament?
One easy answer, of course, was conceived during those two decades of dominance: He just will.
Consider this sort of logic a not-so-subtle insinuation that Tiger understands his game better than the rest of us and he'll understand when he's ready to get back to the grind of competition and he deserves to be given the benefit of our numerous doubts.
Or does he?
Let's present Exhibit A as evidence for the prosecution: His Q&A session prior to his first start of the year at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Eight weeks removed from chunking and stubbing a cringe-worthy nine chip or pitch shots during four rounds at Isleworth, he insisted that he'd practiced to the tune of "thousands" of these attempts during his winter break.
There may have been varying layers of truth in that statement, but there's no denying this: When his approach shot on the very first hole Thursday morning landed 11 yards short of the green, he used a 4-iron – not a wedge – to try and bump his ball close to the hole. It didn't work. Nor did, apparently, his prolonged chipping sessions, based on his subsequent efforts.
We'd like to think a guy with 79 career PGA Tour wins should be taken at his word when making a decision on when to return, but those decisions have proven ill-fated in the past.
So now we're left with this: When Tiger comes back – whether it's in two weeks, two months or (gulp) much longer – and once again insists that he's tournament ready, his glutes activated, his short game fixed, what happens if he posts another unbecoming 82? Or injures himself again? Then what?
Maybe this is the beginning of an unending cycle during which he preps to become tournament ready, plays a few tournaments, finds he isn't tournament ready, steps away from tournaments and preps to become tournament ready again. Maybe it’s the beginning of the end for a player who’s spent so much of his career appearing invincible. Or maybe it’s exactly as he stated – just a temporary interlude to get his game and mind right, eventually culminating in a return to form.
What we do know is that the man, who for years was golf’s closest thing to a superhero, won’t reappear until he knows he can avoid the embarrassment. He won’t come back until he can avoid the kryptonite.