Tiger's Catch 22


Maybe it’s the nature of our instant-gratification society. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s such a polarizing figure. Whatever the case, every time Tiger Woods produces a single maneuver on the golf course, the masses are quick to either proclaim, “He’s back!” or, “He’s done!”

These declarations often aren’t proffered after witnessing the sum total from an entire golf tournament or even a full round. They can be pronounced on a shot-by-shot basis. A stiffed iron shot means “he’s back”; a wayward drive means “he’s done.” Even the stock market doesn’t see that kind of volatility.

It’s all a matter of opinion, of course, and following Woods’ tie for 30th at the Frys.com Open this past weekend, the two camps remain as divided as ever.

I believe Woods is going to win again. I’m certain of it. OK, fairly certain. At least, I think I’m fairly certain.

Excuse the vacillating, but I thought Tiger was “back” when he returned to competition at last year’s Masters and finished in a share of fourth place. And again when he posted five birdies on the back nine in the third round of last year’s U.S. Open. And when he peeled off a final-round 65 at the Australian Masters. And when he blistered Francesco Molinari in their Ryder Cup singles match.

He’s put together glimpses of the past in individual swings and putts, in multiple-hole stretches, even during full rounds. In his most recent appearance, he performed admirably for multiple rounds, following an opening 2-over 73 with three consecutive identical scores of 68. Afterward, he was predictably upbeat about what it all meant.

“I got better every day,” said Woods, who finished the week tied for seventh in total birdies. “And I hit a lot of good putts the last three days, which is good, and it was nice to make that adjustment there on the putting green after Thursday's round. I felt very comfortable, and I just need to keep staying the course. The game's coming.”

Now the $1 million question – literally – may revolve less around “if” than “when” the erstwhile No. 1-ranked player will once again reach the winner’s circle.

Here’s my theory: It will come when we least expect it, when nobody is paying agonizingly close attention to him, when there is far less scrutiny on his every machination than there is right now.

The only problem? We still haven’t reached the point where Tiger teeing it up isn’t a major news story in itself, independent of how he actually fares. While many observers will contend that shouldn’t be the case, it’s simple supply and demand. More coverage of Woods’ rounds is demanded and so the various media outlets supply the content.

Makes sense, too. If his career is a three-hour movie, we’re only 90 minutes into it right now. The second half may be a triumph over self-infused adversity or a tragic drama. Either way, nobody is walking out of the theater just yet.

All of which makes it even more intriguing to focus on Woods. Playing under the intense spotlight is no problem when you’re hitting 300-yard drives on a string and holing everything inside 20 feet, but it can burn when the going gets tough. Despite dropping to 52nd in the world and failing to win a title in nearly two full years, he still draws the largest crowds on the PGA Tour.

Heck, players not named Tiger don’t have hot dogs thrown at them in the middle of rounds – and yes, that happened to Woods on Sunday.

While he may be accustomed to life under the microscope – both on and off the course – it has to pose a greater problem than it would for most other pros who could work through struggles with their games in comparative anonymity.

Two months ago, when Woods returned to the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational after a three-month absence due to injury, I asked him whether he was ever surprised at the large galleries that continue to follow him, even when his A-game hasn’t followed him to the course.

“I think it's great they just came out, period,” he said. “It's great to have them come out and support the event. This is a big event, and whether they're following me or someone else, it's great to have them out here.”

Great? Sure, but likely not beneficial to the cause. I’ve always believed that whenever Tiger is playing, there are not only more distractions, but it becomes a more stressful situation, with increased fans, media, security and – as a result – greater tension.

It’s not an easy environment in which to play proficient golf, which may have more to do with Tiger’s previous domination over playing partners than any perceived “intimidation factor.” Even for a guy accustomed to that spotlight, trying to regain his former elite status in front of discerning eyes must be an exceedingly difficult task.

End result? Consider it the ultimate Catch-22. Woods may not return to his previous form until the spotlight dims, but there’s no sign of anyone shining it away from him anytime soon.