Fight Clubs


He’s Perseus without his winged sandals . . .

King Arthur without Excalibur . . .

Odin without Gungnir, the trusted spear that never missed its mark . . .

Tiger Woods heads to the Australian Open looking defenseless in the face of yet another assault.

Three weeks ago, there was the guy throwing the hot dog at him, then last weekend it was Steve Williams hurling the vile rump roast remark. In the two years since his fall from grace, Woods has watched hot dogs, insults and all sorts of doubt being hurled at him with impunity.

Rory McIlroy called Woods an “ordinary golfer” back in March. Last year, McIlroy said Europeans “fancied” their chances against him. Scott Verplank said Woods lives with the knowledge that fans who were once in awe of him are now in the galleries making fun of him. Icons Johnny Miller, Greg Norman and Nick Faldo are on record saying they doubt Woods will now break Jack Nicklaus’ record for major championship titles.

Where Woods could once strike back with such merciless zeal, there appears to be no wrath in his game to fear anymore.

It’s why his critics sound so emboldened.

In his first news conference since the Williams’ insult broke, Woods didn’t look like a man confident of his ability to strike back (Click for full news conference). Speaking to reporters at the Australian Open Monday, Woods didn’t sound like a man who is getting fed up at being kicked around. He seemed passive, like a man eager only to resolve the conflict so it would go away. In his triumphant past, he would have been plotting revenge between the ropes.  Woods used to beat some players as if he were working out a personal vendetta. A sampling:

•  After Stephen Ames made light of Woods’ errant driving before the Accenture Match Play Championship in 2006, Woods humiliated him 10 and 8.

•  When Rory Sabbatini lost to Woods at the Wachovia Championship in 2007, Sabbatini said Woods looked more beatable than ever. A few months later, Sabbatini watched Woods whip him again in a head-to-head final Sunday pairing at the WGC-Bridgestone.

•  After Sergio Garcia complained at the 2002 U.S. Open that Woods enjoyed the advantages of preferential treatment, Woods whipped him in a head-to-head Sunday pairing on the way to winning the title.

•  With Phil Mickelson saying early in the 2003 season that Woods’ equipment was inferior, and that “He hates it that I can fly it past him now,” a small furor followed. Woods ended up winning five times in ’03, Mickelson none.

While Woods could always depend on his shot making to level the most punishing reprisals, we’ll watch his trip to Australia wondering if the sting of Williams’ rancor will actually cause Woods to regress.

Lack of respect, it used to be fuel for Tiger, propellant for exacting revenge, but now you wonder if it still works that way for him. Where he once doled out the beat downs, you wonder if he’s getting too beaten down to answer in any convincing fashion. Is he still taking names and numbers, keeping a payback list the way we believed he once did? Or is the list getting too long to bother? Is he still using too much energy beating himself up?

I don’t know, but if I’m world No. 1 Luke Donald, I’m urging Steve Williams to atone for his sin with a monastic vow of silence.

If I’m McIlroy, I’m hoping the game’s icons tone down their doubt Woods will ever regain his top form.

If I’m Lee Westwood, I’m praying the lack of respect doesn’t finally spark a resurgence in Woods before I can win my first major.

Because I’m waiting to see when Woods will turn a corner and begin fighting back with his game.

Maybe this is the trip.

Theories abound over what most prevents Woods from winning again, but given the nature of his fall, it’s reasonable to believe something still needs fixing in his heart as a competitor, as much as needs fixing in his swing. If Woods is still beating himself up, when does it stop? When does he resolve to beat up his competition again?

“A wounded dog has a tough time trying to keep winning battles,” Michael Jordan said about Woods two months ago. “And because the battle was even tougher than I thought even Tiger realized a while ago, he needs to heal before he gets back in these battles again.”

With Woods trip Australia, we’ll get another glimpse of whether he’s healed enough to begin fighting back. It’s not so much whether he has all the shots this week, but do we see the fight?

“I think he’s waiting to explode again,” Jordan said.