The world could turn him into a joke and keep a running tally of his dalliances but the laughing and the judging would stop when he returned to the sanctuary of golf that he lorded over for 15 years. Win and life as he knew it would be his again, right? It was supposed to be that simple because while he may not have been able to control his impulses the one thing he damn sure could control was his golf ball.
What if subconsciously Tiger knows he doesn’t deserve it, knows that until he cleans up his own spirit he’s not worthy of the one entitlement that was going to be his salvation?
What we saw Friday at Quail Hollow was so different than any round we’d ever seen from Tiger. The wind wasn’t screaming like it was at Muirfield eight years ago when he shot 81. Conditions in Charlotte were ideal.
Yet he looked lost. He even looked defeated. He couldn’t get off that course fast enough.
And you don’t have to be Michael Breed to see that he nearly has the driver yips right now. The transition in his swing is brutal. Once in a while he three-quarters a high iron and everything matches. But most of the time it’s a violent, messy move into the ball.
Fixing his swing is the obvious and attainable step. Fixing his karma is another matter.
One highly-ranked player told me before the Masters that if Tiger were to win the green jacket there’d be something terribly wrong with him. Tiger had demonstrated he had no scruples but to be able to sweep it all aside so quickly in this player’s mind would suggest that Tiger’s simply without a soul.
It’s difficult to appraise where Tiger is in his recovery. Is he attending 12-step meetings and outpatient therapy? How is he dealing with the death of his routine that fed his addiction? What’s the state of his marriage? How often can he hold his children? Has he let go of any lingering anger and resentment?
In his news conference last Wednesday he tried to convey the sense that at least as a golfer his world was returning to normal. But it rang a little hollow. There was a critical moment when he revealed that his golf course design business around the globe was picking up, but it would be a question of whether he had the time to pursue it all. He seemed to be defending the idea that he’s still relevant.
He continues to talk about how great the fans are. But performers can tell when the culture and tone of support changes. And it has. The Tiger bubble will no longer be infused by kids whose parents are promoting the idea of Tiger as a beacon of leadership and excellence.
For the first time in Tiger’s life, his fan base is not expanding.
Ryo Ishikawa and Rory McIlroy are charging fast. Phil Mickelson is taking care of his business. Tiger’s aura of invincibility continues to splinter.
And while golf may have enjoyed a short term spike with Tiger’s trumpeted return, the audience may well diminish over time. Tiger was one of the few brands around which advertisers were delighted to spend money, like the Super Bowl or American Idol. But now he stands for conspicuous consumption in a time when the world is calling for service and modesty. He’s not the long term business lock he was eight months ago.
Tiger’s truth was always in the countless trophies, the 315-yard tracers and 15-foot must make putts. To find that truth again, and I believe he will, perhaps he needs to discover the more important truth.
Who is he? The journey to that answer could be harder than the one to 18 majors.