James Corrigan: Tiger cannot admit he is beset by self-doubt
The Way I See It: An insider who knows him talks about Woods' "broken mental apparatus", but the talent hasn't left him
Like a fool with a bunch of fivers chasing that damned pea, we keep on falling for it. Tiger Woods hits a great shot, compiles a great round and we climb the ladders to the rooftops to scream "he's back". A 75 later, we are back in the cellar quietly polishing the obit. Yes, yes, we were right all along: the old Tiger is dead.
Perhaps it is apt that his latest brush with resurrection occurred in Australia. Two years ago tomorrow, the world No 1, as he was back then, won the Australian Masters. Who would have believed he would not win again in the next 24 months? Maybe a scandal-sheet editor possessed the inside info to cast a new light on his infallibility, but even he or she wouldn't have figured the scale of the downfall or the span of the drought. This golfing collapse has been beyond all but those catastrophic forecasts which saw him quitting the game.
Of course, those unwilling to accept his domination is part of history will point to the fact he finished fourth at the Masters and even to his stirring 67 to take third place at yesterday's Australian Open. That's not bad, they'll claim, for an athlete who spent months on the sidelines with injury and who is still coming to terms with a swing overhaul. In fact, it's richly promising. So, be patient; stick with him; we will see his like again.
Woods caresses those promises like a blind man grips his stick. He has no other option but to hold on tight. When he is asked, like he was in Sydney, whether he believes he can reign like he used to, the answer has to be in the affirmative. If he loses the belligerence to state that, then he truly will have lost everything. The new Tiger cannot admit who he is; a player beset by self-doubt, haunted by the memories of his forsaken hegemony.
He is hardly alone on that score. When he eventually wins again (and yesterday surely confirms he will), prepare for the grand pronouncements to bound up and down each and every fairway. The millstone will have been ditched and so the chase for Jack Nicklaus's record mark will have resumed. How silly we all were ever to have doubted. Thank you Luke, thank you Rory for filling in; you can now take your leave from centre stage. Because guess what – he's back.
Tiger won't be. He may well resemble what he was, but what he was would no longer stand out so singularly on this sporting landscape. As Woods has gone backwards, so golf has gone forwards, meaning the mountain has grown higher as he has scratched around for his gear in the foothills.
As it is, it can barely last four days, never mind a sustained ascent. Saturday was pure golfing groundhog. After appearing supreme, his motion suddenly veered into the ugly and uncertain, his mind duly followed and through the robustness of his insecurity the man who perennially turned 69s into 65s carved out a three-over from a level par. We've seen this time and again since the fireballing of his saintlyhood. Even his friends admit to the frustration of his competitive failures. "I've seen the best stuff I've ever seen in my life," said John Cook, a regular practice partner. "I always tell Tiger: 'Why don't you just go out and do that'?"
Tiger is desperate to. An insider who knows Woods talks about his "broken mental apparatus" and therein is the truth. The talent has not left him – how could it? – but the conviction has certainly gone its own way. Of all his costly splits, this is the break-up carrying the most noughts.
It is difficult not to feel some sympathy for the legend who had it all and sacrificed it in life's casino. But the fascination remains the stronger emotion. It is a tumble with no apparent safety net, but with the trampoline we continually convince ourselves is there. Where next will the descent take him? To Melbourne, the city of his most recent success; the city where the first mistress was located, so soon to be exposed. What is this? Shakespeare?
This week he plays in the Presidents Cup, the rest of the world's version of the Ryder Cup as they try to bring down the titan that just about remains American golf. Woods will be forced to field queries of whether he deserves his place. Think about that for a second. Many do not consider Woods to be one of the top 12 golfers in his own country. That is a staggering verdict of where he is right now. But his captain, Fred Couples, will stand by him and do not be surprised if in the protective climes of a team-room he emerges as the hero of Melbourne.
But what will that mean? That he's back? Or that he's fallen to a level he always despised? Where he would be forced to share the glory with others; where the personal victories are nothing of the sort unless there's a trophy to take home. Tiger the gutsy loser, Tiger the team man? The Old Tiger would simply snarl.
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