James Lawton: The backlash has gone too far: Tiger has earnt right to return wherever he wishes

Tiger has created the market, the appetite, in a way that outstrips utterly all his rivals
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The Independent Online

It seems we have a strong, even impassioned consensus in big-time golf. The verdict is that the decision of Tiger Woods to make his return at the Masters next month is touched by selfishness and even a hint of cowardice.

Here, surely, is the logic of a madhouse filled by raging ingrates.

The madness is in assuming there is any easy way back for the man who fell so far from public grace when he collided with a fire hydrant as the rest of America was sleeping off Thanksgiving Day. The ingratitude lies in the fact that ever since the 21-year-old Woods annexed his first major tournament at Augusta in 1997 every pro of significant earning power has had reason to get out his prayer mat each morning and genuflect in the direction of the man who has carried the game into an entirely new dimension of appeal and profit.

All that now seems to be forgotten, and also the fact that golf has largely resembled a ghost town in the last few months, as the Tiger seeks to relaunch his career under arguably the most intense gaze ever turned on an individual sportsman.

Yes, of course he is paying a price for his own transgressions or excesses, or quite how the great majority of his critics, who are, presumably, utterly without stain, choose to describe them, but there must surely be a point when even the Pharisees have to pack away their moral censure.

It would be different if they could throw Woods off the cliff and into the rocks. But there is no biblical solution. The world, a fairly imperfect place before Woods' burst of serial infidelity, simply has to move on in pursuit of a few more targets for moral outrage.

The burden of the most recent complaint is that Woods should not have sought the relatively protected environment of Augusta but offered himself to the more boisterous occupants of the beer tent at say, Bay Hill, the tournament of the beloved but, as it happened in his younger days, not notably monogamous Arnie Palmer. This is not to mention the missed chance to invite some expert analysis on the Tiger's swing, so to speak, from the supermarket best-seller The National Enquirer.

Another criticism concerned the staging of his public statement of atonement last month on the morning of a tournament sponsored by the first major company to withdraw support from Woods. It was petty, vindictive, wrote one commentator whose wrath was somehow contained beneath the headline, "Hey, Tiger, your apology is not accepted."

Woods' mea culpa, we were told by readers from a massive hymn sheet, was merely a brand statement sickening in its deceit. This, though, was in sharp contrast to the reaction of many who have had the courage to take the classic steps in the fight to rebuild their lives away from the magnet of various kinds of addiction. They saw a man who was scarcely recognisable as the one who once believed as a daily article of faith that his birthright was to beat the world, one who was facing up to the challenge of radically changing his life.

Whichever verdict was right, there remained that fact which is again being submerged in the backwash of moral guardianship. It is that Woods has put more money in the pockets of his fellow professionals than any combination of mega-sponsors.

The Tiger has created the market, the appetite, in a way that outstrips so utterly all of his rivals.

Since Woods made matchwood of the records at the 1997 Masters, and forced radical changes on an Augusta National course that was supposed to define the challenges facing all serious contenders for the major prizes, a few players have attempted to live in the heat generated by his superb talent and winning instincts. David Duval had a promising rush – then imploded under the pressure. Ernie Els, owner of the game's most beautiful swing, picked up some majors and then sadly subsided under the weight of the Tiger's presence.

Phil Mickelson has had his moments, Sergio Garcia peeked over the parapet and was promptly slapped down, and Ian Poulter made the tragicomic claim that he was the man truly to challenge the greatest golfer the world is ever likely to see.

None of this is to say that Woods is not the author of his own problems, or that it is realistic to expect him to be allowed an unhindered passage back into the game he dominated so profoundly for so long. He has not asked for this and nor could he reasonably expect any such deference.

He said as much when he made his apologies to all those he believed he had betrayed, and his reward then, bizarrely it was felt in this corner, was to be accused from one end of the world to another of simply shoring up his brand.

More likely, it was the outline of a compelling, even outrageous novel. Let's remind ourselves of the plot line. Young black man, son of a jungle-fighting colonel, goes to a place where people of his colour are normally employed to serve mint juleps on the terrace and clean the clubhouse, and not only wins but changes the entire nature of the game. He then goes on to challenge the previous greatest player the world has seen, moving to within four major tournaments of the all-time mark with 14 years still on the age of 46 at which the iconic Jack Nicklaus closed his record of 18 titles. His life then unravels. He rivets the world with a televised confession. He then announces that he will return to the game at the scene of his greatest triumph.

Some brand, some cowardice. There is no doubt that Tiger Woods has to straighten out his life, but then maybe no more pressingly than the need of golf to rearrange its head.

It's enough to put Roman off his Cristal

No one could quite agree whether Jose Mourinho's triumphant return had left his victim Carlo Ancelotti with the promise of new funds to reseed a suddenly vulnerable Chelsea team or the threat that he is one Premier League title stumble away from the pink slip.

However, what wasn't in doubt at Stamford Bridge the other night was that Roman Abramovich wasn't in the mood to hammer the Cristal champagne.

If he has learnt any lessons at all, the oligarch will indeed assure the Champions League-winning Ancelotti of his future and give him the means to do the job.

If you're a Chelsea fan, the worry must remain that Abramovich will never stumble on the most basic truth in football. It is that great clubs are made not by money but men who have both the talent and the support essential to the job.

Mourinho was undermined in the most destructive way well before he was told to clear his office. It meant that what happened this week was not just poetic justice. It was football telling its most extravagant investor that, in his time, he has got just about everything wrong.

Cipriani's exile is a painful lesson for England

Jonny Wilkinson couldn't last for ever and even his warmest admirers admit that the need for change had become overwhelmingly apparent.

The trouble is that the change is marginal. Toby Flood is a good player, with good spirit, but the man who should be taking over, as everybody with any feeling for the finer nuances of rugby knows well enough, is about to ship out to Australia.

Danny Cipriani's missteps have been noted quite copiously and so, too, has Martin Johnson's unwillingness to put a big arm around his shoulder and tell him that he has too much talent to be indefinitely denied an elite place around the top of the English game.

But that would have taken a little flexibility, a touch of imagination, an understanding of how some players arrive at greatness along a more circuitous route.

Of all the failures of the Johnson regime, the self-imposed but unobstructed exile of Cipriani, the most gifted player of his generation, is undoubtedly the most discouraging.