the odds are higher than they've ever been, but the mood is just the same. What is Tiger Woods expecting at the USPGA Championship? "A 'W'," he replied. "A nice 'W'."
It would be more than nice. It would be the greatest win of his great career. There are many reasons why Woods will be teeing off at 8.35am today as a 25-1 shot. And they define his life like a hurricane defines the landscape. Can he possibly plot a path through all that debris?
If he fails to this week, this will be his third straight majorless year, the longest blank of his career. Forget, for a second, what that would mean to his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus's record haul of 18 and consider what it could mean for his finances. This is the bomb quietly ticking in the background as his world continues to shake.
His Nike contract is up at the end of the season and it is difficult to imagine what his manager, Mark Steinberg, can carry to the table. Two barren years and one very public scandal saw the club-maker, apparel provider and titan on the Tiger portfolio, slash his contract by 50 per cent. The numbers will only become smaller in the likelihood of continued failure. Nike have kept faith with Woods. But while loyalty may not have a price, it certainly has a budget.
Woods has already lost six sponsors since the mistresses started coming forward to rival his majors in number. This week, it was revealed that after a 10-year relationship Tag Heuer, the watch company who declared "Tag Heuer stands by Tiger Woods" in the midst of the maelstrom, will not be renewing their $10m contract. Forbes, the respected business magazine, suggested: "He isn't generating enough to comfortably cover his costs."
It is a charge Steinberg vehemently denies but following an expensive divorce (reported to have cost him $100m) it is undeniable his finances have taken a sizeable hit. His sponsors are down to three – Nike, EA Sports and Valentin Kowa, a Japanese heat rub. The ointment is the only deal Steinberg has managed to set up since the dramatic fall from iconhood. Little wonder, in the light of all this, that the rumour mill cries that IMG, his management group for the previous 14 years, did not bother to put up a fight when Steinberg recently upped and left and took Woods with him. Said a well-placed golf insider: "IMG were set to earn less than £1m in commission from Tiger next year. It's just not worth the hassle." Yet if he completed one of sport's most emotional resurrections here in Georgia on Sunday it would be. And then some. How Woods could do that with that "nice W".
Success, and yes money, has a habit of attracting friendships in golf, another fact not lost on the observers witnessing this nose-pinching tumble from grace. The split with IMG means a smaller entourage and the sacking of his caddie, Steve Williams, reduces the inner circle by one. The contraction of the earnings and thus the sanctum, is perhaps best encapsulated by the novice on his bag. Bryon Bell is president of Tiger Woods Design. That company is either running very smoothly, or not running at all, to allow him to take at least a fortnight off to caddie.
The caddie question continues to play a dominant role here. In Akron on Sunday night, Williams, the New Zealander sacked after 12 years and 13 majors last month, turned the victory of his new employer, Adam Scott, into an arrogant assault on Woods. Yesterday, Woods tried to deflect the row by outlining how he had texted Williams to congratulate him. But the hurt was apparent. When asked whether he was surprised that Williams, a man renowned for avoiding the media, had decided to speak up, Woods replied with a steely "yeah".
Woods is gradually, but very surely withdrawing. Firstly into an ever-decreasing circle. "Who are his friends?" said Paul Azinger, the former Ryder Cup captain. "I mean, Mark Steinberg? Come on." The relationship with the press still works on the most superficial of levels, but the depth is not even as deep as his rhino-type skin. "I know that he has to be angry at the media that tore him down," said Azinger. "He's got to be angry at himself first. He's dealing with the worst of all possible emotions and that is a shame, and he's not healthy... He's only got himself to blame."
Of course, Woods did just that in that infamous mea culpa last year. But he, just like the rest of us, could not have believed that pitiful statement would still hold such resonance 18 months later. Indeed, the redemption seems as far away as it ever has, whatever he may claim about a new swing and a healthy knee.
And that is where else he is busily withdrawing – into the myth of his comeback. "I'm finally healthy," he said yesterday. "So that's the big one." Yes, his winless run extends to 21 months because of his injuries, and if not, because of his technical overhaul under Sean Foley. No doubt, this three month lay-off does make a win unrealistic but does anybody out there, apart from team Tiger, genuinely believe he would be coming in here as the favourite of yore if he had enjoyed a pain-free season?
It is the "shame" Azinger talks about which has not yet been confronted – the old Tiger refusing to accept he's alone in a new world. And it is new; he need only look at the rivals alongside him. "I mean it's ungodly how good these guys are at such an early age," said Woods. Never mind the Lee Westwoods and Luke Donalds whose chances are so obvious on this formidable 7,400-yard layout with a inward stretch, which Woods believes, has no equal in severity. Just think of the Rory McIlroy's, Rickie Fowlers, Jason Days and Ryo Ishikawas. Woods is thinking about them. And so his return to predominance will threaten to become ever more overwhelming.
Certainly in the here and now, Woods is on a wing and not much of a prayer. "Even when I came back from knee reconstruction in 2009 in the first few tournaments I wasn't sharp because I hadn't played in a while," he said. "It took me all the way until March to get a win." Woods was getting in his excuses early. Fair enough. Nobody would expect him to conquer the rust caused by only one completed event in three months. Except, naturally, the old Tiger. The real old Tiger, that is.
Five to watch in Georgia
The favourite Rory McIlroy (12-1: Sky Bet)
The Ulsterman is justifiably top of the betting lists. Indeed, 12-1 might seem obscenely generous if his putter obliges. This course has a "Congressional" feeling to it and McIlroy's top-six placing in Akron last week was the perfect preparation.
The Briton Lee Westwood (15-1: Paddy Power)
Worksop's finest is tipped in each and every major. But still he waits and we wait. Again his chance seems outstanding. Tee-to-green he's as good as ever and with a new mindset instilled by Darren Clarke resurrector, Dr Bob Rotella, he appears ready. Can Rotella do the trick again?
The American Nick Watney (35-1, William Hill)
Has USPGA written all over him. The most solid of the new generation of Americans, Watney has all the requirements to win at a properly long golf club. Hits it high, hits it long, putts it well. Ideal for the USPGA.
The South African Charl Schwartzel (60-1, Coral)
Is no one-hit wonder. That is the word from his camp who are certain the Masters champion will follow up in a major some time very soon. He has everything it takes in a technical sense, but between the ears is the real strength.
The outsider Sean O'Hair (150-1, Tote)
Won two weeks ago in Canada and should not be 150-1 to win here. The American drought is not going to continue for too long and O'Hair could just be the patriot to slip in under the radar.
James CorriganReuse content