Tiger Woods, one year on - wiser, humbler and no longer a saviour

Rupert Cornwell on golf, the great leveller

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BLESSED ARE the meek for they shall inherit the earth. And blessed is the game of golf, for this weekend it has made Tiger Woods - well perhaps not meek but at least a more modest soul, and, paradoxically, one more likely to inherit his sport.

Was I disappointed he didn't win the Masters? Not a bit of it. I was praying he wouldn't. I dreaded nothing more than a breathless interruption from the commentator, "Let's break off and go to Woods," followed by the sight of golf's touted superman bent over an eagle putt.

Then the earsplitting roar, the surge up the leaderboard, and another score to make a mockery of the Augusta course, as he made a mockery of it last year (and of every other golfer in the process). Thank God, it didn't happen. For the player hailed as the man who would revolutionise golf, it may be a disappointment. But Tiger's personal, and I am sure temporary, loss has been golf's gain.

A year ago in this space, immediately after Tiger had spreadeagled the field in the 1997 Masters, I was warbling about his "graceful manner" and his potential for easing America's racial tensions. Which only goes to prove, never trust a journalist with stars in his eyes. It took Tiger just a couple of months to tumble from sainthood to villainy. He was accused of the most ungraceful behaviour, of being an uppity ungrateful black (by whites) and of treachery to his race (by blacks).

He was accused of keeping his distance from the fans who made him a superstar - but wouldn't you if you had been stabbed three times by pens wielded by hysterical autograph hunters? Then there was the separate sin of snubbing an invitation from President Clinton: "Why didn't he ask me before I won the Masters?" Tiger complained. Given the Celebrity-in-Chief's constant craving to bask in even reflected glory, the excuse was not unreasonable. But it was not taken kindly by scribes whose supreme ambition is to be a regular on the White House guest list.

In America even more than other countries, the first law of the free press applies: the faster and taller they rise, the quicker and harder they fall. And Tiger, with a 21-year-old's propensity to believe the guff being written about him, and his faculties blurred by $100m-worth of product endorsements bouncing like hailstones on his head, was both uniquely qualified for the treatment and uniquely vulnerable.

But thanks to the great levellers of time and the sport of golf, we are at last getting Tiger into perspective. He may not have won a tournament in the US for nine months now, but in the great cash machine of American sport he remains, along with the soon-to-be-retiring Michael Jordan, the most valuable single commodity.

Thanks to him, golf's drawing power - and, more important, the advertising rates it commands on TV - are greater than at any time since the prime of Jack Nicklaus. Largely thanks to him, tournament prize money is set to soar. Whatever his peccadilloes, his presence at an event in 1997 puts an average 35 per cent on ticket sales. My faith in his chances of breaking down America's racial barriers may have been exaggerated, for Augusta looked as forbidding a citadel of whiteness as ever last week. But Tiger's potential to draw new generations and new minorities into golf, and to propel its standards higher, is intact.

Remember that pre-Masters pronouncement of Nicklaus: "If he plays well, he'll win by a mile, if he plays average he'll win, and even if he plays badly he'll be in contention." Well, Tiger Woods played average by his standards and he tied for eighth. And that is no failure. After all Nicklaus, the greatest golfer and the most prolific majors winner in history, took 24 years to amass his 18 titles. Tiger has already secured one. He still sits on a pinnacle of unique promise. He's still No 1 in the rankings and can count on at least 20 more years at the peak of his physical powers. That he didn't collect a second successive one merely proved how rich a game golf is.

In what other sport do so many competitors have a chance of actually winning? Most often, the victor can be predicted in advance from one of half-a-dozen teams or individuals, sometimes fewer (look no further than our own grossly overhyped Premiership, or any other national football league in Europe). Not however golf.

It possesses fabulous natural athletes like Tiger, but the sublimest of athletic skills on their own are not enough, as Woods himself now knows. Vanished is the man-child who used to boast he would win every tournament he entered. The petulance still shows, in the open irritation when a very good shot falls a few inches short of perfection. But he has learnt how hard the game truly is. He acknowledged last week with proper deference to the Almighty: "God humbles you every day, every shot."

Week in, week out, there are 30 or 40 players capable of winning a given tournament. As no other sport, golf requires mind as well as muscle (just as well, say those of us for whom, like our 58-year-old hero Nicklaus, the half century is long since in the rear-view mirror). You may be blessed with the physique of a Greek god, the grace of a gazelle - but you don't have to be. Our own Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood, youngsters both, are not exactly sylph-like. Saint Jack himself is distinctly pudgy these days, and grimaces and winces as if he'd never struck a golf ball in his life. Yet he gave Tiger 36 years and finished two strokes ahead of him. At 41, Mark O'Meara is reassuringly broad of beam and grey around the temples. He won because of his skill, but also because of his wits, his nerve and his experience.

In sport, they say, nice guys come last. But in top-flight pro golf they tend to come first, second and third as well. No shirt-tugging, no gamesmanship, no red and yellow cards and no arguing with the referee - indeed the sole function of the referee is to rule on arcane points of golfing law. Nor are his calls disputed; John McEnroe in golf shoes would have self-destructed by the third tee. In golf self-control is all. You are playing the course, yourself and your opponents in that order. Sound boring? Perhaps. But, I suspect, it's preparing Tiger Woods for enduring success as no other sport could.

Perhaps you are worrying about an impending charisma shortage? Then you couldn't have noticed the gee-whiz, disbelieving smile of a kid called Matt Kuchar every time he hit a good shot on his way to an even par finish, the best achieved by a reigning US Amateur Champion since You Know Who. Kuchar has stardom written all over him. Tigermaniacs may soon be spoilt for choice.

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