You are Tiger Woods, and this is the first major of the rest of your life.
You returned to competitive golf at the Masters in April, in the hermetically sealed environment of Augusta National. You played well enough to put your name on the leaderboard, but never sniffed the lead.
Since then, you’ve entered three tournaments, missed one cut, withdrew once, and finished tied for nineteenth. You’ve only had three other stretches in your pro career of three consecutive appearances with no finish higher than T19. The last was in 2001.
This was supposed to be your year. The game’s ruling bodies are holding their championships on your personal playgrounds. Today, you begin the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where you demolished the field and all sense of proportion in 2000, finishing twelve under while no one else broke par. Next month, the British Open returns to St. Andrews, site of your eight-stroke victory in 2000 and five-shot win in 2005.
But this has not, so far, been your year.
You said many of the right things in your mid-rehab statement and in your pre-Masters press conference. You undid much of that good will with your graceless post-Masters interview, when you dismissed your own performance and made no mention of the imminent winner.
You have always tried to limit and control what can be known about you. Fans filled in the gaps with their own imaginations, and you benefited from their assumptions. They cheered you as they hadn’t cheered a golfer since Arnie assembled his Army.
You continue to keep us at arm’s length, and show no signs of change in any way. And many who did not know you but loved you are deciding that they don’t need to know or even like you.
You have played the greatest golf ever. No one has ever had your variety of shots, your combination of power and touch, your utter command of the most difficult game of all. You will walk the cliffs above Stillwater Cove and remember, no doubt, when your ascension was assumed, your supremacy certain.
And if your drives remain wayward, your putting iffy, you will face for the first time serious doubts about reaching the goal you’ve aimed at since you were young: catching and passing Jack’s total of eighteen professional majors.
You’re 34 years old, and four majors away. Four is as many majors as Phil Mickelson and Raymond Floyd won in their careers. Tom Watson never won a major after he turned 34. Neither did Seve Ballesteros or Gene Sarazen. Arnold Palmer won one.
Dan Jenkins said nearly a decade ago that the only things that could stop you from topping Jack’s total were a bad back or a bad marriage.
There’s nothing on the line for you this week except your dreams, your popularity, and your legacy.
And if you do manage to overcome all the adversity and put on a performance even remotely reminiscent of your romp in 2000, winning your fourth U.S. Open, to whom will you bring home the trophy?
You’re Tiger Woods. And for the first time in a long, long time, I’m glad I’m not.