Is Tiger Woods Still… Tiger Woods?

published January 27, 2011

The faces were paraded before us, young, old, male, female, pale, dark and in-between.  Each made a simple declaration.

“I am Tiger Woods.”

We knew exactly what that phrase meant.  I can achieve.  I can break barriers.  I can overcome any obstacle. And if I can, anyone can.

Today, at Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla, California, all eyes will be on one golfer, and everyone will be seeking the answer to a once unthinkable question.

Is he Tiger Woods?  Is he still?

It’s put up or shut up time.  One week will not provide the answer, but this one season will.

Casual and serious golf fans get understandably restless about the relentless focus on all things Tiger.  But where else are we supposed to look, when one individual comes along and upsets everything you know about a subject you love?

We know championship golf is a brutally difficult game.  He made it look easy.

We know a young player has to spend years learning how to manage his game and how to win on Tour.  He won his fifth professional tournament, then won again two weeks later.

We know the depth of talent worldwide makes it impossible for one golfer to dominate the way Palmer and Nicklaus and Hogan and Snead did, that three wins in a year is a great accomplishment and four is superlative.   He won eight, then nine, and later eight again.

We know that tournament leaders falter, particularly at the four majors.  He never did – until he did, once, at the 2009 PGA.

Three months later he drove into a fire hydrant, and everyone knows the rest.

Today, we begin to see the rest of the rest.

His golf was otherworldly, for a longer period than anyone thought possible.  And then, suddenly, it wasn’t.  The flashes were still there, but not the extraordinary ability to grind, to win without his A game.  He lacked the relentlessness and mental toughness that had put him out front and kept him there.

Tom Weiskopf, winner of one major and runner-up in five, described Jack Nicklaus’s greatness in words echoed by many: “When you stood on the first tee and you looked at Jack Nicklaus, and he looked at you, you knew that he knew that he was going to beat the shit out of you.”

Tiger’s contemporaries could have said the same thing for a long time.  But it’s not true any more, and he knows they know it.  A new generation has cut its teeth in his absence.  Martin Kaymer, Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson – they’ve stepped forward, won or contended in majors, learned about what it takes.

This week’s Farmers Insurance Open brings Tiger back to his own personal playground, Torrey Pines.  He’s won the last five events he entered here– four PGA Tour stops and one U.S. Open – and seven times in all.  It’s also his first event since the Chevron World Challenge – his own tournament — in December.  In that final round, Tiger led by four shots, fell two shots back of McDowell with five to play, drew even, then hit a dagger shot as he has so often on the 72nd hole, an 8-iron to two and a half feet from the pin for a sure birdie.

Only McDowell, playing alongside Woods, calmly rolled home a 20-foot birdie putt of his own to force a playoff.  And then McDowell won with an almost identical birdie putt on the first playoff hole.

“I think the whole year last year golf-wise came down to one golf shot,” Woods said yesterday at Torrey Pines.  “The 72nd hole of Chevron, that was it… I needed to hit the 8-iron with that kind of shot, and I pulled it off.”

And Graeme McDowell learned he can take Tiger Woods’s best punch and still beat him.

For a long time, Tiger’s rivals were players who had been winners on Tour before he came out.  They watched him zoom past them, amazed at the things he could do.  The current generation knows him from television and from history; he is simply the man to beat, and they’ve practiced and trained to do just that.

Maybe he’ll never dominate again, but will fall back into greatness by the earlier standard rather than his own.  Maybe he’ll win an occasional major, or maybe no more of them.  The question lingers.

Is he still Tiger Woods?

Beginning today, and over the course of the next eight months, we’ll find out.  It’s the most compelling story in sports, a tale that will fall somewhere between redemptive rebirth on one end and Shakespearean tragedy on the other.

Pull up a chair.  It’s showtime.

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