Is Tiger's roar back?
So many sports have been dominated by one individual or one team at some point. The West Indies and Australia held sway in cricket for years on end; the All Blacks have beaten teams into submission time and again; and, as much as it pains me to admit, Manchester United are all but unstoppable in English football – and have been for a long time.
In individual sports, Formula One had Michael Schumacher; Roger Federer ruled tennis for the best part of a decade; and heck, even the “sport” of darts has Phil “The Power” Taylor to its credit.
But no code has been conquered quite like golf has. Eldrick “Tiger” Woods burst onto the scene with a 12-stroke drubbing of his colleagues at the 1997 Masters at the age of just 21, and in the 12 years that followed, he racked up a further 13 major titles and an astonishing total of 71 PGA Tour wins.
Yet even that doesn’t tell the full story. This man owned his sport. He was the epitome of a contender who had his opponents beat even before they started, and this was characterised by the fact that (until the 2009 PGA Championship) he had always gone on to win a major once he had a share or sole possession of the 54-hole lead. No one dared mess with Tiger. He made very able professionals seem like frightened deer in the headlights, and as soon as he put on that blood-red shirt on a Sunday, he couldn’t be stopped.
Four or five years ago, comparisons were regularly made between Woods and Federer as to who the better sportsman was. The fact that each held 14 grand slam/major titles at the time was rather apt, and made it seem like a reasonable debate.
I always said Tiger was better.
In terms of ability, the comparison is incredibly subjective. But in terms of mental strength, it isn’t. In tennis, you strike the moving ball, and it thus largely comes down to instinct and ability. In golf, you must deliberate for 95 percent of your round as you approach a still ball. An evil little white goon that defies you at every opportunity. Instinct has no place. Instead, distractions and crippling pressures commandeer your focus, and talent becomes almost null and void in the heat of battle. It’s all down to mental strength, and it’s awfully difficult to master.
Tiger not only mastered this, but he became the distraction and crippling pressure that his opponents felt. The extraordinary shots he played when they were needed, and the outrageous putts he willed into (often the very centre of) the hole to put a dagger in their hearts made him superhuman. Robotic.
We later learned that his father Earl raised him to be this way. Not ideal characteristics for a husband, but they sure helped his golf.
However, it all seemed to melt away after news of his infidelity broke in November 2009. He scarcely played in 2010, and had to rely on a captain’s pick to make Corey Pavin’s Ryder Cup team that year.
He then had to wait until March 2012 to record a 72nd win on the PGA Tour. He went on to win a further two events last year, but it still wasn’t the same. He was throwing away 36-hole leads in majors, which had never happened before. Perhaps more significantly, there’d also been a changing of the guard, and Rory McIlroy emerged as the world’s No 1. In truth, no one was scared of Tiger anymore.
But it feels like that may just be beginning to change. There was something reminiscent of the old Tiger as he coasted to victory at last week’s Cadillac Championship at Doral. The field was littered with all of the best golfers in the world, yet no one dared get near him. The wind was blowing and conditions were tough at the challenging “Blue Monster,” but make no mistake, it was Tiger who intimidated them most. And suddenly there is that question on everybody’s lips: “Is Tiger back?”
Of course, other than the $1.4 million winner’s cheque, the win counts for precious little. His legend will be shaped by the number of majors he wins, and he remains stuck on 14. Jack Nicklaus has 18. All those who glorify the past will insist that the Golden Bear is the best in history until this tally is overhauled.
Whether Tiger will ever get back to his best is an unfair question to ask. No athlete at 37 can be better than they were at 27. But, in my book, he doesn’t need to – he just needs to get somewhere near it. His aura was what made him unbeatable, and it appears to be budding again. He has many more major-winning opportunities ahead of him, but his quest for 19 starts next month at Augusta – a course where he’s done okay.
Is there anyone else you’d put your money on?