You can gauge how the golfing public feels about Tiger Woods’ game by how long it takes to answer this question: For this week’s Masters, are you taking Tiger or The Field?
The past two years, the rapid reply would’ve been “Field!” with the only discussion being odds. Even if the answer remains the same this year, any reasonable man pauses before settling on it as the final word.
Woods isn’t “back.” What’s back under green after being red-flagged for a year and two years under yellow is Woods’ drive to break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. He has been four away since limping to the 2008 U.S. Open title. He stunningly failed to close out the 2009 PGA Championship months before changes in swing and marital status appeared to derail that rocket run, perhaps for good.
We’re in a funny place with Woods now. We await confirmation of what we’ve already seen.
Arnold Palmer brought in the masses and money to golf. Then, for longer than anyone else, Jack Nicklaus reigned. Along came Tiger, who brought in more money than Arnie, won more tournaments than Jack and intimidated competitors more than Armies or Bears or an army of bears.
Nothing in golf ever caused the spits like Tiger Woods moving up a weekend leaderboard from 1999 to 2008. Guys who executed with icy precision just to get onto the PGA Tour started driving into the drinks, sending front bunker chips well beyond the green, putts flying by the hole like a Camaro missing the 103rd Street exit at 90 mph.
You felt bad for them even as you stifled chuckles at some of the best comic scrambling since Mongo rode into Rock Ridge.
The Tiger Woods of that era was the best golfer ever. Those with a sense of history hesitate to anoint someone still on the course in any sport as the winner in that mythical competition. So we come up with all kinds of “well, when he …” qualifications as an excuse for withholding the grandest of praise. Jack still has the most majors, we say with a “hold on” finger raised.
With Woods, there has also been the criticism that he lacked the gregariousness with the public or even that he didn’t do as much as he “should” to create fertile ground for other golfers and caddies of color. Both criticisms have some merit.
Neither, however, changes that nobody — Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Arnie, Jack, Gary Player, Greg Norman — played golf in his time any better than Tiger Woods did for those 91/2 years. Everyone knew it.
That player is gone. What Tiger Woods is now is Superman after the 1980s reboot, still the most powerful star of his universe, yet not so god-like. Less super, more human. My goodness, he’s a divorced father in his late 30s who got busted cheating on his first wife. Statistically, that’s about as close as he’ll be to the masses.
That he has risen to No. 1 again isn’t enough, however. Numeric confirmation still remains before we can just go ahead and say he’s the greatest golfer ever. And that won’t come from another six wins that’ll push Woods past Sam Snead in all-time PGA Tour victories. Not unless those wins come in the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open or the PGA Championship.
These days, we scoff at greatness being defined anywhere except when the general populace cares. In team sports, we lunkheadedly ask, “How many championships does he have?” as if great players can’t be on less-than-great or even bad teams that miss the playoffs. We look at the peaks in individual sports — Olympics, tennis or golf majors.
That’s the extra spice in this year’s Masters. There’s always the possibility of a winner ascending to stardom at Augusta, as Bubba Watson did last year, or just being introduced to a young, potential great like Charl Schwartzel two years ago. Or some gutsy, historic shot-making: Watson last year, Phil Mickelson in 2010.
But, for the first time since 2009, there’s a sense that Woods can continue marching through history at Augusta. He has won six of his past 20 PGA tournaments. Those Sunday partners don’t look as happy to be there as they have the past three years.
So … Tiger or The Field?