Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Despite his troubles, we can’t stop watching Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods tees off at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Trump National Doral on Sunday, March 9, 2014.
Tiger Woods tees off at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Trump National Doral on Sunday, March 9, 2014. Miami Herald Staff

We were captivated first by the excellence and as much by the aura in the span of that record-threatening run of major championships and blood-red Sunday shirts.

We were engrossed next by the sudden scandal, the shocking infidelity that thrust America’s most private sports superstar into the unseemly tabloids.

We are fascinated now by the age and injuries that have rendered a golf god mortal, as we wait for a comeback from the hard fall … and begin to doubt it will ever come.

We have never, ever stopped watching Tiger Woods.

We have watched him from that magic spring at Augusta in 1997 — when a bigger-than-golf triumph in the Masters moved America — straight through to his current break from the PGA Tour, the latest dip in a career turned to disappointment and drama.

We have seen him from a 20-year-old phenom rising like a rocket to a 39-year-old man down to earth with a thud. We have seen him from a champion revered to a marriage-wrecker reviled to a man perhaps engendering sympathetic support as he tries to again be what he was. All the while his sport, for better or worse, has never stopped revolving around him.

Tiger Woods not winning remains more interesting than anybody who is. Tiger not even playing commands more attention than the whole of the field teeing off.

This is a damnation of the state of golf but more so the ultimate compliment to Eldrick Tont Woods. There have been a small parade of proposed “next Tigers” — and the current nominee, Rory McIlroy, is a good candidate — but there has been no replacing him.

That is why golf’s annual South Florida swing sagged with last week’s news that Tiger would be taking an indefinite break from the tour, escaping to his compound a couple of hours north in Jupiter and trying to get right both his game and his mind. That’s after he shot a career-worst 82 and missed the cut in his first event of the new season and then withdrew with a back ailment one week later.

Woods has until Friday to decide if he will play the Honda Classic starting Feb. 26 in Palm Beach Gardens. He’d planned to, but that now seems very much in doubt.

And no Honda would deny Woods his final chance to qualify to play in the World Golf Championships event at Doral starting March 5, hugely diminishing interest in (and TV ratings for) both events.

Woods’ modern realities — struggling to break par, missing cuts, failing to play his way into tournaments — are the indignities of what he has become.

Tiger once owned the Official World Golf Ranking the way the Beatles owned the Billboard charts. He ranked No. 1 for a record 683 weeks, ending 12 different seasons on top. He was immovably lodged in the top 10 a record 736 consecutive weeks from April 1997 to May 2011.

Today Woods is No. 66 in the latest world ranking, just below a who’s-that list of people named Marcel Siem, Graham Delaet and Kevin Streelman.

In taking time off he said something that once would have seemed a self-assured declaration but now seems closer to a long shot:

“I am committed to getting back to the pinnacle of my game,” he said.

Surely Woods’ aim is to get right for the year’s first major, the Masters in April. It will be the 27th major played since he last won one, in 2008, as he tries to move a career majors win number stuck on 14 into a seventh season. Once, he seemed certain to break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18. Now?

You wonder if that is even an obsession anymore, how much it weighs now with Woods.

He has a serious girlfriend in professional skier Lindsey Vonn, young soccer-playing children ages 7 and 5 from his first marriage, and enough money to make his golf earnings incidental and unnecessary. In 2014, even as his 17-year streak of at least one top-10 finish in a major ended, Woods still made $55 million.

“Right now, I need a lot of work on my game and to still spend time with the people who are important to me,” he said in announcing his break.

He also admitted he practices “much less” than he once did, leaving us to imagine the grand conspirators in his stalled career are not just encroaching age and physical ailments, but perhaps also diminished desire and flagging commitment.

One thing about Woods’ career has not changed, though.

It was true when he was the preening champion who charismatically dominated golf, and it is true today as he is recast as the underdog chased by doubts.

After all of these years, we’re still watching Tiger Woods.