Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Tiger Woods goes from top dog to underdog

How fitting that Eldrick Tont Woods kept Doral, the PGA Tour and the World Golf Championships waiting on whether he would be cruising the refashioned Blue Monster this week before finally committing Wednesday. Not even Donald Trump’s billions could buy the right answer or hurry it. Woods’ back spasms would “calm down,” as he put it, or they wouldn’t, and luckily they did.

Anyway, waiting on Tiger is something we all should be used to by now.

Like Doral was this week, the golf world in general has pretty much been in a state of suspended animation for the past six years waiting on Tiger. If the sport is not quite held hostage, say it is held in abeyance.

Tiger, at 38, has given no indication that he will break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 career majors — but every indication that he still might. He is neither “back” nor done, but fighting the gray in-between. Fighting the field, himself, history and time.

So we watch and wait willingly, even eagerly, because what we are witnessing is not just the question of that record, but also the biggest, most fascinating career of any athlete in an individual sport since Muhammad Ali.

We were captivated by the audacity of a young Cassius Clay in the early 1960s, back when he was “too pretty to be hit,” and we were on that long ride right up until we ached for a staggered legend who fought into the early 1980s. Until his face was bloated and battered. Until he was no longer himself.

Our ride with Tiger has been nonstop since 1997, when his astonishing 12-stroke victory at the Masters felt so much bigger than golf, or sports. He hadn’t invented the word “Cablinasian” yet; he was a black man roaring to victory in a sport as white as that golf ball, at a country club steeped in Jim Crow tradition that fought kicking and screaming before being pressured to admit its first black member in 1990 (and first woman in 2012).

Tiger’s walk down the 18th fairway that day not quite 17 years ago felt like a watershed, felt important. It caused an outpouring of emotion.

“No one will turn their head when a black man walks to the first tee after this,” said Lee Elder at the time, the first black man to play in the Masters, in 1975. “It could have more potential than Jackie Robinson breaking into baseball.”

Tiger had us, right then. And for 11 years through 2008 he assembled 14 major titles and seemed destined to break — no, to shatter — Nicklaus’ all-time record of 18.

Then began the long wait.

First we waited to see if Woods would overcome the late-2009 infidelity scandal that ruined his marriage, turned a very private man into tabloid fodder and wreaked tumult on his golf game, leaving him winless in 2010-11. He did.

Then we waited to see if his game would recover, if he had a career comeback in him. He did.

Now we wait to see if that comeback will be fully realized with a renewed charge at Nicklaus’ record.

That is the wait that is now in its sixth year.

Woods’ comeback in some ways is beyond question. Last season he led the PGA Tour in tournament wins and in earnings. He regained the No. 1 world ranking. And yet, until he ends his majors drought — his next chance is in April at the Masters — that drought will be all that matters to golf history.

Recall when the Heat’s LeBron James had everything but a championship ring, and it was what he had not done that was all anyone could talk about. The scoring stats, MVP awards and All-Star Games meant nothing. As recently as the 2011 NBA Finals, a ring-less LeBron was couched as a choker, a failure.

Similarly, Tiger must now win more majors and challenge Nicklaus, or forever his personal scandal will be seen as cause-and-effect for why he didn’t — no matter how many more non-major tournaments he wins from here, or what his ranking is.

The comparative time line is notable. Nicklaus, at the same age Tiger is now, also had 14 majors. His 15th came at 38, the 16th and 17th at 40 and the 18th at a surreal 46.

So Woods still has time, chronologically, but so many other factors make doubtful his pursuit. Injuries, erratic ball-striking, a change in swing coaches, whispers of too much work on physical fitness and not enough practice time on the course — there always seems to be something. Woods is forever indicating his game is “close” to where he wants it to be, but there becomes an indiscernible line between reasons and excuses.

Woods speaks of his majors drought as if it were minor, not one of six years.

“We are all going to have hot spells and cold spells,” he said last week. “It’s going to turn around.”

But when?

Now, too, ironically, the Tiger Generation — boys inspired to take up golf by watching Woods in the 1997 Masters — are all grown up and turned into the young lions challenging their hero.

Golf is the hardest sport to dominate. You are considered a player-of-the-year candidate if you win four or five out of 40 tournaments in a season. Yet Woods truly dominated, once. In one span from August 2007 to June ’08 he had 12 consecutive top-five finishes, including nine wins and two majors. That’s insane. At his cresting best, Tiger was beyond LeBron.

Now, age and natural decline and increased competition have leveled the field.

Remember for example when Woods was the tour’s longest hitter off the tee, his drives eliciting gasps from the gallery? Last season, his average driving distance ranked 49th.

World No. 2 Adam Scott, No. 4 Jason Day, No. 6 Justin Rose and No. 8 Rory McIlroy all are younger and hungry. Scott is the reigning Masters champ. Rose won the last U.S. Open. McIlroy is the only player under 30, let alone under 25, with two majors. Day already has four major top-three finishes.

Golfer-turned-analyst Johnny Miller, on a recent conference call, said: “Tiger was so much better than everybody else, so much better under pressure, so much better on Sundays, so much better in the majors, that it wasn’t a fair fight. Now it’s a fair fight.”

That Woods is still in the fight, defiantly not conceding a late run at Nicklaus, keeps us watching, but with different eyes now.

Tiger has gone from dominating king to humbled and shamed, and now we see him in a strange, ill-fitting new role as he strives to restart his chase at history:

The underdog.

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