Fragile Tiger flirts with disaster
Tiger Woods' Augusta comeback will test his skills to the very limit, says Dermot Gilleece
Great people think differently from the rest of us and, by any definition, Tiger Woods is great. Yet he is certain to face the most testing challenge of his sporting life so far when returning to competitive action in the US Masters starting at Augusta National on April 8.
Blessed with extraordinary skills as a golfer, he has never before had to prove himself in public. Indeed by his own admission, the only time he ever felt intimidated on a golf course was as an 11-year-old in the Junior World Championship when a 12-year-old rival drove the green at a 290-yard par four.
The forthcoming challenge is clearly a lot more complex than the hurt pride of a gifted lad. Cynics, of whom there has been no shortage, condemned his televised apology on February 19 as a stage-managed affront to the public's intelligence. And his comeback in tournament golf's most controlled environment has been viewed as equally devious.
As we have learned, however, things are rarely what they seem in the world of Woods. And where security implications for golf's most celebrated venue are concerned, the Martha Burk equality protests of the 2003 Masters will pale by comparison.
In correspondence on the issue last week, a local reader of the Augusta Chronicle cautioned: "The paparazzi better heed the warnings. There is the CIA and the Secret Service and the US Marshals. Then there is Augusta National security. Neither (sic) of the four play games."
Whatever about the first three, you would take on Masters security at your peril. Only a few years ago, a British radio reporter was on the brink of being expelled from the tournament, simply for having a mobile phone in his pocket outside of the media centre. The fact that it was turned off was of no consequence. Another scribe encountered similar difficulties for possessing a tape recorder.
My greatest fear there every year is that I might lose my media badge, having observed the predicament of a British colleague who was transported back to his hotel to search for one he misplaced. Then there is the well-documented story about Jack Whitaker, who lost his position as CBS anchor for labelling Masters "patrons" as a mob in 1966. And Gary McCord was banned altogether for references to body-bags and bikini wax when describing the notoriously difficult greens.
Another huge plus for the Woods camp is Augusta's treatment of the competitors. Only players and their caddies are permitted inside the fairway ropes, except when a ruling is required. And extensive areas of the grounds, including the clubhouse and its environs, are cordoned off.
Even against this background, however, I believe Woods could face serious problems from the galleries. The tightest security can't control the outbursts of moronic loudmouths determined to be heard -- more extreme versions of "you-de-man!" and "in-the-hole", which assail our ears on television every week.
For some, it would be too good an opportunity to miss. Of course they would be promptly ejected, but not before having their say. And quite apart from lacking the normal courtesies, there are followers of golf -- let's not dignify them as fans -- who openly disliked Woods for a variety of reasons, long before his recent indiscretions.
He could, of course, win his critics over by displaying genuine humility to match his recent words of apology. Either way, we need to see a more human side to the world number one than the arrogant, aloof figure he has presented at tournaments over the years, from the time he realised that huge wealth was going to come his way, irrespective of what the general public thought about him.
Having gone through a lengthy period of rehabilitation, he is certain to be emotionally fragile. Individuals in his situation can easily become institutionalised, to the extent of feeling extremely vulnerable when removed from their recovery environment. On the first tee at Augusta, he will be acutely aware of his fall from grace to the ultimate indignity of becoming a figure of fun. He will feel emotionally naked and desperately in need of reassurance which caddie Steve Williams won't be able to provide.
Self-esteem can be restored only through the game to which he has effectively devoted his life. And if golf fails him, the only measurement we have of how he might cope is his US Open experience of 2006 at Winged Foot where, after a nine-week absence from the game due to his father's final illness and death, he missed the cut after two rounds of 76. In fact, he was tied 82nd in what was comfortably his worst performance as a professional in a major championship.
After the opening round, he protested that he felt "pretty good" and talked of how the support of the public had "made things so much easier for all of us. And I can't thank everyone enough for that because I've never experienced anything like it." Then he referred to "absolutely incredible" cheering from the fans, before adding: "I understand the situation where everyone is looking to me to be more emotional, but right now I'm just focusing and I'm just trying to win the championship."
Within 24 hours, he had shot another 76 and was on his way home to Isleworth. Speculation as to his likely state of mind going to Augusta has to be based on one of two assumptions. If, as the cynics would have us believe, he and his backroom team engineered his apology and comeback simply to elicit maximum sympathy from a gullible public, then he should be set fair to resume a golfing dominance he relinquished after capturing the Australian Masters last November.
But if, on the other hand, he has endured profound emotional and mental trauma because of outrageous marital infidelity, his prospects are very different. I happen to believe this latter scenario, which leads me to think that the practice days -- assuming he decides to show himself after the public have been admitted at 8.0am -- will be absolutely critical to his tournament well-being.
Meanwhile, where his rivals are concerned, nothing much has changed. They're not going to enjoy a sudden surge of confidence, thinking the great one is broken. Indeed many may fear his re-emergence as an even more formidable figure, because of what he has been through.
Leaving emotional and mental issues aside, we may ask if it's actually possible for a golfer to come competitively cold into a major championship and win it. The answer is to be found in the experience of Ben Hogan in 1953. In March of that year, without having played a four-round tournament since the US Open the previous summer, Hogan headed for his usual working holiday at Seminole in Florida. From there, he arrived at Augusta two weeks prior to the Masters.
Though he complained during the four days that lack of tournament play had left him vulnerable on the greens, the Hawk still won by five strokes while setting a new tournament record of 274.
Jack Nicklaus once acknowledged that "Tiger has the ability to do things no one else can do." Though the Bear hardly had the current circumstances in mind, you could just imagine Woods looking to victory at this year's Masters as proof positive of that assessment.