Thursday 22 February 2018

Ten years since his most lucrative season on tour, will we ever see Tiger Woods smile in public again?


Pádraig Harrington receives the champion’s jacket from Tiger Woods at the Dunlop Phoenix Tournament on November 19, 2006 in Miyazaki, Japan. Photo: Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Pádraig Harrington receives the champion’s jacket from Tiger Woods at the Dunlop Phoenix Tournament on November 19, 2006 in Miyazaki, Japan. Photo: Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

At this time 10 years ago, Tiger Woods was midway through his most lucrative ever season on the PGA Tour while Pádraig Harrington had become the first home player in 25 years to win the Irish Open. As keen rivals, both were at the peak of their powers, shaping their golfing legacies.

Six months previously, as they walked off the 17th green of the Phoenix Country Club in Japan, Harrington noticed a marked change in the body-language of his playing partner. "I had clearly aroused his interest, making him a different animal altogether," he found himself thinking of the game's undisputed top player.

From there, some stunning wedge play secured a sudden-death victory which was easily the most significant of Harrington's career up to that point. Unlike most of Woods' rivals, he had displayed, not for the first time, an admirable absence of fear at going head-to-head with the great one in pursuit of the game's big prizes.

"When it was all over, I found myself remarking that Tiger really wants to be pushed, no matter what," said Harrington. "After hitting a great chip to save par on the 17th, I could sense his excitement, his focus. Sure he wanted to win, but he also wanted to be pushed. He wanted the competition."

All of which led Jack Nicklaus to remark a few days later: "He [Harrington] is a very fine player who obviously doesn't back off in Tiger's company. [Lee] Trevino and [Tom] Watson always functioned well in my company, but I don't know if we can say the same about the guys out there with Tiger."

He added: "I don't know if Tiger thinks about intimidating his opponents, but I know I didn't. I assumed it [intimidation] was there, but I never thought about it. I was too busy playing my own game. Otherwise I couldn't have got the job done."

Interestingly, a Golf Digest chart at that time, involving the world's leading players, confirmed the Nicklaus view. Statistical analysis of almost 800 tournament rounds from Woods over a 10-year period separated Harrington from the rest. Of 19 players who completed a minimum of five rounds as Woods' partner during that period, Harrington was the only one to have outscored the game's best exponent. And by way of further emphasis, the chart's findings were compiled prior to the victory over Woods in Japan.

This weekend, Harrington is competing in the Bear's Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village. Sadly for Woods, who captured the title for a fifth time in 2012, his only link with this year's event is having been arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence last Monday - Memorial Day.

While reflecting on the keen rivalry he and Woods once shared, Harrington said yesterday: "I really don't see another tussle happening between the two us in the future - from either side." Recognising that whatever about the American's problems, his own days in the sun are likely to become increasingly limited, with a 46th birthday beckoning on August 31.

Meanwhile, the motor-car has been central to three remarkable happenings in Woods' life in recent decades. The first had to do with horrific events in New York in the autumn of 2001, which have since gone into infamy simply as 9/11. That was when the American Express Championship, which Woods would capture at Mount Juliet a year later, was abandoned in St Louis.

With flights grounded across the US, the 25-year-old decided to make the marathon journey by road, from Missouri back to his home in Orlando, Florida. The player later described it as the longest drive of his young life, which may be explained by the fact that he did the trip alone.

"Some people might think I'm nuts for driving halfway across the country by myself, but it seemed like the thing to do," he said at the time. "Besides, negotiating 1,000 miles would require concentration, something I welcomed after the events of the day before."

The second motor incident, on Thanksgiving Day 2009, threatened to destroy his career, a month before his 34th birthday. Suffice it to indicate at this stage, that it occurred outside his home in Isleworth, and involved a collision between his Cadillac SUV and a fire hydrant. Then came an attack on the vehicle by his wife, Elin, wielding a nine-iron.

All of which led to humiliating disclosures of serial infidelity by Woods, to the point where he sought treatment for sex-addiction. Some observers took the view that the extraordinary mental strength he displayed in amassing 14 Major championship triumphs would see him through the crisis. But his rehabilitation proved to be unexpectedly difficult, prompting Harrington to remark at one point: "I thought he was tougher."

Now, this latest motoring incident had him on his own, asleep at the wheel and with the engine running and the brake-lights on, when police came upon him at 2.0am last Sunday night, in the right-hand lane of a deserted highway. It has since been established that his sleepy, confused state was related to prescription drugs, not alcohol.

By way of explaining a fourth back surgery in April, this time involving spinal fusion, Woods wrote on his website: "I want to say unequivocally, I want to play professional golf again." He went on: "I could no longer live with the pain I had. We tried every possible non-surgical route and nothing worked. I had good days and bad days, but the pain was usually there, and I couldn't do much. Even lying down hurt.

"You mention the word 'fusion', and it's scary. Other guys who have had fusions or disc replacements like Davis Love III, Retief Goosen, Lee Trevino, Lanny Wadkins and Dudley Hart - they have all come back and played. But more than anything, it made their lives better. That's the most important thing - that I can have a life again with my kids."

He closed by insisting that the long-term prognosis was good, but that it would take two to three months before he could begin twisting his back. "There's no hurry," he said.

So, what does a hugely wealthy, 41-year-old do with himself away from competitive golf? At that age, Nicklaus was already deeply involved in golf-course design, where he remains active to this day. Arnold Palmer's design business was on a smaller scale, though he was kept busy with personal appearances associated with lucrative endorsements.

As it happens, design opportunities have been greatly reduced since the world recession of nine years ago. And the 795-acre site for what was to have been Woods' first US course design in North Carolina is to be auctioned off, with June 12 as the deadline for bids. We can take it that this latest scandal is not going to help the pursuit of further design options down the line.

Meanwhile, those heady days from summer 2007, en route to a tournament haul for the season of $10.87m, seem like a distant world. We remember the month of May at Quail Hollow, where Woods picked up $1.134m as winner of the Wachovia Championship, one of eight tournament victories that year. And how the PGA at sweltering Southern Hills three months later delivered his 13th Major.

For Harrington, victory at Adare Manor became part of a remarkable treble in which an Irish Professional Championship success at The European Club proved to be perfect preparation for The Open.

A month later, Woods had the opportunity of publicly airing his views on a remarkable climax at Carnoustie. "It was very interesting to see it," said the 12th-place finisher. "Paddy looked like he was going to win it and then didn't look like he was ever going to finish the [72nd] hole."

Joining in laughter from the assembled media, Woods admitted he missed the play-off, having departed for home by then. Which prompts the thought as to when he may have cause to smile in public again.

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