Tiger still living in the shadows
IT will go down in history as the day a legend died. Exactly one year ago, on a dark night in Orlando, Florida, the most powerful and imposing force in world golf was lost, probably forever.
Tiger Woods sustained just minor facial injuries when he mowed down a fire hydrant and ploughed into a tree outside his neighbour's house in the exclusive gated community of Isleworth.
Yet that mysterious one-car crash helped blow the lid off the golfer's lurid private life, setting off a chain of events which would end his marriage and cause him to lose the X-factor on the course.
Woods, who has earned $675m from his sport, was morally bankrupt.
As the shocking extent of his philandering became public last winter, Woods took a complete break from golf; committed himself to therapy and tried in vain to save his marriage to Elin, mother of their two children.
They divorced in August, Woods reportedly paying is ex-wife a $110m settlement. Off the course, Tiger's stock and his popularity plummeted. The loss of sponsorship alone reputedly has cost him an estimated $35m in the 12 months since the crash.
His golf game went into decline. Including the FedEx Cup win bonus, Tiger earned $20.5m with his clubs in 2009, racking up six victories on the US Tour and one in Australia.
Since his return in April, however, he'd banked a paltry $1.3m in prizemoney after failing to win for the first time in 15 seasons on the PGA Tour. Earlier this month, he was knocked off the top of the world rankings by Lee Westwood.
Few doubt that Tiger, 35 on December 30, will win again, maybe even at his own Chevron World Challenge at Sherwood next week, and he may still surpass the record 18 Major Championships won by Jack Nicklaus.
Yet, after the most savage 12 months of his life, Woods is unlikely ever again to dominate his sport, intimidate opponents or thrill the masses the way he did before. His mystique has melted away like the morning mist.
Okay, Tiger's comeback at the Masters drew the third-highest weekend TV audience in Major Championship history, while the US Open at Pebble Beach, where he also finished fourth (this time behind Graeme McDowell) also yielded respectable viewing figures.
As the season progressed, however, and it became clear that Woods had lost his sparkle, armchair fans tuned out in their droves, with TV audiences for events in which the faltering Tiger played dropping by 33pc and more from 2009.
Since last November, Tiger's rivals have seen golf's greatest icon being pilloried and parodied for the transgressions in his private life. More significantly, they have witnessed unprecedented on-course implosions by Woods at venues like Quail Hollow and Firestone as his marriage fell asunder.
These hints of human frailty have destroyed Tiger's old aura of invincibility.
Rory McIlroy wasn't being mischievous, just honest, when he suggested after August's US PGA that he'd "love to play Tiger" at The Ryder Cup, adding: "Unless his game rapidly improves over the next month or so, I think anyone on the European team would fancy their chances against him."
Guys like McIlroy, McDowell, Martin Kaymer and Rickie Fowler still respect Woods, but they don't fear him anymore.
There are reasons why Tiger hasn't seriously contended on Sunday at any tournament this season.
Coming to grips with the techniques suggested by new coach Sean Foley may explain his inconsistency from tee-to-green since the summer, but losing the Midas touch with his putter has been the greatest on-course obstacle Tiger encountered in 2010.
Woods hasn't putted poorly. He just lost that gleaming ring of confidence which used make him an absolute world-beater from anywhere around 10 feet. Our thoughts go back to the words Woods uttered during last February's statement at Sawgrass, in which he contritely confessed to the sexual transgressions which wrecked his marriage and put his life in stasis.
"I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to," he said, adding: "I felt I was entitled."
Was that dark sense of entitlement off the golf course in some way related to Tiger's cast iron belief in his own destiny on it? Not too long ago he really seemed to believe it was his inalienable right to hole every putt, but not anymore.
Paradoxically, putting gets more difficult with experience. Every one of this year's painful misses will have nibbled away at Woods.
Tiger's lost his stripes, becoming streaky instead. Among the dross of the past three months, he's played 16 holes of golf to rival any in his glittering portfolio.
In fairness, 10 of them were on Monday at Celtic Manor as Woods came from behind with a spectacular eagle and a flock of birdies to turn the Ryder Cup tables on Francesco Molinari.
Then Tiger landed two eagles and two birdies in the final six holes of a phenomenal final round 65 at this month's JBWere Masters, which clinched him a fourth place finish in Melbourne.
Plainly, the class is still there but is Woods as maniacally intent on getting it out?
Tiger insists he's "infinitely more happy as a man now than 12 months ago" adding: "I'm more clear about my perspective, about who I am and where I want to go.
"It's amazing how much better I feel internally every day. How thankful I am to have the connection I have with my kids and the people who mean most to me.
"My healing process is far from complete, but I am beginning to appreciate things I had overlooked before. I'm learning that some victories can mean smiles, not trophies, and that life's most ordinary events can bring joy.
"Giving my son, Charlie, a bath, for example, beats chipping another bucket of balls. Making mac and cheese for him and his sister Sam is better than dining in any restaurant.
"Sharing a laugh watching cartoons or reading a book beats channel- surfing alone.
"Some nights now, it's just me and the kids, an experience that's both trying and rewarding.
"Probably like the experience a lot of families have every evening around the world."
As a divorcee, Tiger inevitably is going to have to make a lot more time out of his practice and training regime if he wishes to share such precious moments with his two kids.
He's plainly devoted himself to doing it, no matter how much it intrudes on the processes which made him a world-beater in the first place.
One year on from the darkest night of his life, Tiger Woods has seen the light. It may not make him more accomplished as a golfer, but he'll be an infinitely happier man.
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