Saturday 16 December 2017

Year of the Tiger

Tiger Woods' fall from grace has been at the centre of an amazing year in golf, says Dermot Gilleece

ON the Saturday of Thanksgiving week in 2009, I happened to be on a winter's break in Manhattan, with absolutely no inclination to read the daily papers. But the New York Post is irresistible: "God forbid Tiger got into this car wreck because of this false report of him having an affair."

The comment was attributed to an unknown 34-year-old New Yorker by the name of Rachel Uchitel, who was further quoted as saying: "Despite it being completely untrue, it still must have caused some problems at home -- if I was his wife, I probably would have killed him."

As we now know, his wife didn't kill the world's former number one golfer. Instead, she instituted divorce proceedings which became final last August. This was only one dramatic development in a year which must rank among the most remarkable in the history of the professional game.

It's hard to credit that a percentage of American scribes actually disputed its merit as the Associated Press top sports story of 2010, while muttering something about the "lowly Saints" winning the Super Bowl. Either way, the Woods affair acquired unparalleled attention internationally, highlighting as it did the self-destructiveness of human frailty against a background of great talent, wealth and privilege.

My next involvement with the story came in mid-February in Tucson, Arizona, where I was covering the Accenture Match Play Championship. There, before he had uttered a contrite word in his grandly-flagged 14-minute television address to the American nation, Woods was damned as the vindictive destroyer of the event, by way of getting back at the sponsors who had cancelled their lucrative endorsement deal with him.

Tucson was where I experienced the profound impact of Woods' behaviour on Americans who revere their sporting heroes. Nobody captured the mood better than Greg Hansen, who wrote poignantly in the Arizona Daily Star: "In the summer of 1995, medical personnel at a Texas hospital wheeled 63-year-old Mickey Mantle into an auditorium for what was essentially a public repentance. The sight of the once indomitable Yankee, so frail and so sick, about a month from his death, made you want to turn away from the TV screen. 'You talk about a role model -- this is a role model,' he said. 'Don't be like me'.

"Mantle's final public appearance was neither staged nor rehearsed. He no longer had anything to hide so he just let it flow. Toward the end of his life, he spoke candidly about betraying his wife, his family, an adoring public and especially himself.

"It was the last time I believed a disgraced athlete's contrition. The rest of them, Kobe Bryant and Mark McGwire, Michael Vick and Tiger Woods are just moving their lips, the substance of which is not much more than grey noise. They are contrite because they got caught.

"Tiger said all the right things Friday, which is a credit to his thinkers and to those who prepared his speech. But his slate will never be clean, and his image never separated from the hypocrisy and the attempted cover-up of his scandalous past. The scars are much too deep.

"I hoped Tiger, like Mickey, would say, 'don't be like me', but

the closest he came was 'I was wrong, I was foolish'. We will never know if those were his words or those of his enablers."

When it was revealed that Woods would make his much-vaunted comeback at Augusta National, his Monday press conference became the first ticket-only affair in Masters history. Amid reports that he had requested and been denied on-site accommodation and his own security people in the grounds, speculation was intense about other pre-conditions being sought by the Woods camp.

New Zealander Craig Heatley, chairman of Augusta's media committee and monitor of the Woods press conference, killed any such suggestions. "There were no rules," he said. "It was the same as any other press conference. The assertion that somehow there were some controls is absurd. Had we been asked to impose pre-conditions, I think you know what we would have said."

Those of us who wondered what the green jackets were really thinking got our answer on Wednesday morning. That was when club chairman Billy Payne, in his annual address to the media, lacerated the player, saying among other things: "It is not simply the degree of his (Woods) conduct that is so egregious here; it is the fact that he disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids and our grandkids."

Some observers frowned on this as curiously righteous indignation from an organisation whose attitude towards women members and minorities left much to be desired. To me, the chairman's address was simply Augusta National telling their wayward champion and his entourage that while he might be the best golfer in the world, the Masters was still their show which would continue to be run their way.

Meanwhile, the public had their say. ESPN's first-round Masters coverage averaged 4.9 million viewers, the biggest-ever cable audience for a golf telecast. And Woods shot a stunning 68, the best first-round Masters score of his career. Then, on the way to a remarkable fourth-place finish, he broke par in all four rounds for the only time in 12 tournament appearances this year. This and the US Open, where he was also fourth after a stunning third-round 66 was followed by a closing 75, were his best finishes outside the recent play-off defeat by Graeme McDowell in the Chevron World Challenge.

All the while, putting was a major thorn in his side, bringing to mind a comment from Nick Faldo in the wake of the 1997 Masters when Woods was being hailed as nigh unbeatable. "Let's see what happens when he starts missing a few putts," said the Englishman with a half-smile.

By way of explaining a 23rd-place finish at St Andrews, Woods lamented: "I didn't putt well, except for the first day. I believe I had like nine three-putts for the week, so consequently I'm pretty far down the board."

By way of emphasising his torment with the blade, he discarded his trusty Scotty Cameron for the first three rounds at St Andrews, replacing it with the Nike Method.

Though the Scotty was given a reprieve, the Nike was back in his bag for the Chevron World Challenge. By then, he had ended the official PGA season at 58th in the putting statistics with 29.07 putts per round. And a new coach, Sean Foley, was charged with rectifying a worrying 165th position in driving accuracy.

Meanwhile, the profound upheaval in his private life made Woods' appearance at Adare Manor for the JP McManus Pro-Am in early July hugely creditable. Watching his subdued, troubled mood, there was the feeling that golf would need to bestow serious favours on him if he were to reclaim former glories.

Still, we can take it that his presence contributed significantly to the extraordinary sum of more than €40m which the event raised for charity. As McManus acknowledged afterwards: "It was an enormous ask (by me) and an enormous effort by Tiger."

The American golfing media had very little sympathy for him, however, nor for his manager Mark Steinberg, who was perceived as an arrogant bully when Woods was riding high. Tom Callahan, the distinguished scribe who has written a second book about the Woods family, reflected these feelings in a recent interview.

"When the word was out that I was interviewing the family, Mark Steinberg called and asked me, as a favour, not to write the book. 'I'll tell you what, Mark,' I said, 'I'll give it just as much consideration as you would give me if I called and asked you for a favour'. Then he said, 'I can't make any promises, but you'd be high on our list to write Tiger's book eventually'. I laughed. 'Stop it, Mark,' I said. 'I'd be the last guy you'd want because I wouldn't give you control'."

In the light of an imperious singles performance from Woods in the Ryder Cup, it became necessary to remind ourselves that they play Major championships over four rounds. Almost hidden at number eight in the order, he came back from two down against Francesco Molinari to blitz the Italian with an eagle, five birdies and a par in a seven-hole run from the ninth.

The memory was clearly fresh in the mind of his caddie Steve Williams when Woods wrapped up his season in the Chevron, three weeks ago. Three holes into the second round after an opening 65, Williams felt he had seen enough. "The tide is turning," he proclaimed. But his nervous master knew better.

"I won six times last year (2009) and it was a good year, yeah, but it wasn't a great year," he said after finishing 28th behind Martin Kaymer in the PGA Championship in August. "In order for it to be a great year you have to win a Major championship."

Woods will be 35 next Thursday. Thirteen months on from that fateful Saturday in New York, doubts remain as to whether he can win another Major. But one thing is certain: it will be fascinating to watch him try.

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