Second coming?

by Paul Thomas / 25 December, 2010
Tiger failed at the last hurdle this time, but is he working up to a comeback?

It's a measure of how far Tiger Woods has fallen that these days he's proud to come second.

After losing the sudden-death play-off at the Chevron World Challenge to Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell, the man who once bestrode his sport like a colossus declared he was proud of himself. When a journalist asked the obvious question - when was the last time he'd been proud of coming second - Woods relapsed into the blank, monosyllabic persona he tends to adopt in unscripted media situations.

In a year in which he has dominated the sporting headlines, it was fitting Woods should end on this equivocal note. He went into the final round poised to bring down the curtain on his annus horribilis with a victory: he was four shots in front, his remodelled swing was holding up, and it seemed as if the ebullient competitor of old had displaced the haunted, diminished figure who's been masquerading under his name these past months.

There was the all-conquering pre-scandal Woods and the all-too-fallible post-scandal Woods. Perhaps he's now going through a split-personality phase as the two Tigers fight it out. In the final round the impostor reasserted himself, blowing a four-shot lead and apparently self-destructing with a limp double bogey at the 13th.

But with help from McDowell, whose next couple of tee shots ended up where pro golfers seldom have to tread, Woods fought back to set up the Hollywood finish: his long approach hovered over the 18th green like a spy satellite before making a soft landing a couple of feet from the hole. Normal service, it seemed, had been resumed.

We've been here many times: the miraculous shot at the decisive moment followed by the triumphant march to the 18th green. All that remained was for Whatsisname to perform his allotted role by missing his 20-footer, leaving Tiger to tap in, pocket the cheque, and flash that magic grin as he posed with the trophy.

But a major consequence of his fall from grace is that his rivals no longer accept they are merely supporting players in the Tiger Show, adversaries who compete manfully, force our hero to be brilliant, and then lose. McDowell rolled in his putt to force a play-off. They played the 18th again, but when McDowell holed another long putt he wasn't supposed to make, an understandably unnerved Woods missed from half the distance and that was that.

It was the first time Woods had lost a tournament after taking a lead of three or more shots into the final round; 2010 is the first calendar year in which Woods has failed to win a tournament since he turned professional.

He probably wasn't as disappointed as all those organisations, notably the TV networks, that have profited from golf's Tiger-boom. Much has been made of Woods's ethnicity but it's only half the story: he took golf out of the whites-only country clubs and made it a genuine spectator sport because, in addition to being exotic, he was handsome and athletic and performed with a thrilling combination of power and precision. Golf finally had its rock star, who soon became the biggest sporting rock star on the planet.

McDowell, in contrast, is professional golf as it used to be: conventional, unglamorous, unremarkable in every respect bar the ability to strike a little white ball.

So the $64 million - and counting - question is: will Tiger prowl again in 2011? Even though he came up short at the Chevron, the signs were encouraging. There are also indications the golf community and the wider public are eager for redemption, so notwithstanding the rush to judgment that his sins were too egregious to deserve forgiveness, the stage is set for a second coming.

Bill Clinton, whose disgrace mirrored that of Woods, has surely disproved F Scott Fitzgerald's dictum that there are no second acts in American life. And do my eyes deceive me or is that Cher on the cover of the latest Vanity Fair?

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