Golfers still living in Tiger's shadow

Yes, Woods is No 1 in the world, but he's hardly the force he used to be and yet grabs all the limelight

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 June, 2013, 4:21am

Considering humanity has existed in one form or another for aeons, five years is beyond insignificant. And yet a scant five years ago Tiger Woods was at the apex of sporting and pop culture. He was the most dominant athlete of our times and not by a little bit. He was all of 32 when he won the US Open at Torrey Pines to capture his 14th major. Four short of Jack Nicklaus' record of 18, the only question was whether he would have 20 by the time he turned 35.

A knee injury had him hobbling around Torrey Pines but he was still virtually invincible in every other way: as a golfer, as a wildly profitable corporate pitchman with an incandescent and wholesome smile and, most importantly, as a young father and husband. He was the capital I in icon as well as the capital I in golf industry.

Well, we all know how things unravelled in a most sordid and sensational way.

Five years later, Tiger is arguably the most polarising figure in sports. He still has 14 major victories and while he is once again the No 1 ranked golfer in the world, he is far from invincible.

In Tiger's case, five years most certainly seems like a lifetime ago. However, one thing remains unchanged through it all: good, bad or indifferent, Tiger is always going to be the main story.

He brought the world to golf. There are those who tune in to watch golf but there are so many more who tune in just to watch Tiger. Not all of them are rooting for him either, with just as many revelling in his misery as cheering him on. But they all watch.

This year's US Open seemed like something of a fresh start for Woods, perhaps the biggest leap in his public rehabilitation. He was the acknowledged best golfer in the world again and seemed much more at ease in his skin. He publicly acknowledged his relationship with champion skier Lindsey Vonn, even tweeting a picture of the two of them together to smite the paparazzi dogging him.

And while his tabloid-ravaged reputation had cost him mega millions in endorsements, he was now in a series of high-profile and dignified ads as a new pitchman for Rolex.

Few companies in the world manage their coveted brand like Rolex. The fact that they chose toxic Tiger as a "brand ambassador" spoke volumes about the changing perceptions of his image. Thanks to some tasteless and ill-timed comments towards him from Sergio Garcia, Tiger had actually become somewhat sympathetic as well.

It was all there for the former wunderkind, everything seemed aligned once again. But then he picked up a golf club and all the goodwill faded when he became a total non-issue at Merion, finishing 12 strokes behind champion Justin Rose. His tournament was done basically before the leaders teed off for the final round and while his form was very good coming in, he has never seemed more human than he does now.

At 37, his body is breaking down in ways that seem quite troubling for a golfer. Now it's his elbow, before it was his hips and his knee. He may never be right again physically and with a host of young, talented players coming up who have no fear of him, he can't afford his body to betray him because his mind and his will are not enough to win the big ones any more.

The folks who run golf and the folks who pay to be involved are holding their breath that he can at least be healthy enough to show up on the first tee at the majors four times a year. Never mind winning, simply playing will have to do at this stage. It's likely we won't see him again until the Open Championship at Muirfield next month where Rose will be back on home soil as the first Englishman to win a major since Nick Faldo at the 1996 Masters.

While Woods was consulting his doctors this week, Rose was on the David Letterman show doing the "Top Ten" with his glistening trophy in tow. An unfailingly decent man and worthy champion, Rose is bright, witty and extremely talented. At only 32 years of age, he could and should have a few more notable victories in front of him. Returning home as the conquering hero he should be the main focus. But he won't and he knows it. Good, bad or indifferent, it will be a Tiger tale once again.