AUGUSTA, Ga. Before Tiger Woods tees off Wednesday morning, an angry evangelist across the street from Augusta National Golf Club already has punched in. He stands with his back to the course and loudly hits his themes, among them fornication.
He’s talking about all of us – not just Tiger Woods.
In 2009 Tiger was caught cheating on his wife and was denounced in voices even louder and angrier than the evangelist’s. On the first day of the 2010 Masters, a plane flew above Augusta National pulling a banner that read: TIGER: DID YOU MEAN BOOTYISM?
Tiger had announced at an apologetic news conference that he would return to his Buddhist roots.
Tiger has long led his sport in detractors as well as fans. But no banner-pulling plane will violate Augusta National airspace Thursday.
Fans have many reasons to dislike Tiger. He rarely interacts with fans. Also, he wins. But those who choose serial infidelity are like soldiers who don’t realize the war has ended.
I follow Tiger for most of the nine practice holes he plays Wednesday and hear only one reference to his transgressions. A man tells a group of friends he admires Tiger’s game but not Tiger’s personal life.
Otherwise it’s pure support. It’s go Tiger, come on Tiger, go blue (he wears a blue shirt with a horizontal white stripe on the front and a vertical white stripe on the back) and even (from a guy) we love you, Tiger.
Tiger attracts the biggest gallery at whatever tournament he plays (although Phil Mickelson occasionally can compete). You have no idea how many fans are on the course Wednesday until the Tiger movement arrives.
Mark O’Meara walks through the ropes off 18 and perhaps 20 people wait for him. Tiger and Keegan Bradley are the next to pass, and suddenly there’s a human tunnel. Fans on both sides of the ropes stand three deep and then five deep and then – it’s Tiger! – eight or 10 deep.
Who’s in the gallery? It is as diverse a group as the Masters offers – old and young, men and women, black and white, wealthy and merely affluent.
When a celebrity turns bad we pounce. Fans, media, everybody goes after the guy. We never liked him anyway. Or, we loved him and he betrayed us. Either way, we will never like him again.
Again might last a year, but it almost never lasts two.
Take Michael Vick. A few dog lovers will never forgive Vick for the heinous dog-fighting operation he owned. But he paid his dues. He went to jail. I’ve been part of two greyhound rescues (although I don’t like that term, rescue, because it implies we’re doing the dog the favor) and I forgive Vick.
I no longer see him as the man who ran a dog-fighting operation. I see him as a quarterback who woefully underachieved for Philadelphia last season behind a horrific offensive line.
When Tiger tees off at 10:45 a.m. Thursday he won’t be burdened by his Achilles, left knee, infidelity or, I assume, conscience.
He’s back. He won the past two PGA tournaments he played and three of the past five.
According to oddsmaker Bovada, Tiger is, at 5-2, the favorite to win the Masters. Rory McIlroy is second at 8-1, Mickelson third at 10-1.
Tiger is No. 1 in the world for the first time since 2010.
Would you trade the ranking for a victory in a major?
“Oh, absolutely,” Tiger says. “Are you kidding me?”
Until he wins a major, he won’t be all the way back. Tiger last won a major in 2008 and last won the Masters in 2005. He’s zero for the past seven.
But this is his place. He played his first Masters when he was 19 and won his first – by 12 strokes – when he was 21.
“Certainly at 37 I’m not what I was when I was 19 as far as flexibility,” says Tiger. “I’m far stronger and more explosive than I was then. Just certainly don’t have the elasticity and that’s, you know, a function of age. It’s MJ jumping over everybody, and then the next thing you know he’s got a fadeaway.”
Tiger will not fade away.
As he walks through the crowd off No. 18, cameras click and fans clap. But Tiger looks neither to his left nor his right.
He certainly does not look back.
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