AUGUSTA — Tiger Woods walked purposefully between columns of fans Monday to the Augusta National practice area, dumped two bags filled with 150 golf balls and began the dreary, repetitive chipping drills meant to repair his short game.
He shared stories with Mike Weir. When Mark O’Meara, his old pal, showed up, they embraced warmly. There is a lot of good feeling toward Woods these days, even as his game has gone bad. Fear of Tiger has been replaced by pity, empathy and even the glow of nostalgia. The players on tour take little joy in his hapless state. They wonder at his future, at his condition for this Masters.
“Who really knows what is going on in his head?” said Martin Kaymer, the 2014 U.S. Open champion from Germany. “I hope he’s happy. I hope he’s fine. I hope he will play well this week. Mentally, it must be quite exhausting and we know how important the mental part is in golf. I look at it and find it quite sad how people treat the whole subject. Hopefully he’s strong enough, he has people to talk to, and he finds a way to compete.”
We know how important it is for golf, for the marketing of the sport, that Woods becomes healthy and competitive. When he skipped the Masters last spring, CBS’s ratings fell 24% from the previous year to an average audience of 8.6 million viewers − the lowest figure since 1993, before Woods joined on tour.
Now he is back, sort of, with the Masters set to tee off on Thursday. Woods creates viewers, and does something else, too. He offers the illusion of inclusion in the sport, fights the harsh image of golf once expressed by comedian George Carlin: “A meaningless, mindless activity engaged in primarily by white, well-to-do businessmen who use the game to get together and make deals to carve this country up among themselves.”
When Woods was tearing up Augusta National, his story gave cover to Hootie Johnson and the men’s club that ran the place. He also lifted everyone’s play, whether or not they cared to admit it at the time.
“We all know when he’s around, somehow it does make us play better,” Kaymer said Monday. “I never experienced someone who played better than him. In my era, I never played with Seve and I never played with Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, those guys. So for me, he’s the man.”
He was the man, for sure. Now, however, Woods is a buffed, yet somehow frail figure, fading too soon at age 39. That message is reinforced, even, by the new Nike commercial showing Rory McIlroy as a little boy, idolizing Woods, then growing up to challenge and surpass him.
The Indian golfer Anirban Lahiri declared himself Monday another worshiper.
“I’m 27, so I’m very much a part of the Tiger era,” Lahiri said. “That (1997) Masters for me, the year he came out and destroyed everyone else and the golf course, that was just outstanding. That is one of those events, it was huge for the sport. For me as a kid watching it, among other millions of kids, that was massive.”
There is a reason people talk of his accomplishments in the past tense. In his last six outings, he missed the cut three times and withdrew twice. There is no more talk of catching Jack Nicklaus, winning four more majors. It has been nearly seven years now since Woods limped bravely off the course at Torrey Pines with his 14th major title, rode a golf cart to a helicopter and began one of the steepest declines − in both performance and public image − of any superstar in memory.
Insiders, once afraid to anger the sport’s driving force, now feel empowered to offer advice.
“Confidence is such a big part of the game,” his ex-swing coach, Hank Haney, wrote in Golf Digest. “If he goes to Augusta and chips the way he has, he’s only going to produce more mental scar tissue. It’s just not worth the risk.”
Woods is taking that risk, anyway. He’s performed well over the years at Augusta. Anything can happen. Kaymer had his own slump between a 2010 PGA championship and his 2014 U.S. Open title. Like Woods, he struggled with his short game, with his chipping and putting.
“I think at the end of the day, we can all hit the ball fairly straight,” Kaymer said. “But I think you need to have good weeks on the green. At the end of the day, it comes down to this.”
The chipping yips and the nervous putts have created humiliating scenes around the greens for Woods. He’s dropped out of the top 100 world rankings.
How the mighty have fallen. Maybe because of that, golf cheers for him again.
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