by Jim Litke
AP Sports Columnist
(AP)—They mocked him mercilessly for four solid months and delighted in every sordid detail of his fall from grace.
Now it’s Tiger Woods’ turn.
“After a long and necessary time away from the game,” Woods said in a statement March 16, “I feel like I’m ready to start my season at Augusta.”
|READY TO END LAYOFF—In this April 8, 2009, file photo, Tiger Woods smiles during his practice round for the Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga.
Don’t bet against him winning the Masters, or for that matter, dozens of times after that. The bookies won’t, since the London-based firm William Hill has installed Woods as the 4-1 favorite and lists him at 25-1 to win all four majors this year.
Woods might have done that, anyway, whether the sex scandal that sidelined him eventually became public or not. Keep in mind that if even half the stories of his extramarital flings are true, he won a dozen times around the world knowing full well that secret could blow up at any moment.
Whether Woods is a changed man away from the course is something only his family and closest friends will be able to answer. But knowing as much—or as little, it turns out—as I do after covering Woods since he was 15, one thing is certain: The self-righteous, self-promoting and self-appointed experts offering opinions and/or advice have provided him with enough motivation to last the rest of his golfing life.
It’s not as though Woods needed any more, or even that winning again would somehow scrub off the stain of serial adultery.
No matter how he fares at Augusta and beyond, whether he returns in some fan-friendly incarnation or as the same steely-eyed predator, Woods will always be reminded of those sins. The sponsors who walked away from him may never come back. He knows that.
But winning will restore a measure of control over the narrative in a way that months of relative silence have failed to accomplish. It will also deny all those haters any more satisfaction at his expense. And if you think he burned white-hot to win before, just wait.
We used to make a big deal of the story about a young Tiger taping a list of Jack Nicklaus’ accomplishments to his bedroom wall, and the single-minded devotion Woods invested to beat Nicklaus to every one of them. Next we speculated about whether losing his father or starting a family would detour or eventually derail that pursuit. Then, as the last milestone on Jack’s list—18 career majors—came into view, we wondered whether Woods could be as tenacious as Nicklaus and for as long.
The guys he will have to do it against have few doubts.
“He’s not going to be a whole lot easier to beat because of what happened off the golf course,” Stewart Cink said.
Echoed Jerry Kelly: “He may come back and say, ‘You think this is going to bother me that bad? Maybe it is. But watch what I can do.’”
Either way, we’re about to find out. The one thing no one ever questioned about Woods was his ruthlessness. Every fan in his gallery and every guy who played alongside him came away with a story about how cold-blooded Woods could be in moments big and small. Turns out all of those versions sold him short.
What we’ve learned in the intervening months is that Woods was willing to risk anything and everything to get what he wants. And no matter what else remains at the top of his list, winning isn’t going anywhere. That was apparent, first by his unwillingness to bend to other people’s expectations and apologize, and then, once Woods got it through his stubborn skull that wouldn’t work, by reversing course. He went to rehab. He went on camera. He said he was sorry.
That wasn’t enough for some people and won’t ever be enough for others. Yet the only ones Woods harmed were his wife and those closest to him, and he’ll be paying that debt forever.
Winning golf tournaments won’t even any of those scores, let alone all of them. But it’s as good a way as any to prove that for all the things that might be different about Woods, one thing will never change.
(Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org.)