Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

Has Tiger Lost His Roar? If So, Why Do We Care?

Tiger Woods lines up a putt on the 17th green during the first round of the Match Play Championship golf tournament on Feb. 23 in Marana, Ariz. His opponent, Thomas Bjorn, won in 19 holes, eliminating Woods. i i

Tiger Woods lines up a putt on the 17th green during the first round of the Match Play Championship golf tournament on Feb. 23 in Marana, Ariz. His opponent, Thomas Bjorn, won in 19 holes, eliminating Woods. Matt York/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Matt York/AP
Tiger Woods lines up a putt on the 17th green during the first round of the Match Play Championship golf tournament on Feb. 23 in Marana, Ariz. His opponent, Thomas Bjorn, won in 19 holes, eliminating Woods.

Tiger Woods lines up a putt on the 17th green during the first round of the Match Play Championship golf tournament on Feb. 23 in Marana, Ariz. His opponent, Thomas Bjorn, won in 19 holes, eliminating Woods.

Matt York/AP

Tiger Woods is a phenomenon.

Only, no, not the golf phenomenon he once was. He is now an instrument of curiosity the likes of which both the public and the media have never dealt with in any sport, ever. Even though Woods' recent performance suggests he is only just another golfer now, when he plays — until he is undeniably out of contention — he remains the story.

In a way, he holds golf hostage. Oh sure, dyed-in-the-wool golfers follow their whole sport closely, but the fringe fans, the type that really determine a sport's popularity, are fixated on Tiger. This week, he's not playing, so golf doesn't exist.

"Ladies and gentlemen, golf will officially resume again next Thursday when Mr. Woods tees off at the Doral."

It was understandable that he was the absolute focal point when he was the greatest golfer, maybe ever. We always follow the superstars, and he was superduper. But what is so bizarre is that the interest in Woods remains so high. Phil Mickelson, Graeme McDowell and Martin Kaymer barely exist. It's almost as if we cannot believe that Woods is diminished. Tomorrow the drive will surely be straight. Tomorrow he can't possibly land again in the rough. Tomorrow he will sink the putt, guaranteed.

I'm convinced that this unusual intrigue is caused by the fact that we –– and maybe even he, too –– can't be sure why he's no longer great. Is it because of the notorious sex scandal, what that did to his reputation, his psyche, his confidence and ultimately his game? Or is he diminished just like other human athletes, simply because he's older –– no different from Roger Federer in tennis, Tim Duncan in basketball?

I think for many people –– even those who detest him personally –– what sustains the mystery is the belief that he is so fantastic, that age simply cannot be the issue, that Tiger Woods will get his mind straight and be the lord of the links once more.

And, yes, of course, he could win again. Woods is 35 now, and it is not unusual for players to win a major when they're even older than that. But it tends to be a catch-lightning-in-a-bottle kind of thing. Sure, older golfers can win one big one, but they don't win very often.

But Tiger must be different. Certainly. Isn't he? Maybe?

You know what he reminds me of? The Broadway musical Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark. It sells out to the curious, even though the critics hate it and it's always a tease, always a work in progress. And there's a dark side that draws us in. Maybe Spidey will find itself. But maybe it'll only be always not quite there.

We watch Tiger Woods with the same almost morbid fascination, afraid to look away because if we do, we'll miss it if he miraculously returns to greatness, as if age doesn't matter with majesty, and what changed his life was all just a bump in the road.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford