A megastar falls, with no one to replace him

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AUSTIN —  When a 21-year-old Tiger Woods convened a press conference to announce he was joining the pro golf tour, his greeting was, “Hello, World.”  Because, indeed, he was already a global sensation.  At 2, he had putted with Bob Hope on national TV.

By 32 he accumulated 14 major championships, which put him six years ahead of Jack Nicklaus’ pace.

But now, at 38, Woods still has 14, same number Nicklaus had at this age.  And as the world this month focuses on golf as it rarely does, it will not see Woods competing in the sport’s main event, the Masters, in the Deepest of the South:  Augusta, Ga.

Woods is recovering from surgery on a bulging disc that pinched a nerve in his back that periodically sent him into writhing spasms.  He could make most of his shots, but he could not hold his complete game together for four rounds.

In the past three events he entered, he missed the cut in the Honda Classic, finished 25th at Doral after hitting two fans with his drives, and withdrew from the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, a short drive – by car – from his $2.4 million home in Windermere, Fla.

No matter how skillful the surgeon, back problems are not easily cured, but endlessly treated.  What makes Tiger unique – aside from being the greatest putter ever – is his big forceful swing, acquired partly through rigorous weight-training.  We’re not likely to see that swing again.

He’s become Tiger-in-the-Woods, or in the sand, or gazing at a ball plop in the water.  His golf is as much a wreck as his life, as we look back on the breakup of his marriage and his car window, the hospitalization for sex addiction, the multiple injuries, the cheating on the game as well as on the wife. 

Recall that Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee last December cited him for being “a little cavalier with the rules.”  Indeed, video showed Woods neglected to call a one-stroke penalty on himself when the ball moved because he picked up a twig.  When this was pointed out in the scorer’s tent, Woods screamed profanities.  Not something you could imagine Nicklaus doing.  Or for that matter, Mickelson.  Or many other pro golfers.

Golf, perhaps more than any other spectator sport in our country, is polite and honest. Cheating is not tacitly condoned as it is in football, baseball, basketball and car racing.  Every golfer keeps his own scorecard, presumably knows the rules and penalizes himself when he breaks one.  Yes I’m aware of polls that show most weekend golfers in America cheat at scorekeeping.  But we don’t expect this at the professional tour level.

Woods expects to be exempted from the rules – those that are written as well as unwritten.

From his earliest years he was treated as someone who would transform the lives of millions – a Gandhi or a King or the Beatles.  As he was about to launch his pro career, his father proclaimed:  “Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity.”

Earl Woods did everything to make Tiger what he is, for better and then worse.

First, he gave Tiger – or Eldrick, as he was christened – an athlete’s genes.  The father played intercollegiate basketball at Kansas State.  Earl did everything possible to create a prodigy.  He placed a golf club in the lad’s hands when he was a year old.

But as time went on, Earl’s over-promotion of his son, his overdosage of the drug of fame, would have its side effects.  In view of his upbringing, it’s not surprising that the older Tiger became, the more immature.

A few years before he died of cancer in 2006, Earl Woods was embarrassing himself – and his son — with drunken public appearances.  Meanwhile, Tiger’s perfectly directed life veered wildly off course.  He joined Charles Barkley on his gambling binges in Vegas.  There was a procession of sorties with young photogenic women.  If you want the sordid, if at times titillating, details, including reviews of his non-golfing equipment,  click here. (Vanity Fair’s May 2010 “The Temptation of Tiger Woods”)

Schadenfreude being what it is, I could almost celebrate the demise of this triumphant but tragic character who’s as self-obsessed as Woody Allen or Donald Trump.

But then I think of what we’re missing, the drama that inexorably swirls wherever Tiger is or has been.  The 91-foot putt he sank at Doral was as impressive as any feat in any sport.  And any of his off-the-course shenanigans would make him no less compelling.

Without Tiger, golf has no face, no dominating presence, no reality TV.  The game’s second star, Phil Mickelson, is 43.  And fading.  Which, on second thought, is said to be a good way to play Augusta National, where Woods has won four times and Mickelson three.

Adam Scott, who won last year’s Masters, has a dynamic swing and striking looks but is unreliable.  He would have supplanted Tiger at the top of the world rankings if he hadn’t blown a 3-stroke lead in the final round at Bay Hill.  Not a promising omen for Augusta.

We do have the latest Woods wannabe, Patrick Reed.  At 23 he became the youngest ever to win Doral with its intimidating Blue Monster.  And then he declared himself “one of the top five players in the world.”  Just what the world needs, another swaggering Texan.

Since back surgery invariably entails a lengthy convalescence, don’t expect Woods to play in the U.S. Open, which begins June 12 at Pinehurst.  The British Open, July 17 at Royal Liverpool, is also doubtful.  After that, we can only wait and see.  But his pursuit of the Golden Bear and his 18th major championship is looking like a futile quest.

As Palmer, whose tournament Woods so abruptly exited, said, “I think the players that are going to win and win majors have to be physically fit and mentally fit.”

Alas, Woods looks shaky on both counts.

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