What Tiger Woods needs isn’t a reprioritization of his private life. It isn’t knee surgery. It isn’t the requisite time away from the game to come back 100 percent.
It’s Rory McIlroy.
Now hold your horses. It isn’t that Tiger needs McIlroy as a foil to regain his identity as a golfer. Years have passed with several players attempting to prove themselves as a long-term rival to Tiger. Some have fared better than others – Phil Mickelson winning four majors, Padraig Harrington claiming three, Angel Cabrera and Retief Goosen two – but we are mostly left with a stream of one-timers who weren’t trying to do anything differently than everyone else: string together four good rounds at the right time.
McIlroy, for all his talent, is still a one-timer (insert Tiger Woods philandering joke here) and is still three or more majors from meriting the kind of talk that he has generated following his win at Congressional. Rory’s is a great story rife with similarities to Tiger but he has neither the mass appeal nor the mind-blowingly singular skill set that Tiger had relative to his peers following the 1997 Masters.
Rather, what McIlroy stands for is that, for the first time since Tiger uttered “Hello World” prior to the 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open, Woods isn’t the biggest story in professional golf.
Tiger Woods is one of a handful of athletes who have lived their sporting lives with one publicly stated purpose. These athletes didn’t just come out and give 100%; they told you explicitly that they were focused on winning and winning only.
Michael Jordan lived this. Michael Phelps made no secret that he would be disappointed if he didn’t break Mark Spitz’s records. Ty Cobb would injure you to get the upper hand.
That single-minded determination manifested itself as superior focus on the course, on the court, in the pool and on the field. Tiger made nearly every putt that mattered for ten years - from the fringe on the 17th hole at Medinah in 1999 to put away Sergio Garcia until the putt at Torrey Pines on the 72nd hole to force a playoff with Rocco Mediate in ’08. Jordan bookended his professional career (we aren’t counting anything post 1996) with shots to win the National Title at North Carolina and in beating the Jazz. You knew Phelps would figure out a way to beat Spitz, even if the defining moment came with him out of the pool as Jason Lezak touched the wall ahead of the French. Ty Cobb was focused enough to hit .366 for his career, a number which has been reached by a league leader just four times since the turn of the millennium, and only struck out about twenty-four times a year.
What drives these athletes is a notion, real or imagined, that they are being doubted. People wondered if two years away from the NBA would dull Jordan’s skills. Phelps’s own teammates wondered if he could beat Serbia’s Milorad Cavic in the butterfly. Cobb was incensed that some thought Honus Wagner was better than he was.
What they all also have in common is that they have made mistakes away from their respective sports. It can be argued – preferably by those more well-positioned to analyze the psyche of individuals – that their single-mindedness played a part in how they conduct(ed) their lives (Admittedly, Phelps’s out-of-the-pool transgressions are minor compared with adultery and aggressive racism). The doubt that is portrayed by the media, acting – sometimes unfairly -- as proxy for the public at large, fuels the inner fire for these men.
The media turned on Tiger as quickly as it has anointed McIlroy the Next Big Thing. Much as they once protected Babe Ruth and Cobb for fear of losing access to their meal tickets, sportswriters and broadcasters never had anything negative to say about Tiger. Now he is lambasted for foul language, a sore on-course demeanor and dismissive post-round interviews. In two years, Tiger has gone from unassailable icon to discarded has-been.
Tiger did all of those unsavory things before Thanksgiving 2009, but it didn’t matter because after doing those things he usually hoisted a trophy and flashed the million-watt smile that made him the most recognizable person in the world. Silverware and green jackets were roofies that made the media forget all of the things that had happened prior.
Now Tiger is an afterthought because McIlroy is the diversion. He was complimentary of Rory’s performance at the U.S. Open. He should have been; if there is one thing Tiger knows, it is good golf. In the interview room before the AT&T National event where he serves as host, he was comfortable, charming, funny and constantly flashing his smile, just as he was in 1996 when he announced that he was going pro. He was A story, but he wasn’t yet THE story. He had to prove himself. He had to first lose to Ed Fiori to learn how to win against guys who played, literally, for their livelihoods. Tiger was a multi-millionaire before ever striking a ball professionally, so it wasn’t about the money to him. It still isn’t.
Tiger lost to the media for the first time in the aftermath of his private life becoming very public. Now that he has been written off, it will fuel that fire. He’s 35 years-old. He’s still reasonably close to Jack Nicklaus’s pace. Most importantly, he is being doubted. Tiger’s father Earl often challenged him by saying that something couldn’t be done. Robert Allenby doubted Tiger before a World Match Play Championship Match and lost 9 & 8. The whole world expected Tiger to lose in singles at last years Ryder Cup after being carried by Steve Stricker for two days and he handled Francesco Molinari with relative ease. The media is laying down that challenge now, mostly because they have something new and shiny to look forward to playing with.
It’s not fair to pass judgment on if Tiger has seen the end of his major-winning career just as it’s not fair to foist unreasonable expectations on McIlroy after his first Grand Slam title. McIlroy might go on to win thirty majors, and that would be good for golf. If Tiger resumes winning titles, the media will take the shiny, trophy-shaped roofies again, forgetting about everything but his skill as a golfer, but that doesn’t mean that Tiger will take them back.
Rooting for McIlroy to become one of the game’s greats is a no-fail proposition. Doubting Tiger Woods, however, is done at your own risk.
-- Aaron "Puddy" Bond