Can Woods return to normalcy?

December, 2, 2009
12/02/09
9:51
PM ET

To find out more about the current Tiger Woods saga, you can flip on seemingly any TV channel or click one of an ever-growing number of links to Internet gossip sites, each with varying degrees of undependability. If you really want to understand what has taken place in Woods' life during the past week, though, an old-fashioned trip to the local newsstand is in order.

In today's information age, in which Woods has become one of the first professional athletes to be disgraced almost solely through electronic means, it's more than a bit ironic that the written press could generate so much insight into his situation. It's not the words, however, that tell the story. It's the pictures staring back at us that are truly revealing.

There on the newsstand, beginning Tuesday, you will find the latest issue of Golf Digest, which features a Photoshopped shot of Woods caddying for President Obama next to the headline, "10 Tips Obama Can Take From Tiger." Elsewhere on the rack, of course, will be numerous tabloid rags, quick to pronounce 10 insider tips about Woods' personal life that you never before knew.

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In the most literal sense, the intersection between his past and his future occurred right in front of Woods' own house, where early in the morning of Nov. 27 he careened into what are now believed to be three minor collisions (thanks to an artist's depiction from the Florida Highway Patrol). The damage to Woods' reputation far exceeded the damage to his Escalade. Figuratively, this crossroads occurred right on those magazine covers, splashed throughout America, where the old Tiger and the new Tiger overlapped in the most provocative fashion.

A golf neophyte -- and by that I mean someone who has never watched a tournament round on TV and, somehow, couldn't place Woods' name before this mess -- might confuse this newest tabloid superstar with the next Jon Gosselin or a long-lost Kardashian sibling.

Two very important things separate Woods from his irrelevant cover buddies, though: (1) he never asked for nor wanted such attention in his personal life, and (2) he actually has some talent.

Scratch that. Woods doesn't have some talent; he possesses the most talent we have ever witnessed from a single golfer. Since turning professional in the summer of 1996, he has won 71 titles on the PGA Tour, including 14 major championships, ranking second all-time to Jack Nicklaus. And he leads all those pop-culture pillars in career earnings, with more than $92 million on the U.S.-based tour, which only pales in comparison to his annual endorsement income.

While the world's top-ranked golfer is now taking time to make reparations to his family life behind closed doors for what he has termed "transgressions," any return to professional and social normalcy will come inside the ropes, club in hand, whenever he chooses to appear for his 2010 season debut.

Conventional wisdom says that date will be Jan. 28. That's the opening round of the erstwhile Buick Invitational -- now called the Century Club of San Diego Invitational -- at Torrey Pines, site of Woods' historic U.S. Open victory last year. Despite victories at the 1997 Masters at age 21 and at the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 strokes, his Q-rating was never higher than at that event when he defeated Rocco Mediate in a sudden-death playoff while competing with a torn ACL and multiple leg fractures.

Just 18 months later, Woods' popularity is at an all-time low. Following the announcements of alleged affairs with multiple women, his fans are jumping ship by the minute. Don't believe it? Ask the former parishioners of The First Church of Tiger Woods, a satirical fan club that has "worshipped" the golfer since his first professional season.

Actually, you can't. They've disbanded. On Tuesday, the church's pastor, John Ziegler, decided to discontinue his not-so-subtle Web site www.TigerWoodsIsGod.com, writing: "You might think that such a decision might be difficult. In this case, it was not. Unfortunately, Tiger Woods has made it all too easy to realize that he is no longer worthy of any special admiration. … While I am sure I will always respect his ability as a golfer, that was only a very small part of why this much misunderstood Web site was created and why it became such a big part of my life. Tiger is clearly no longer deserving of being seen as a role model or a hero and he has needlessly squandered his unique potential to be a positive force in our country and the world."

If Woods is to gradually win back his fan base, he'll do so by being a model citizen off the course and a model golfer on it. With the major championships coming on elite venues this coming year -- Augusta National, Pebble Beach, St. Andrews and Whistling Straits -- the soon-to-be 34-year-old will have the opportunity to once again draw the public's focus toward his golf rather than his private life. And it may take more than the six-win, no-major season of 2009, when he was recovering and returning from the aforementioned knee injury.

Woods may need a career year to make people forget -- even a little bit -- about those transgressions.

Then again, maybe not. One ESPN.com poll shows that 79 percent of respondents believe his image is not permanently tarnished. Another reveals that 63 percent will root for Woods as much as they did before, only 23 percent will root for him less, and an emboldened 14 percent will actually root for him more going forward, perhaps in a nod to the fact that -- for one of the first times in his career -- Tiger has proved he's far from invincible away from the course.

Don't be surprised if Woods redirects any questions about his personal life as it pertains to golf. Some may explain his victories by citing an increased intensity toward his career; they will excuse his losses by referencing the mental fatigue from such unwelcome attention. The fact remains, though, as it has for so long: He'll win some, he'll lose some, and each will have much more to do with driving accuracy and putting than any "transgressions."

As for the tabloids, well, they'll slowly phase Tiger out of circulation once news breaks regarding the next big celebrity scandal. He'll still be famous, sure, and forever remembered for his off-course escapades, but the fascination will diminish and the stories will dissipate.

What he will be left with is a professional career that has been unparalleled to this point. He will return to the game in pursuit of history, still chasing Sam Snead for the PGA Tour victory record and Nicklaus for the major championship mark, each now well within striking distance. It will take a continuation of this elite level to rewrite his ongoing biography and revert back to a time when, once again, the only magazine covers featuring Tiger Woods are about golf.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.

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Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.
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