Paul Lewis on sport

Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: Still fight in the Tiger

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There was an old BBC blooper which had an earnest presenter saying: "For most people, death comes at the end of their lives."

Not for Tiger Woods. Some folk had him dead already and buried deeper than Tutankhamun (in a pyramid; under the sand; for centuries).

Some will be nervously reviewing some outlandish statements made re Woods. It reminds you of the old Times of London's error of the early 1960s, cunningly disguised: "Nawab of Hyderabad Dead", said the headline on March 14. On March 15, the headline read: "Nawab of Hyderabad slightly better."

Like the Nawab, Tiger Woods, unquestionably the Sultan of Golf (complete, it seems, with harem) is slightly better. He may not win the US PGA championship, the last of the year's majors, but he's done enough to ram some words down some smug throats.

Yesterday, after a truncated second round, Woods was six holes into the course and even for the day - but clearly not playing well.

At one under par, he was tied for 37th, seven shots off the lead - not where he'd like to be ahead of his traditional "moving day" today but not badly placed either. For a dead guy.

There's no doubt he is in crisis, his game reeking like a dead hedgehog. But he was written off by people who should know better.

That's it, they cry. No more majors for Tiger - his head's gone; he's not a Tiger any more, he's a de-knackered pussy cat. His taste for cocktail waitresses cocked up his career.

Golf media in the US and around the world were writing him off faster than Chris van der Drift's car after its 252km/h crash at the Superleague race at Brands Hatch recently.

If this was any other game than golf, the most intensely mental of all 'head' sports, I might agree.

Woods has clearly lost his confidence; that swagger; autocratic bearing; the imposing presence who played golf which messed with the heads of others; an unflappable, undeniable force has become distinctly flappable and easily deniable.

His aura of invincibility has gone, his detractors cry. So it has. But gone forever? This is Tiger Woods.

The wonder is that his slump took so long to arrive. When he played the Masters on his return, he did wonderfully well considering the pressure he was - is - under. He wasn't that far away from winning. It was a remarkable effort.

Golf is hard enough to play at that level, even without the hungry eyes of the world upon you, waiting eagerly to see if you soil your undies.

There has been something of the rubbernecking, car-crash voyeurism about Woods' fall. The fire hydrant, the golf club, the "porn stars", the wife and kids, the divorce, the need to find $300m in cash (not always easy, even if you're worth megabucks) have all helped his golf game fall to bits.

Many of us, if we are honest, have enjoyed the sight. A giant of the sport reduced to uncertainty; mere mortal status. He can't drive, can't putt and can't play his irons with authority half the time. Shape the ball? He isn't altogether sure where it's heading.

That has been compelling for we weekend hackers for whom the only sure thing in our game is that we will enjoy the beer at the 19th.

Woods has lost more friends because of his behaviour at times since his comeback. Throwing clubs, spitting and cussing, he has not looked the epitome of golfing etiquette and sportsmanship.

We can forgive him that. There is no frustration in sport quite so piercingly sharp as not being able to play to your potential. To know you are so much better than your performance but unable to do anything about it - there is no greater tragedy in sport.

Anyway, I'd be a hypocrite to criticise him for a bit of emotional outburst - I once threw my golf bag, hammer-throw style, down a bank after a poor shot and followed it with some ripe language ... to the enormous amusement of my playing companions.

But why so sure Woods will come again when so many are saying that he will not break Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 Majors titles (Woods has 14)?

You have only to look at the record of the man he seeks to depose. Nicklaus, in modern times anyway, dominated golf like no other, except Woods.

Yet even he was beset by doubts and poor form, twice in his career, when he went for long periods without winning.

Nicklaus almost went bust financially, his businesses turned his head for a while, his father died, he gained too much weight, and he just hit that golfing wall, as nearly all golfers do - even the best.

His second two-year slump came when he was 38, lasting from 1978 to 1980. In 1979, he didn't win, the only year since 1962, when he turned professional, that had happened.

Nicklaus fixed his swing and his short game and roared back to win three more majors - significant when you consider that the would-be Tiger-tamers are advocating (correctly) that few players win majors after their 35th birthday.

Woods is a different animal. He will be 35 in December but is one of the fittest and most focused golfers ever. If he can get his head right, his 45 will be like most people's 35.

Woods and Nicklaus may not share many qualities but they are alike in one aspect.

One memorable quote about Nicklaus had it that: "There have been prettier swingers of the club than Jack Nicklaus; better ball-strikers; definitely better short-game exponents; others have putted as well; and there may have been golfers as dedicated and fiercely competitive as Jack Nicklaus.

But no individual has been able to develop, combine and sustain all of the complex physical skills and the immense mental and emotional resources the game demands at its highest level as well as Jack Nicklaus has for as long as he has."

But for a couple of things (Woods' short game is better, or used to be ... ), that tribute could have been about Tiger.

If the strain of trial by publicity has finally told on him, it is scarcely a surprise. Whatever his "crime", he re-lives it at every tournament.

Every press conference, for about 40 minutes, he fronts up and answers (or doesn't) the inevitable questions about his private life and its effects.

No-one, not even Nicklaus, could withstand that kind of barrage without copping a few hits to the psyche.

Nicklaus himself said (in 2002) that he would be very surprised if Woods didn't beat his majors record. He changed his tune a bit this year, saying that if Tiger didn't win a major this season, then it would be hard to beat his record.

We'll see. Woods built an image exposed as false; surrounded himself with a hard shell no longer there. He has to come back from that - but bet against it at your peril. There is too much talent and too much mental toughness.

- Herald on Sunday

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