Celizic: Maybe this is the Tiger we should expect

By Mike Celizic
|  Thursday, Apr 29, 2010  |  Updated 8:00 PM CDT
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Scandal Could Have Permanently Damaged Tiger's Golf Game

AFP/Getty Images

Tiger Woods of the US arrives on the 9th hole fairway to make his approach to the 1st hole during the final round of the Masters Golf Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 11, 2010 in Augusta, Georgia. A bad tee shot from the 1st hole put Woods' ball in the 9th fairway. AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

Just in case anyone had forgotten how ridiculously hard the game of golf is, we present Tiger Woods’ first round at Quail Hollow.

He stunk.

This is a relative term. Woods shot 2-over 74, which most of us would consider a terrific score. But for the man who used to be the greatest golfer on the planet and wants to claim that title again, it was awful, a round that left him nine shots off the lead.

After the round Tiger was talking about how he can still get in contention and win the tournament. This is the way he thinks. When other guys are wondering how they’ll make the cut, he’s trying to figure out how to win.

Because we’ve seen him do so many amazing things before, we go along with him. No one — at least not yet — is going to suggest that it’s possible he lost more than his marriage and his reputation last Thanksgiving. He may also have lost his mojo.

I know what I’m supposed to say. Tiger is playing only his second tournament since taking five months off to deal with his personal issues and he’s still rusty. Soon enough, he’ll get it all together and then it will be just like old times.

But it may never be like old times again.

The first thing to stop saying is that he’s rusty. It’s true that he hasn’t played a bunch of tournaments, but he has practiced and hit thousands of golf balls and he feels he’s ready not just to play, but to win. If he didn’t feel that way, he wouldn’t be entering tournaments. So if he thinks he can win, we’re allowed to ask why he doesn’t.

And as ready as he feels, it’s not showing up on the course. He did OK at the Masters. His tie for fourth place would be a lifetime achievement for most golfers. For him, it was pretty good, all things considered. But it wasn’t a win. It wasn’t even close.

He expected that things would be better at Quail Hollow. Instead, they’re worse.

It’s just one round, and we’ve seen how quickly things can turn around, especially for Tiger Woods. So we’ll keep saying how it’s just a matter of time until he starts winning again and renews his assault on Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors.

But we don’t know if that’s true. Neither we nor he know what effects his disgrace and the disintegration of his marriage have had on the ferocious focus that made him the force that he has been. Neither we nor he knows when and if he will win again.

What we do know is that golf fans want him to win as badly as Goldman Sachs wants the SEC to forget about the meltdown.

It’s amazing how little golf fans care about his philandering and his marriage. He was greeted as warmly as the four-time champion that he is at Augusta. He has been treated exceptionally well at Quail Hollow.

People who buy tickets to golf tournaments don’t spend that money to see people fail. They especially don’t spend their money to see Tiger fail. They flock to his tournaments to see him do something amazing, something they can tell their grandchildren about.

Maybe it will be Friday, next week or next month. That’s what we keep saying. Nobody really thinks it will be next year or maybe even never.

That’s because the talent is there, even if the consistency isn’t. The law of averages says sooner or later Tiger will win a tournament and will probably win more majors.

But saying it will happen and believing it will happen isn’t the same as it actually happening.

At some point, he has to perform.

Thursday, Woods didn’t know where his drives were going. It was what duffers call military golf: left, right, left, right, left, right. Even a duffer can tell you that when you don’t know where your drives are going, you can’t win.

There’s no law that says things will get better. It takes only a couple of disastrous drives a round to destroy any chance of winning. Phil Mickelson could tell Woods all about that from his experiences at majors earlier in his career. For a long time, it didn’t matter how well Mickelson was doing at majors. Sooner or later he’d hit a drive into the next county or three-putt from two feet. You didn’t wonder if it was going to happen, but when it was going to happen.

That sort of thing feeds on itself. It burrows into your brain like an alien worm, and all you can do is wonder when it’s going to burst out of your nostril or ear and eat your golf game.

Lefty got over it. Colin Montgomerie never did. Neither did Greg Norman, once it burrowed into his brain.

It could be that Tiger is already infected and that’s what we’re watching now. It could be that when he lost his self-respect, he also lost his self-confidence. It could be that it’s going to be a long, long time before he gets his mojo back on the golf course — if he ever does.

All we can do is stay tuned to what is turning into the most fascinating personal drama in sports.

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