Who will win? The machine ... or the youth who has just entered its maw?
When Tiger Woods was selected SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's 1996 Sportsman of the Year, my story revolved around that question. Already—he was but a 20-year-old PGA Tour rookie—the stakes were ratcheted higher than for any other athlete in history. He'd been raised by his father to believe that his destiny was not only to be the greatest golfer ever but also a man who would change the world. The relentless chewing mechanism of fame couldn't wait to have at him.
For 13 years Tiger beat the machine. Sort of. He kept it backpedaling, never giving it much to grasp and grind. But to do that he had to hide in front of the world's eyes, seal himself in a bubble. His humanitarianism manifested in efforts to help children and fund a cutting-edge academic complex in California, and his domination of a pale-faced sport opened millions of eyes. But world-altering? Unless Tiger figured out how to change humanity without showing his own, Gandhi and Mandela were safe.
Then, an odd thing happened last Friday at 2:25 a.m. Tiger Woods made his first significant mistake, and the machine finally sank its teeth into him: He crashed his SUV into a fire hydrant and a tree outside his home. As of Monday he had refused to meet with police or explain to the media what happened beyond saying on his website that the accident was "my fault," and later announcing that he will not appear at the Chevron World Challenge, the tournament he puts on in Thousand Oaks, Calif., this weekend. Now he's got the police, a media army and TMZ.com sniffing around his gated community on the edge of Orlando, rumors of an affair sizzling on the Internet that the alleged other woman denies and whispers that it was an enraged wife that sent him careening out of his driveway.
Perhaps there was a price to be paid for sealing himself in that bubble, dark energies that built up and had to find release. Tiger's response thus far has been to reseal and retreat even further, but the machine, at last, is rallying, its molars multiplying with every mouse click.