- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
There had never been anything quite like it in sports, or public life for that matter, but Woods's televised statement in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., on Feb. 19 was hardly unfamiliar. Woods stood like a man before a funeral audience, stiff and somber, eulogizing the precious one lost. "I am so sorry," he said. "I am the only person to blame." He took no questions, left the stage at the end to wrap his mother in a long and awkward hug. He barely seemed able to breathe.
It was an awful thing to watch. Starting with his first win at Augusta in 1997, Woods had made golf cool. He had dragged the game out of its cozy niche and into the 24-hour, talk-radio mainstream—and now he was drowning in it.
This week Woods will be transforming golf all over again. Monstrous TV ratings are predicted for the Masters, but for the wrong reasons: Three of Woods's major sponsors (with deals worth an estimated $30 million to $40 million annually) have fled. His relationship with Canadian doctor Anthony Galea has raised questions about performance-enhancing drugs on Tour. (On Monday, Woods denied ever having taken PEDs but said federal authorities investigating Galea have been in touch with Steinberg.) The enabling roles played by former NBA stars Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, who are said to have gambled with Woods at the Mansion, the top-end gambling enclave at Las Vegas's MGM Grand, have—along with mistress payoffs and porn-star texts—become part of the sport's conversation.
Last week even Woods's kindergarten teacher got into the mix, denouncing as false an oft-retailed tale about young Tiger's being subjected to a horrific racial incident on his first day of school. Once play begins, such matters won't gain much traction at Augusta because tournament and man both thrive on control. But the galleries will be buzzing.
Woods, it's now clear, is going to do this comeback his way. He has hunkered down, forgoing the warmup tournament, the confessional with Oprah. The statement announcing his return contained only the most obvious admission: "I still have a lot of work to do on my personal life." Asked by e-mail whether he would discuss what went into Woods's decision to return at the Masters, Steinberg replied, "I think the release says everything."
For the moment the old crew seems firmly—and stunningly—entrenched: Steinberg, Greenspan, caddie Steve Williams and boyhood buddy Bryon Bell, the president of Tiger Woods Design. Despite Woods's insistence that "it was all me," some, it would seem, had an idea of their boss's behavior; one porn star has released e-mails from Bell arranging her travel, and in the Vanity Fair piece another reported mistress, Jamie Jungers, details how Bell facilitated their affair. You'd expect a head or two to roll, but none has.
On the surface, then, it will look eerily like the same Tiger Woods teeing it up on Thursday, and until they see different, his competition expects the same old player. "One thing Tiger's not is vulnerable," says John Daly. "It could be worse for us, I think. I think he's going to come out and just kick everybody's ass."
Woods knows that only winning can begin to dilute the sewage surrounding his name. Playing, though, will be the easy part. Tiger has never shown much ability to laugh at himself, and he is now a global joke. It's unclear how, aura dissolved, he'll react to the thousands of faces staring, to the once-ignored crowd that now knows him, in a twisted way, better than his wife ever did.
After 15 years in the cultural firmament Woods has become three-dimensional at last: The crash and the stint in therapy, his February statement of remorse and his self-immolating critiques revealed a champion at war with himself. To have him detonate the biggest public-relations bomb in the history of sports feels almost tragic, until you recall that his marriage and career still draw breath. Nothing died but an image.
After marrying Nordegren, Woods won six majors and remained atop the rankings; whenever he started cheating, it didn't affect his play. According to a source familiar with the Mansion's operations, by 2009 Woods had a standing relationship with the Tuscan-themed hideaway, where high-rolling "whales" begin by depositing $1 million in the casino's bank, and personal butlers are prized for their discretion. Woods was known as a late-night gambler and a poor tipper who cavorted with numerous women there—none of whom was Nordegren.