Still Stuck on 14, Tiger Won’t Pass Jack

His legacy, his obituary, the way he wants his children and grandchildren and Wikipedia to remember him — that is what Tiger Woods is playing for now. And, face it, the only way he’ll rescue a sagging narrative is with five more victories in major championships. Do that, and he’ll be known primarily as the greatest and most decorated of all golfers, and secondarily as the cad who bedded porn stars, alienated sponsors, lost $750 million in a divorce and became a punchline-pummeled pariah.

But before he can win five majors, or four or three or two, he first must win one. His uninspired performance at the PGA Championship means 22 such events — a period of five years and two months — have passed since Woods won No. 14 at the U.S. Open while dragging a double-fractured tibia and ravaged knee around Torrey Pines. Seems the clock isn’t just ticking for Tiger, who remains four behind Jack Nicklaus.

It’s gonging like Big Ben on bath salts.

I submit today that Tiger won’t get the message in time. He remains a maddening head case at the majors, too wounded in the afterwarp of his sex scandal, pressing too much during his four defining annual tests. As the sport that most demands a clear and purposeful brain, golf is merciless to those locked in confidence struggles, particularly in the biggest moments. Is choke too strong a word for a man who once performed his own choke hold on all comers, who played the game better during a commanding stretch last decade than anyone before him, since him and maybe ever again?

The more applicable word is sad. When an athlete reaches heights attained by only a precious few, then tumbles because of his own demons and can’t recover, it’s a sporting tragedy. Before his bimbo parade, Woods was on track to become not only the best ever in his sport but maybe all sports. Now, still stuck on 14, he’s sliding slowly into bittersweet waters with all the other cautionary tales of our lesson-addled times.

When Dec. 30 comes around — a birthday he shares with LeBron James and Heidi Fleiss, ahem, if you’d like to draw a snarky correlation — Woods will be 38. The only man to win five majors after his 38th birthday is Ben Hogan, back in the early 1950s. True, after painful struggles and a traumatic rearrangement of his inner circle, Tiger has reclaimed the world’s No. 1 ranking. He has five PGA Tour wins this year, giving him eight the last two years, and his peers are urging doomsayers to be careful. “It seems like a long time, and it is a long time, I guess. But his game is trending in the right direction … I’m not worried about him,” Steve Stricker told ESPN.com.

Sorry, the trends don’t look good in majors, where Woods is a collective 28 over par in the third and fourth rounds of his last eight events. After going 71-70-73-70 in mostly good scoring conditions at Oak Hill, Woods finished his majors season with one round in the 60s — 1 for 16. It hardly matters that he tied for fourth at the Masters and tied for sixth at the British Open. Had he finished better, he might be two steps closer to Nicklaus.

Two years from his golfing twilight, Woods is fighting more than time. Injuries, a bugaboo throughout his career, will grow as a daunting factor. He isn’t practicing with the single-minded zeal of his younger days. He’s a loving father who cherishes his time with Sam and Charlie. He’s in a romantic relationship with ski champ Lindsey Vonn, and she’ll want Woods with her in Sochi, Russia, for the Winter Olympics next February, just as she has accompanied him. As always, Tiger tried to emphasize positives when asked about his 0-for-18 streak in majors.

“Is it concerning? No,” he said. “I’ve been there in half of them. So that’s about right. If you’re going to be in there three-quarters or half of them with a chance to win on the back nine, you’ve just got to get it done. I was right there and certainly had a chance to win the Masters and the British this year. The other two, I just didn’t hit it good enough. Just the way it goes.”

But there is no solace in losing, not in his world. Another long, empty winter is ahead. The day before, when someone asked if he is pressing, he tried to crack wise. “Pressing it? Yeah, at times when I’m underneath the trees and I’m in bunkers and trying to get up-and-down, yeah,” Woods said. “As far as overall game plan and the way I’m playing, I’ve been there in enough of these things where I’ve been right there in the back nine on Sunday with a chance. As far as that’s concerned, no.”

No one is chuckling with him.

Golf dims in importance and mass appeal without Woods contending seriously in majors. Nineteen different players have won the 22 majors since his last triumph. While some have provided indelible moments — Phil Mickelson twice, Bubba Watson and Adam Scott at the Masters, the emergence of Rory McIlroy — the sport dearly misses the riveting, polarizing, all-demographic drama of having Tiger in the hunt.

With his struggles come a new view of his standing in the world — the juxtaposition of Woods and Mickelson, for instance. The concept of a Norman Rockwell portrait should be dead in 2013 America. No longer are we supposed to search for it in sports, where scandals and deceit seemingly have erased most chances for the sentimental warm/fuzzy. Yet there it was on a foggy early evening in Scotland last month, where Mickelson locked himself in a lengthy circular embrace with his wife and children, squeezing and sobbing and sharing a joy that came from years of hardship, pain, fear and, looking back, collective resilience.

“That moment is a picture I’ll put on a wall and remember the feeling when I see it,” he said minutes later after his victory at the British Open, as ESPN showed him the video clip.

When we see Mickelson plastered with corporate logos — Forbes says he made $44 million in endorsements last year as the world’s seventh-highest-paid athlete — we forget that his wife, Amy, overcame breast cancer after a long battle. And that he had to guide her and their three kids through the ordeal, a hellish time for a wife and husband even when they have substantial means and all the finest doctors. We forget that he flew back and forth from the U.S. Open in Philadelphia — 10 hours in the air, little sleep for his first-round tee time — so he could attend his daughter’s eighth-grade graduation in San Diego. We forget that Phil is a PTA-certified father who has two jobs of paramount importance, family and golf, with little doubt which is Job One.

“We do the best we can,” he said of his family in the same ESPN interview. “I think it’s important, to be successful, to want to have good balance between family life and professional life. They’ve been very supportive.”

The Muirfield snapshot was profound in more ways than one. In the context of sports and legacy, it sent the definitive image once never thought possible: Mickelson now has become a bigger life figure than Woods, surpassing him in grandeur and aura for all the right reasons. I don’t care that Woods has won 14 majors and Mickelson just won his fifth. I don’t care about career victories, money totals, talent, yards off the tee and who owns the career grand slam. I don’t care that Woods continues to look like an Adonis while Mickelson, though in better shape, still has an Everyman look to him and fights psoriatic arthritis. Yes, I still care very much that Woods helped break color barriers in a country-club sport and shamed the lingering racists at the 1997 Masters, but in the 16 years since, the winds have blown wildly across the golfing landscape. If the president of the United States was to honor one of them tomorrow — and he just might, knowing how Barack Obama loves his White House sports ceremonies — the invitee is going to be Mickelson.

He would be saluted for his perseverance, in golf and life.

As opposed to Tiger, who would be saluted for … uh, exactly what lately?

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