O'Neill: Tiger Will Never Be Same — He Might Be Better

By Dan O'Neill
|  Monday, Dec 6, 2010  |  Updated 7:45 PM EDT
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Tiger Will Never Be Same — He Might Be Better

AP

Tiger Woods tees off on the fifth hole during the second round of the Chevron World Challenge golf tournament at Sherwood Country Club, Friday, Dec. 3, 2010, in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

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The end to the Chevron World Challenge — or Sherwood Country Club Outing, if you will — was oddly appropriate. These have been unprecedented times for Tiger Woods, a year of firsts and worsts and Sunday fit the model.

Pulling the plug on a life-altering season away from golf and a career-altering period in it, the once impenetrable Woods spent a four-shot lead and lost a playoff to U.S. Open winner Graeme McDowell.

So, for everyone who still has pictures of 2008 and Torrey Pines as their screen saver, let's sum things up: Tiger Woods did not win a golf event in 2010, did not win a major championship, did not bank a four-shot lead on Sunday and did not survive in a playoff.

He did, however, open a Twitter account recently, so he has that going for him, which is nice.

You can't live in the past. Woods can't and the golf world shouldn't. Those who suggest “El Tigre” will never be the same are correct, he will not be the same and his demeanor after Sunday's overtime defeat was corroborative.

For the pre-2010 Tiger, winning golf tournaments was everything. Second place was for suckers. His post-game comments on Sunday would have been condescending and unyielding. He would have been gnawing on the microphone, boiling beneath his breath.

The new Tiger brings a slightly different perspective. Winning is the ultimate goal, but close counts in golf and in horse shoes. “It was a great week, even though I didn't win,” Woods said after McDowell landed his birdie bomb on the 73rd hole. “I'm proud of the way I played today, even though I lost.”

Hold that thought. “Proud ... even though I lost.” You can almost hear Jerry Seinfeld incredulously repeating the phrase, the way he reiterated “Sex ... to save the friendship” in “The Mango” episode. No question about it, this is not your father's Tiger, maybe not his father's Tiger.

 

But there is a simple template to follow here, fashioned over the years by the likes of Kobe Bryant, now being utilized by the likes of Michael Vick. The truth is superstar athletes can overcome just about any indiscretion or impropriety by continuing to be superstar athletes.

Ring up a ton of points, score a bunch of touchdowns, fill it up for Sports Center, all is forgiven and forgotten. Is Woods a changed man? How could he not be? Publicly, he went from chic to Shrek. His corporate-clean, fairy tale existence has been shattered. All the money and glamor aside, these are real people behind these headlines, affected by real situations. They bleed as any of us bleed.

Will Woods be the same going forward? No. He turns 35 at the end of the month. He is taking another run at a goatee, social networking, accepting consolation ... that's different.

Perhaps equally important, the world around Woods might never be the same. The bullet-proof aura he once carried in his bag has thinned with the hair on his head. The opposition will be more bold in the future, the fear factor less prominent. How many wins has that accounted for, hard to say.

Those who once cowered in his presence and imploded along his path will stand ground more confidently. McDowell did on Sunday, dropping a long birdie putt to force the playoff and another to clinch it. The outcome was in sharp contrast to that defining moment at Torrey Pines, when Woods shot the same final-round 73 and beat Rocco Mediate in the playoff.

It will be more difficult for Woods to dominate golf the way he has in the past, a manner that produced 71 PGA Tour wins and 14 major titles over 14 years. He will begin next season still five majors shy of breaking Jack Nicklaus' magical mark of 18 professional majors. The feat no longer seems like a layup.

After all, things will never be the same. But those who suggest Woods will never be as good could be in for a rude awakening.

The Chevron was a limited field, a somewhat superficial stroll. And Woods' inability to finish gives doubt plenty to chew on. But there was no denying the demonstration. Woods' swing was simple, compact and unwavering. His Scott Norwood Special — wide right — was gone. When he missed, he missed left. For the first time in a long while, he knew where it was going.

There were three rounds in the 60s, birdies or better on 14 of 20 par-5s, putts that rolled true. The confusion was gone, the confidence was back, the template was in play. Woods took the telecast to overtime and caused remotes everywhere to stray from their NFL hubs.

Winning is the single element that will put the events of the past 13 months completely behind Woods. He came close on Sunday. There was no fist-pump, no trophy, but the progress wasn't lip service. It was obvious.

This past year was a fork in the road for Tiger Woods, a sobering, self-examining period. Things will never be as they were. But from a golf standpoint, look out in 2011 — they might just be better than ever.

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