It doesn't matter what the oddsmakers say, doesn't mean a thing that they tap Tiger Woods as the favorite to win the British Open this week. If Woods walks away from Muirfield with the Claret Jug, he will have pulled off a startling comeback, a turnabout dramatic enough to qualify as an upset.
No one who has witnessed his futility in majors over the last five years can doubt that, especially after Merion humbled him so emphatically at last month's U.S. Open. The more compelling question is: Would alienated golf fans embrace a Woods victory for what it represents? Can they accept him, now or ever, as a sentimental favorite?
It's hard to sympathize with a man ranked No. 1 globally in his sport, whose wealth hits nine figures and who has a cover-girl Olympian at his side, despite the botching of his marriage through epic infidelity. Still, it's not out of the question now to root for him as, of all things, an underdog.
His struggles at Merion, with both a bum elbow and his own psyche, could have stirred condolence in any witness. He says his confidence hasn't waned, but athletes rarely concede fragility of the mind. When Woods took an angry swipe at the grass after just missing a 10-foot birdie putt in the U.S. Open's first round, it should have been clear to anyone who understands the tournament that he all-too-desperately wanted the victory. In an event renowned for rewarding the steady, he had no chance if an early par frustrated him that profoundly.
To varying degrees, this sort of failure has occurred every time he has tried to add a major title to the 14 he collected in his first 12 seasons as a pro. To everyone who disapproved of his spousal ethics or his potty-mouth management -- or the latest haughty Nike ad on his behalf -- this recession of greatness might have seemed justified, if not patently pleasurable.
But the last few months -- from the penalty disaster at the Masters to Sergio Garcia's inflammatory commentary to the bloated Open score -- suggest that Woods finally has had enough comeuppance, if he still needed any. We can now officially call for a timeout on Tiger schadenfreude.
Look back seven years, to the last British Open that Woods won, and see how much he has lost since then. After the final putt, he and caddie Steve Williams wrapped each other in a tight embrace as Tiger sobbed, remembering his father, Earl, who had succumbed to cancer two months earlier. Still in tears, Tiger then fell into the arms of his wife, Elin, burying his face against her neck.
Both of those relationships are gone now. Granted, Woods punted them away, cheating on Elin and firing Williams, but the visuals from the 2006 British Open serve as fairly vivid reminders of the price he paid for self-destructing.
The ex-caddie more than repaid any disloyalty with a public remark about his boss' "black arse," a comment hostile enough to make one wonder how must trust Williams had squandered before Woods sacked him. As for his marriage, if Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner can make comebacks in a field entirely dependent on public opinion, surely a golfer's personal failings must have some statute of limitations, too.
Three years and seven months -- the period since the 2:30 a.m. collision of Woods' Escalade with a neighborhood fire hydrant, following an adultery exposé in the National Enquirer -- seems more than sufficient. Woods has done his time in the karmic sports penalty box, if such a thing exists. Some people need to believe that it does, although reality doesn't square with the theory. If we're charting performance against manifestation of personal scruples, the record shows that Woods thrived while philandering and paid for getting caught.
Count me among those who believe that the public humiliation related to Woods' sex life did not, by itself, cause his decline. It only compounded difficulties at a time when he already had been rendered professionally vulnerable.
As he limped and winced through the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, and over 19 extra holes in a Monday playoff, he risked his future to beat Rocco Mediate. No one really knew it at the time; cynics even speculated that Woods overly dramatized his pain during that long weekend. But when he announced two days later that he had played on a torn anterior cruciate ligament and double stress fractures in his left leg, it should have been clear that he might never be the same Tiger Woods again.
His leg had been crumbling beneath him. To fix it, he had to undergo surgery, sit out for eight months, miss two majors, take painkillers that can play with the mind, and then return on a knee that was chronologically 33 years old but physiologically bordering on geriatric. He has not returned to the absolute pinnacle of the game. He can play spectacular golf, as he did in the four wins that pushed him back to No. 1 this year, but he can no longer render himself untouchable in the biggest moments.
Even before the Escalade and Enquirer did their damage, he had faltered uncharacteristically in a major, giving up his three-day lead at the 2009 PGA Championship.
In regular tournaments that year, he was as hot as he'd ever been. In the events that meant the most to him, however -- the ones that always brought out his predatory confidence -- he went lukewarm: ties for 6th at the Masters and U.S. Open, a missed cut at the British, and then 2nd place at the PGA when he should have bagged Win No. 15 in a major.
When a transcendent athlete overcomes pain or simple aging and recaptures greatness, fans tend toward rapture. Peyton Manning going to a Super Bowl in Denver would set off a sobfest. They'd have to mop the floor of the broadcast booth every 10 minutes. Tim Lincecum's no-hitter on Saturday night carried extra emotional heft because he had fallen so far off the map of baseball stars.
Whenever Woods wins a major again, if he does, we should be able to appreciate it even more than his biggest fans celebrated the ruthless perfection of those first 12 years. His status as the oddsmakers' Muirfield favorite is a fluke, part of the comedy of handicapping any golf tournament. But if he comes up 18 on Sunday with his cap doffed, the Claret Jug waiting -- and, above all, the gallery roaring -- he'll have earned that.