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Tiger more fallible, more fascinating

Published June 21, 2006

By now, he was going to have history on the run.

He'd be messing with Arnie's memory, and tickling Jack's legacy. He'd make the unthinkable seem possible, and the incredible seem routine.

At this moment, four years ago, the golf world was deliriously in the grip of Tiger-mania. Tiger Woods had just won the U.S. Open for his seventh major in 11 attempts, and he was halfway to a potential Grand Slam.

He was obsessive, he was ferocious and he was going to continue to rule this sport in a way no one had ever before imagined.

At least that's the way it seemed.

In the four years since his U.S. Open victory at Bethpage Black, Woods has won fewer majors than Phil Mickelson. He has won fewer tournaments than Vijay Singh. He has turned 30, and seemingly turned down the volume.

Make no mistake, he is still the greatest golfer in the world. Except, right now, he should be better. He may even be the greatest golfer in history. Except, today, it feels like he is an underachiever.

So has his future become a thing of the past? Is this a suggestion that Tiger has somehow grown lesser in our eyes? Perhaps, in a competitive sense. And certainly in a historical context. But in a strange way, I think it's made him a more approachable and endearing figure.

The Tiger we see today is more vulnerable. More human. We have seen chips in the veneer and cracks in the foundation. And it gives the overall impression of a far more interesting and complex character.

Maybe age and success have dulled his drive. Perhaps marriage has claimed a sliver of his legendary focus. Certainly the illness, and recent passing, of his father has had an effect on his outlook.

The point is that real life has a way of intruding on all of our dreams and expectations.

Once, we looked at the eight majors Woods had won by age 27 and extrapolated a career that was off the charts. If he could win seven majors between 23 and 26, how many would he win between 27 and 30?

Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championships was not just in jeopardy, it was already being assigned as one of Tiger's future mileposts.

Today, that is no longer assured.

It is true that Woods remains ahead of Jack's pace. At 30, he already has 10 majors. Nicklaus didn't win his 10th until he was 32.

But what we have learned the past few years is that projection is sometimes just a more sophisticated word for guessing. Which pretty much leaves you with this choice: Do you marvel at Woods for having won nine of the last 27 major championships, or do you question why he has won only two of the last 16?

If you're seeking clues, it might be helpful to see how his career path has paralleled Nicklaus'. Both were, for instance, golfing prodigies. Woods won his first major at 21. Nicklaus at 22. Both had three green jackets by 26.

But, after his quick start, Nicklaus hit a lull. For four seasons, between ages 27 and 30, Nicklaus won only two majors.

Should Woods fail to win either the upcoming British Open or PGA Championship, he also will have won two majors between the ages of 27 and 30.

Coincidence? Probably. But it might also speak to the challenges of maintaining the same commitment and focus after a smorgasbord of success.

Nicklaus has recently said he had become a sloppy golfer in his late 20s. That he was getting by on his talent, and not pushing himself to do better.

The catalyst for his rebound?

The death of his father when Nicklaus was 30. He said he felt guilty that he was not playing up to his capabilities, and his father's expectations.

This doesn't mean Woods will have a similar epiphany. Or even that one is necessary. Woods may not be winning at the same pace as earlier in his career, but he is still the No. 1 ranked golfer in the world by a large margin.

The point is that even if the championship titles have come more slowly, there is still plenty of time remaining for Woods. Another decade or more of glory to be chased. Potentially, even, the best seasons of his career, hard as that is to imagine.

What helps is that now we understand the challenge. When he was winning so routinely a few years ago, it was easy to take Woods' success for granted. To accept that his father, Earl, had taught him not only how to play the game, but how to block out potential distractions.

Now we know it was more difficult than it seemed. That behind the precise shots and impenetrable facade were the same issues and challenges others have faced.

Four years ago, Woods seemed invincible.

Today, we know that was not true.

And, in a way, that makes him more impressive.

[Last modified June 21, 2006, 02:02:28]

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