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It’s only one way or the other from here

Charles Thursby thinks he can see the Woods for the trees

Last night, determined to avoid the BBC’s review of the Commonwealth Games and coverage of its Closing Ceremony, I kept my television on in the background – occasionally channel-hopping – whilst flicking through the Sunday papers.

By this route I came across Sky Sports’ coverage of the final round of the WGC Bridgestone Invitational golf tournament in America, which (I read this morning) was eventually won by Rory McIlroy, who played well to pip Sergio Garcia, the overnight leader.

However, the reason for my post this morning is the developing story last night of Tiger Woods’ withdrawal from the tournament after 9 holes, apparently because of a further injury to his recently operated-upon back.

At the time I came to Sky Sport’s coverage, Woods was on the 8th hole and – amidst the ‘live’ action – they played an edited highlights version of his round thus far: an extraordinary mix of sublime shots of great skill/inventiveness and a potpourri of disastrous hacks, slices, fluffs and shanks that would not seemed out of place had they had been performed by a severely-inebriated prospective bridegroom halfway through his stag weekend.

Then suddenly, now on ‘live’ coverage, Woods pulled up short when taking his drive on the 9th tee … and was subsequently seen gingerly being conveyed by golf buggy back to the car park after withdrawing from the tournament.

The Sky Sports pundits – and indeed most golfing journalists this morning – seem wary of being seen to ‘write-off’ Woods, either in the short-term or potentially being the first to risk ‘calling time’ on his career as an elite golfer.

The rise, reign and now fall of Tiger Woods is likely to remain a fascinating case study for a while, not least because there is at least an even chance that he may return to the Major-winning trail in the future.

At one point last night, Sky put up a grid of the top ten golfers in the world, the better to demonstrate that if McIlroy won the WGC Bridgestone Invitational and Adam Scott then also finished 5th or lower, McIlroy would return to Number One.

What was noticeable was that Tiger Woods was featured, listed at Number Ten in the world, with the commentator remarking in passing “ … but not for much longer”.

Woods4In terms of box-office drawing power, of course, Woods remains Number One golfer in the world. He must rank in the top five individuals ever to have played the game.

His talent, success, mental toughness, willingness to keep working hard at his game long after others had retired to relax in the bar, or with their families – and yes, probably his racial ancestry – have combined to bestow upon him icon status, but also set new standards for everyone else who has taken up professional golf as a career.

There is a quote from the Bible (The Gospel according to Mark, Chapter 6, verse 4); ‘And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honour, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household”.’ Another version of the same point is the adage that, to his servant, a man is only a man – and, of course, as night follows day, it is a fact of life that human beings have feet of clay.

It is indisputable that Tiger Woods had one of the most spectacular falls from grace of any sporting personality in history with his well-publicised sexual peccadillos, divorce and other troubles.

However, for golf fans around the world, at least as shocking has been his accompanying slump in playing form and the parallel ever-lengthening list of injuries that have punctuated and now halted what had once seemed to be his inevitably successful assault upon Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 Major titles.

I have three comments to share today:

Firstly, the obvious. Tiger Woods is not the only sporting idol who has been revealed to possess human frailties. Let us be honest – this is hardly surprising. Everyone alive has human failings. I know I do. What’s more, I bet there are other world-ranked golfers down through every era in history – let alone counterparts in every other popular sport you could mention – who have ‘fallen from the perfect standard’ in some form or another and/or committed far worse sins that Woods, that have not so far been ‘found out’, and indeed never will be.

Secondly – and I write this after watching him disintegrate in front of the world television audience last night – Woods has already revealed himself to be an ordinary human being. I’m not referring to just on the golf course at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational. Even at the height of his fame and success, there were occasional flashes from Woods of public petty anger, frustration, lack of grace, arrogance, condescension and other reactions that could be filed under the general heading ‘unpleasantness’. It’s just that these days – when he’s playing at a standard way below what he used to be capable of – we notice them more.

Thirdly (and lastly), the saddest part of where Tiger Woods finds himself today is the ‘self-delusion’ aspect, to which all great performers tend to succumb.

At his zenith, despite his ‘darker’ side, Woods was a dab hand at giving press interviews in which he projected himself as a genuine, thoughtful, humble guy who inter alia gave due nods to other players’ qualities, as if he regarded himself just ‘one of the guys’ – even if (whether we viewers suspected this or not) inside his personal view was far more dismissive of his fellow competitors.

Woods5The trouble is that now – e.g. in coming into the Open and even the WGC Bridgestone Invitational – Tiger Woods is still giving interviews in which he predicts that, if things go right for him this week, he expects to be right up there with the other leading contenders competing to win.

However, given where he is physically and mentally, both experienced observers and part-time fans must know that this is all ‘pie in the sky’.

Maybe he really believes that he has a genuine chance to win each new tournament.

If so, as I hinted earlier, it’s self-delusion … and there’s nothing more pathetic (in both senses of the word) that a once-great sportsman on the slide – whether just through the passing years, or terminal loss of form, or serious injury – who keeps kidding himself that he’s just a four-round competition (and/or an elusive ‘recovery of form’) away from regaining his highest peak.

I’m not suggesting that Woods cannot get back to winning golf tournaments, or even one day another Major.

It’s just that, at the moment, his active elite sporting career looks as though it can only go one of two ways – and I’m afraid that (however hard he applies himself) one of them is down.






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About Charles Thursby

After a lifetime in sports journalism, Charles Thursby continues his immersion in the world of sport by providing the National Rust with dispatches from all points of the compass. More Posts