Friday, March 09, 2012

Is Tiger Back?

I always loved the climax of The Odyssey.

Odysseus, the legendary King of Ithaca, returns at last after surviving the perils and temptations of his long journey back from Troy. It had taken him ten years to get back from the war; he finds that a host of boastful young pretenders have taken over his house, giving him up for dead as they drink, preen, and press their affections upon his wife, the steadfast Penelope.

Sports superstars are our modern-day mythological heroes, the Odyseusses of this postmodern age. When injuries or other troubles put them out of action, we wonder whether they too will ever rule their sport again. What about Peyton Manning after his neck surgeries? Can Manny Ramirez still bash it out of the park? Evander Holyfield take to the ring for one last title bout? The likes of ESPN, sports talk radio and the rest of the media machine that cultural critic Kevin Quirk labels “SportsGlutUSA” have made such speculation into a 24/7 business.

There's been plenty of such chatter, of course, about Tiger over the last couple of years. The double whammy of the great golfer’s personal woes and bad left knee led some pundits to insist that he would never again be a top player. Perhaps the most incautious of these observers, the Golf Channel's Brandel Chamblee, seemed to take a strangely vehement pleasure in declaring that Tiger’s knee was irreparably damaged; his swing hopelessly flawed; and his game that of a has-been more suited to the Nationwide than the PGA tour. The one-time king of golf, Chamblee insisted, was dead, the new Tiger a shadow of his former glorious self.

But recall, then, the ending of The Odyssey. The weary yet wily, resilient Odysseus returns to Ithaca at last, disguised as a beggar. Finally, at the palace, he reveals himself to the stunned assembly by stringing his great old bow and sending an arrow through ten axe-heads. He and his son Telemachus confront the arrogant, bullying suitors, slaughtering them all. Odysseus takes command again of his island realm.

Will Tiger follow this archetypal model by taking back his throne, or at the very least reclaiming some of his magic? He’s played well since last fall, including his victory at the Chevron World Classic. Yes, his putting is sometimes shaky; but the flat stick, of course, is a matter of confidence, and surely that may return, especially now that Tiger is able to play tournament golf regularly for the first time in so long. We’ve certainly seen flashes of the old Tiger of late, most notably at the 18th hole at the Honda Classic - the brute power of the 325 yard drive; the verve of the 203 yard five iron over water; the staring down of his eagle putt with the ball diving into the cup as if he had willed it there. That hole recalled the thrilling drama of Tiger in his glory years.

I shouldn’t overdo the Homeric parallels. Tiger did not resist the charms of his Calypsos – Joslyn James, Rachel Uchitel, and the rest of his hook-up roster; and Elin Nordegren, understandably enough, refused to play the faithful Penelope waiting by her loom no matter what. She demanded the divorce; one financial blog suggested that the Swedish krona ticked up against the U.S. dollar on the day the estranged couple signed their separation agreement, supposedly because of the many millions transferred from Tiger’s American account to Elin’s Stockholm bank. The gossip magazines have had Elin dating a handsome young Wall Street tycoon.

As for Tiger, he doesn’t seem any less imperious in personality for his ordeals. His publicity people have doubtless suggested, as many critics have, that he try to be more fan-friendly, and thus he occasionally tweets and signs autographs for fans. But he turned his famous icy death stare recently on a reporter who dared to ask an innocuous question about a passage from his former instructor Hank Haney's new book done with the veteran golf journalist Jaime Diaz (and, personally, I would read anything the wise and humane Diaz writes). At the Honda, Tiger signed some autographs, and yet did it with such unsmiling gracelessness that it looked as if he’d rather be having a wisdom tooth yanked with no anesthetic.

But we don’t expect much human touch from Tiger. He has given us the brilliance of his game. That’s more than enough. “Dogs,” Odysseus tells the terrified pretenders as he throws off his rags to reveals his fearsome majesty “did you think that I should not come back from Troy? You have feared neither God nor man and now you shall die.” Golf, like life itself, seldom provides simple endings; Tiger will surely have his share of false starts, disappointments and defeats in the coming year. His apparent Achilles injury at Doral this past weekend was not an auspicious sign. Even so, I suspect that sooner or later Tiger will have that Ithacan moment where, if only for a tournament, he once again returns to golf’s heights in a flash of power and brilliance.

It’s only a few weeks now until Augusta.

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