The only thing the sporting public relishes more than seeing a once dominant athlete tumble off the pedestal we’ve put them on is watching them try to scratch and claw their way back atop it.
Tiger Woods is still clambering up the pedestal, trying to reach the rarefied air he occupied as one of the world’s most transcendent athletes before his world came apart at the seams in 2009. The scandalous details of his unchecked extramarital lechery wrecked his marriage and his career.
Woods has come a long way from the shattered shell of an icon he was when he first returned to the greens in 2010. By many accounts, Tiger is already back. He is the world’s No. 1-ranked golfer again for the first time since 2010, and has won six of his last 20 tournaments. He already has three wins this year, including back-to-back victories at Doral and the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month.
But there is only one way for Eldrick Woods to truly rehabilitate his reputation, recapture his form, and reclaim his pedestal. That is to win a major. If a week from Sunday Woods is donning the famed green jacket as the Masters champion for a fifth time, he is indisputably back, like him or not.
Winning a major is the only checkmark left on Woods’s career resurrection list. The noble chase of Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major titles is capable of fading the public stain of his ignoble behavior with women. He never will be exactly as he was before, both in playing ability or public perception, but America overlooks the character flaws of a winner. He will be that again.
Augusta National Golf Club would be a fitting stage for Woods to complete his comeback. It was at the 1997 Masters that the legend of Woods took hold with a historic victory. It was three years ago at the course that he made his return to the game after his salacious scandal, a shellshocked and despised pariah.
Woods was raised with topping Jack’s accomplishments as his raison d’être. He never has lost focus of the record.
Pre-scandal it appeared a formality that Woods, who has won 14 major titles, would surpass the Golden Bear. But now 37 and without a major title since the 2008 US Open, Woods has been idling in the breakdown lane of history.
The Chase has become what a tournament with Woods leading after 54 holes usually isn’t (he’s 52-4 all time heading into the final round with at least a share of the lead), a cliff-hanger with an uncertain ending.
When Woods tees off at the Masters on Thursday he will have the weight of that lifelong pursuit and possible career reclamation as hazards, along with bunkers and pine trees.
I thought last year would be the year Woods would win major No. 15. Instead of rising to the occasion, Woods shrank in the moment like his name was Schiraldi.
He failed to break par in a final round in a major in 2012. He was tied for the 36-hole lead at the US Open, but came unglued in the third round with a 5-over-par 75. He was in contention at the British Open, but shot par in the third round and then had four bogeys and a triple bogey in the final round at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. He began the third round of the PGA Championship tied for the lead and then the rain came to Kiawah Island, S.C., and Woods’s game went down the drain.
When he was at his most dominant, some questioned whether Woods was human. He was like a golf automaton, a joyless champion. Now, we know all too well just how human Tiger really is.
No one is saying you should feel bad for Woods or that he is a sympathetic figure now. He’s not. He deserved the dose of humiliation and humility he received. But there are those who want to make you feel guilty for rooting for Woods, like it makes you a sympathizer or cosigner of his inveterate philandering. It does not.
You can cheer for Woods the golfer, without applauding the person. I couldn’t care less if he’s dating Lindsey Vonn or Von Miller.
Some of those rooting against him now were likely rooting against him before they knew anything of his personal foibles because they resented his dominance and the shadow it cast over golf.
Dynasties in sports are always polarizing, loved and loathed, often in equal measure. Just look at our beloved Patriots.
But part of sports is the tapestry of the tale. There is no question that golf is more interesting with Woods as a central figure, whether you view him as protagonist or antagonist.
The reality is that it’s not Woods who has significantly changed since 2009. It’s the public’s willingness to overlook his flaws that has.
The message Nike sent in a commercial after Woods regained his No. 1 ranking last month was a misguided one — “Winning takes care of everything” — but unfortunately not necessarily a false one.
The best public relations for any soiled star like Woods or Kobe Bryant is simply flashing their remarkable talent, reminding why they were idolized and admired in the first place.
Greatness often begets forgiveness, or at least convenient forgetfulness.
Bryant was radioactive after he was accused of rape in a Colorado hotel in 2003. (The case was dismissed in 2004, but Bryant paid his accuser in a civil lawsuit settlement in 2005.) But 10 years, two NBA titles, and a pair of gold medals later, the case is rarely brought up. Bryant has become the NBA’s éminence grise.
Woods will never reach his pre-scandal peak, but if he wins the Masters, or any major this year, then his long climb back is over.
There are second acts in American sporting life.
Tiger, your pedestal awaits.Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist and the host of Boston Sports Live. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.