Seven months after colliding with a fire hydrant and a tree and watching his world come crashing down, Tiger Woods has returned to normal on the golf course, fighting injuries and his golf swing in pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' record for major championships. Although it's been a losing battle, he continues to amaze us in defeat. He has played just five tournaments in the past six months — missing the cut in one and withdrawing from another with a neck injury — but he finished tied for fourth in the U.S. Open and the Masters, despite a balky swing that has the golf world abuzz.
But he can't completely escape the events of last Thanksgiving and the aftermath. For instance, consider the A&T National tournament in suburban Philadelphia, where Woods opened Thursday with a 73, putting him seven shots off the lead. He returned to the event as the defending champion, but for the first time since the tournament began in 2007, he's not the host. AT&T dropped him as a corporate sponsor, though the tournament's net proceeds will continue to benefit the Tiger Woods Foundation. "We're very lucky and very excited that AT&T wanted to still be a part of this event," Woods told reporters Tuesday.
He certainly doesn't feel as fortunate or thrilled about other consequences of his sexcapades — namely, becoming a cottage industry for celebrity gossip and facing an impending divorce settlement that could cost him up to $750 million. And the fallout from his serial adultery can surface at any time. At a U.S. Open press conference, just as he was getting comfortable reflecting on past experiences at Pebble Beach, one of his favorite courses, he fielded this out-of-nowhere question: "On the basis that all of our professional lives are affected by our personal lives, can you tell us if you've got any resolution one way or the other with [wife Elin Nordegren] yet?"
"That's none of your business," he snapped, his feel-good dropping like a tap-in putt. During the tournament's final round, he was subjected to a plane overhead with a banner that read, "Tiger, are you my daddy?" That was a clear reference to one of his alleged mistresses, porn star Devon James, who claims that Woods fathered her 9-year-old son. James filed papers in Manatee County, Fla., asking a judge to determine paternity.
The sordid, sleazy and scandalous accusations don't concern average golf fans, who are more interested in Woods' timetable for winning another major than in his timetable for finalizing the divorce papers. Next up is the British Open, July 15-18, on the Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland, where Woods trounced the field the last two times the tournament was there (in 2005 and 2000). He opened as a 5-2 betting favorite to win this year's British Open, despite his current struggles and the fact that he hasn't won a major in more than two years.
There was a flash of the old, dominant Woods on June 19, during the third round at Pebble Beach, when he scorched the back nine for a 31 to put himself in contention. "That was a nice step in the right direction," he said Tuesday, "because I would play two or three good holes, then hit a bad shot, and it would take the air out of what I had built. During that stretch, I put together about 12 really good holes, and it's something I hadn't done all year. Granted, the amount of rounds I've played so far this year is about what I normally play through March. I'm starting to head in the right direction."
That part of Woods' life is probably changed forever. The tabloids will remain hungry after his divorce, eager to snag a picture of him with the next babe on his arm. He's entered the freak-show phase of celebrity that few athletes must endure, becoming an A-list catch for paparazzi who don't mind staking out family and friends, too. For those who enjoy that sort of thing, Woods is a gold mine.
But ultimately his legacy will be determined on the golf course. Thousands of fans waited for his arrival Tuesday at Aronimink Golf Club, and hundreds still wanted his autograph. He's there to play, and "hopefully … win an event," and fans are there to watch (whether they root for him or not). He understands that some won't, but it won't stop him this week or the weeks ahead.
"I certainly have made mistakes, no doubt about that," he said. "I take full ownership of them, and I think what a lot of kids can learn from that is that you're not always going to go through life perfect. No one does. When you make a mistake, step up to the plate and take ownership of it."
Deron Snyder is a regular contributor to The Root.