February 16, 2009

Real-world turns magnify Tiger Woods' absence

Exactly when tiger woods chooses to return to competitive golf is unknown, but he will be back soon, just not soon enough. In a real world riven by economic strife, and a sports playpen that is not much of a diversion, he serves as the nearest point of relief. At the very least, Woods is someone we still can trust. At his very best, he is someone who enables us, however briefly, to escape the thundering herd of entrepreneurs, politicians and athletes who have overstayed their appointment with 15 minutes of shame. In December, after seeing Woods bounce around his Chevron World Challenge, we joined a few others in guessing he might commence his run-up to the Masters at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. We'll stick to that, on the faint chance if it happens, my superiors might think I know what I'm doing. Warning: I pick the Chicago Cubs to win the World Series every year, and I haven't been right since 1908.

Still, Tucson seems possible. Tiger has declared he's ahead of schedule rehabilitating the left knee that required surgery after his storied U.S. Open victory last June. More significantly, Tiger's family situation is settled and solid. Wife Elin on Feb. 8 gave birth to the couple's second child, Charlie Axel. "We feel truly blessed," said Tiger. Charlie Axel doesn't know it yet, but so is he. Charlie Axel never will experience the unsanitary innards of a commercial airliner, unless he decides to become a pilot, flight attendant or CEO of an automobile company pressured to leave his private jet at home on trips to Washington when the Feds aren't busy fumigating baseball.

Which reminds us again why Tiger's presence is welcome. Open your eyes, then hold your nose, at what has passed for sports lately. Super Bowl XLIII staged a halftime ceremony that was plausibly live, yet in reality an ode to lip-synching. Michael Phelps, the Olympic star, thought he could join society as just another Joe Blow, you should pardon the expression. But he was photographed at a bong show in South Carolina and now is being threatened by the local sheriff, whose district's crime rate is among the nation's worst.

Then there's Alex Rodriguez. We thought he would make us forget Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire. Instead, A-Roid merely bumped Rod Blagojevich and Bernie Madoff from the front pages. Bowling is in a tizzy, because a young Australian, Jason Belmonte, violates a tradition unlike any other. He throws the ball with two hands. Even everybody's favorite game, soccer, is troubled. Teams in Europe are feeling the worldwide recession, just like leagues in America, including NASCAR. Our hero, David Beckham, mulled—God help us—never to return to Beverly Hills. Thankfully, he changed his mind. While in Italy, however, Beckham was not among Catania's players who dropped their shorts during a free kick to distract the opposition, thus effecting their sport's rarest treat, a goal. This is what passes for a laugh now because even Tiger's buddy, round mound of mirth Charles Barkley, has been unplugged briefly from his microphone after a DUI.

Even Tiger's buddy Charles Barkley has been unplugged briefly from his microphone after a DUI.

If the PGA Tour were smart and pro-active, it would heed the advice of Frank Deford and cancel all tournaments until Tiger's re-entry. Deford proclaimed there is no there there without Woods, and he is not alone. Golf's problem is that it is staged outdoors, thus increasing the degree of difficulty foppish commentators and armchair pundits encounter when shaping opinions. Some of these same experts insisted Martha Burk's bygone Masters boycott was what mattered. You'll see more people at Thanksgiving dinner. But if you are trapped in a studio or office, you cannot witness 50,000 fans daily surrounding the Ryder Cup or 160,000 at the FBR Open. Both events would have been enriched by Tiger, yet managed without him. The message might be, whereas only one game lost the world's most charismatic athlete since mid-summer, his lodge brothers stubbornly forage onward, seeking neither pardons nor bailouts.

Tiger, a one-man stimulus package, will be scrutinized every which way, and this does put one in one's place. When he went down, diagrams of his left knee were shown around the globe and medics consulted about his situation. Well, a lot of us have bad knees. I have a bad one, not that you care or should, and it's my left knee. But I carried my X-rays around, begging for sympathy, confident they never would be published by USA Today. What I got, instead of Tiger love, was a series of jabs. "Do you need your knee for your job?" Or, "At least you have another knee." Or, one of my favorites, "At a certain age, your parts start to wear out." Finally, I found a specialist who would actually examine me. Let's call him Dr. Mal Practice. What was the second thing he asked me, after whether I had insurance? "Did you know," he said, "Tiger Woods also has a bad left knee?" Really?