By Eugene Robinson
Friday, February 27, 2009
Let me interrupt the constant flow of unsettling news about budgets, bailouts and bankruptcies to welcome Tiger Woods back to competition and back into the spotlight. This would be a great time for the most watchable athlete in the world to resume doing what he does best, which is induce such slack-jawed amazement that the humanly impossible suddenly seems within reach. We could use a reason to believe in miracles.
The question of whether the term "athlete" can be used to describe anyone who plays golf for a living should be definitively settled. Woods's performance last June in winning the U.S. Open, hobbling around the course on a broken leg, was pure guts and glory. A sport once derided as effete was revealed to be capable of demanding, and producing, true heroism.
After that victory -- his 14th major title, second only to Jack Nicklaus's record 18 -- Woods took eight months off for surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and then grueling rehab.
Television ratings for golf declined, understandably. A tournament without Woods was, well, just a golf tournament -- a bunch of guys in ugly clothes, a lot of whispering from the announcers, a panoramic shot of what looked like empty blue sky as the camera tried to follow a tiny ball that was all but invisible in the glare.
For other professional golfers, those were halcyon days: They actually had the chance to win, for a change. Before his sojourn, Woods had won 10 of the previous 13 tournaments he had entered. He was the odds-on favorite to win every time he stepped onto a tee box anywhere in the world.
With Woods gone, lesser talents had a chance to shine -- Anthony Kim, the brash youngster; Padraig Harrington, the soft-spoken Irishman; as well as Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson, Camilo Villegas and others who might dominate the sport if not for the misfortune of playing in the Age of the Tiger.
To celebrate the return to competition of its best-known and highest-paid endorser, Nike produced a funny commercial in which other golfers from the Nike stable make the most of Woods's absence -- tournament trophies, limousines, flowing champagne, pool parties with bikini-clad models. At the end, Woods walks into the locker room. "Welcome back," he is told, with glum irony.
Woods did return Wednesday, defeating an Australian journeyman, Brendan Jones, in the first round of the Accenture Match Play Championship in Arizona. How he made his reentry will only burnish the Woods legend. On the first hole, he made two great shots and followed them with a perfect putt, for a birdie. On the second, he made two even better shots and then an even better putt, for an eagle. He was, by his standards, fairly erratic for much of the rest of the match, playing just well enough to win. Those first two holes were simply an announcement that the boss was back.
He's rusty, as he demonstrated yesterday when he lost in the tournament's second round to South African Tim Clark, who is ranked 32nd in the world. He hadn't played for most of a year, so his competitive edge wasn't sharp. Meanwhile, other players grew in confidence and skill while he was away. It's absurd to think that Woods can simply pick up where he left off, winning tournaments almost at will.
But this is an athlete who specializes in making the absurd seem not just possible but inevitable. What has to frighten every other professional golfer in the world is that Woods's knee now functions better than it has in years. His swing is smoother and more efficient. He's had months to do nothing but practice his putting and his short game. After shaking off the rust, he could be better than ever.
This is an apt moment to be reminded that extraordinary feats can, indeed, be accomplished. It's easy to look at the latest unemployment figures and feel depressed, easy to behold the wreckage of the financial system and feel overwhelmed. The numbers in President Obama's budget are incomprehensibly large -- a trillion here, a trillion there. It's easy to feel lost and powerless.
Have a good year, Tiger. Remind us that we're limited only by our imaginations. A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.