By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2010; D01
SAN FRANCISCO At 4:30 p.m. Monday, three hours before scheduled tip-off, Kobe Bryant, probably the most accomplished player in professional basketball, had worked himself into a sweat in his own private practice. Three hours before a game with a last-place team, Bryant had arrived at the arena with an assistant coach before the first team bus left the Lakers' hotel just to work on specific shots, moves, situations -- to get some reps, as athletes often say.
It's the price of greatness, the extra work, the constant and almost obsessive honing and refining of world-class skills, whether we're talking about Kobe Bryant or Derek Jeter or Peyton Manning or Tiger Woods.
That Tiger is coming back to golf is, in the context of sports and people who revel in competition and athletic achievement, extraordinary news. That his first tournament back is the Masters is, well, odd. It's like Kobe or LeBron deciding to skip warmup games in March or April and just report to work for the playoffs. Skipping Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill, where a member of the Mount Rushmore of golf could put his arm around Tiger and help usher him back into the fray, is wasting an enormous resource of potential strength, not to mention goodwill.
Tiger Woods, remember, hasn't played competitive golf in months. Talk about being in need of reps! Tiger isn't the best golfer on the planet because he's the most talented man in the field every week. Tiger's the best because his talent is buttressed by the greatest focus, which is brought about by the most legendary regimen of dedicated and purposeful practice.
Now, without benefit of competition and the day-to-day engagement that has made him to golf what Michael Jordan was to basketball and what Muhammad Ali was to boxing, Tiger is going to walk out of emotional upheaval and onto the most famous golf course in America and seriously contend? It'll be splendid theater, but I can't say I think much of it as a re-entry strategy.
Don't get me wrong, I'm thrilled he's coming back. Once again, Tiger's sex life is none of my business and really none of yours either, unless you're sponsoring him. I've never once watched him swing a golf club because he could sell me a Buick (though I own an Enclave), or razor blades, or golf shoes (I'm basically a FootJoy guy). I watch because with a club in his hand he's a sporting genius.
In his absence, I've stopped watching golf. I didn't say I watch less; I find that I don't watch at all. And it's not a conscious thing, like I'm boycotting the game because Tiger's away. In fact, over the last 15 years I've watched golf pretty much every single week between late January and late September. Tiger only plays, what, 19 or 20 tournaments a year and I watch closer to 30 a year, which means he's not there one-third of the time I'm tuned in.
But I'm not watching now. The dramatic drop in television ratings suggest I'm not alone, either.
Professional golf has been on life support all season. It's in more trouble now than pro basketball was when Jordan retired from the NBA. Tiger, and this isn't debatable, is bigger than the game. Or at least he was. Time will tell whether he can summon that again. But he'll be bigger than the game when they tee it up at Augusta. Just look at the numbers. I'm not talking about the 20 million or whatever number it winds up being who will watch the Masters out of tabloid curiosity. I'm talking about the addicts like me, the week-in, week-out fanatics whom Tour ratings depend upon. Golf grew dangerously dependent on the talent, personality, marketing and, ultimately, the remarkably clutch championship performance of Tiger Woods -- and now the game is stuck.
How soon we're going to see that Tiger Woods is the larger concern. And I find it difficult, perhaps impossible, to imagine that we'll see him at Augusta in a few weeks. The last time he came into a tournament with huge emotional baggage he missed the cut, at the U.S. Open following the death of his father. Now, after an arguably greater emotional disturbance (not to mention the disruption of professional routine), he's supposed to just walk on the course and win? I can't see it.
The people who have bought into this notion that he's superhuman insult the work put in, the preparation for tournaments like Bay Hill that provide the foundation he builds upon to prepare for major tournaments like the Masters. They ignore how he built such a dominant game.
Yes, we know the Masters is going to provide basically a bubble for Tiger to perform in. It'll be the closest thing he can get to a golf dome. But when the Masters is over, what then? Why not play a in a relatively more protective environment, Bay Hill, then work up to the Masters? Tiger's not going to be able to avoid hecklers forever, or questions forever, or paparazzi forever, or the tabloids, or off-color one-liners. If he spends all his time searching for an environment that's going to shield him from every little dig, he'll become Colin Montgomerie, and wouldn't golf really be on the verge of disaster then?
Going back to my previous analogy, Ali after his forced retirement and Jordan after walking away to play baseball (and both were away longer) needed several fights and quite a few games before they re-took the throne.
Tiger, playing at a venue where he still holds the record for scoring and thrills, could easily produce a great round, maybe even two. But win?
This whole sordid episode has gone on long enough. Certainly, Tiger could be redefining himself as a person, meaning golf could be lower on his new priority list. But when he is on the golf course we expect him now, as always, to win. How he can expect to do that having not played for so long, having been away from the laboratory that shapes his greatness, is setting up either the most theatrical comeback sports has ever seen or the kind of letdown that we have rarely if ever associated with the professional career of Tiger Woods. Either way, sports just got more interesting and golf just got worth watching again.