By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, April 8, 2010; D01
AUGUSTA, GA. -- If Tiger Woods wins the Masters on Sunday after all the damage he's done to golf, I plan to rob a bank on Monday; maybe then I'll win a Pulitzer Prize.
Sin big and win big. Why don't most of us ever think of that strategy? This week, within a minute, Woods talked about the "horrible" things he's done and how he thinks he can win the Masters. Has the thought crossed his mind that he doesn't deserve to win?
We know that bad things happen to good people. We cope with it. But when great things happen to people who have acted badly, especially if the bonanza comes fast and arrives ringed with robes of glory, don't we have to draw the line? I'm forgiving, but my brain hasn't turned into pimento cheese. If Woods has a tap-in to win the Masters, I hope his conscience helps him yip it and lip it. Win any other week. But not here. Not now.
Many here are fascinated, though a bit unsettled, at the cheers and calls of "Lets Go, Tiger," that have greeted Woods at Augusta National. Can it, should it, be that easy?
"I didn't know what to expect. The galleries couldn't be nicer. It was just incredible. The encouragement I got, it blew me away to be honest with you," Woods said after his first practice round Monday. "Just something that really touched my heart pretty good."
The Masters' graciousness toward Woods is appropriate. But how will we feel by Sunday? Chances are, we'll probably have to digest the possibility of a Woods win.
Once great champs establish themselves here in their prime, you rarely get rid of them no matter what injury or slump befalls them before they arrive. When they were Woods's age, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson were in streaks where they were fourth or better, respectively, in eight-of-10, eight-of-nine and six-of-seven years. Woods's case is more extreme. But he's been top three here five-of-the-last six years.
If Tiger can putt well, regardless of the state of the rest of his game, he'll probably be in the top five on the leader board at some point. What do you yell then?
Everyone, right up to Masters chairman Billy Payne, clearly feels the dizzying ambiguity of Woods's return. As Payne put it Wednesday, Woods forgot that "with fame and fortune comes responsibility, not invisibility."
"It is not simply the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here; it is the fact that he disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids and our grandkids," Payne said. "Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we saw for our children.
"Is there a way forward? I hope yes. I think yes. But certainly his future will never again be measured only by his performance against par, but measured by the sincerity of his efforts to change."
As this week unfolds, we may reach an odd consensus. Few want to see Woods collapse and miss the cut. Hasn't he been mortified enough? Infidelity isn't a capital offense. It isn't even against the law. Leading a double life has to be worse for the person doing it, once it blows up, than it is for all of us who got fooled.
Still, a Woods win would be an awful fit among our great "comebacks" in sports. Such a victory would feel like vindication of oblivious self-centeredness. What a perverse lesson. On the bright side, it might kill the term "role model" for a generation.
So, I suspect, many will share my uncomfortable shoes -- pulling for a great athlete not to win an important event. Really, deeply, feeling that it would be an affront. Accomplishment is always hard and in short supply, so in sports we create an arena for harsh testing but fair results. Then, mostly, we pull for people to succeed, not fail for us to mock. Pulling for and against Woods will cross a lot of wires. Like mine.
There are two schools of Tiger babble here. First, there are the vindicated bashers who could never figure out who Woods was but felt there was something deeply "off" about him. His ego was vast and his golf arrogance part of a larger contempt. He controlled to conceal. For them, the mask is off. What is left is a selfish 30-something adolescent.
These folks often think Tiger will flourish at this Masters -- because it's all about him, an egotist's feast; with victory, Woods can have the last word on the golf course, even if he still has to eat crow 24/7 in front of every microphone.
Plenty here, including me, don't think of Woods as an outlier, except in terms of golf talent. Woods still falls within the normal range of highly-driven people and is no more freakish than, for example, an elite brain surgeon. For us, Woods was generous toward friends on the Tour, empathetic toward those with problems. Raised in a perverse be-perfect celebrity bubble, he was half a lifetime overdue for destructive rebellion. Once hooked on that rush, who'd stop him? What limits would there be?
If you hold some version of that view, then Woods looks like a badly shattered man trying to put himself back together in a hurry and very scared. Yet, just as his therapy encourages him to be more authentic, figure out who he really is and who he wants to be in the future, Woods must, simultaneously, stage-manage every minute of his public time to repair Tiger, Inc.
What a perfect special hell. The guy is even trying to remake his emotional approach to managing himself during a round. We all know about that. How's that new golf behavior resolution working out for you? How about a show of hands? Ten million golfers; three success stories. Congratulations, liars.
"I'm going to try obviously not to get as hot when I play. But then again, when I'm not as hot, I'm not going to be as exuberant either. I can't play one without the other," Woods said this week. "So I made a conscious decision to try and tone down my negative outbursts and consequently I'm sure my positive outbursts will be calmed down as well."
So get your golf game in shape after a five-month layoff, change your on-course demeanor, acknowledge fans, smile, never get mad and know that even the people who still hope things work out for you, like me, don't want you to win. This week.
Eldrick, Eldrick, what a mess. Okay, if it's a real short tap-in, go ahead and make it.