A Tiger in retreat

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Two very different thoughts crossed my mind when I heard the cringe-worthy Tiger Woodsvoice message left on the phone of a woman named Jaimee Grubbs. For those of you who have not heard the message, here it is in verse:

A Tiger In RetreatBy Tiger Woods

HeyIt's uhIt's TigerI need you to do me a huge favor.Um.Can youpleaseuhtake your name offyour phone my wife went throughmy phoneandmay becalling you.So if you canpleasetake your name off that.And um.What do you call it?Just have itas a number on the voice mail.Just have it as your telephone number.OK?You got to do this for me.Huge.Quickly.All right.Bye.

Right, I should not be poking fun at another man's panic, especially a man whose golfing talents I have so appreciated and enjoyed. But frankly that gets at my first thought about the voice mail which was: This message is so ludicrous that it is impossible not to mock it. I mean, let's forget about the sadness of Tiger Woods being reduced to this sort of infidelity clumsiness and let's forget about the cosmic hopelessness of counting on a woman who had been on VH1's Tool Academy* to keep this message secret from the world. My real question is this: Did Tiger Woods -- even if he was panicked and not thinking straight -- really think that if this woman changed her VOICE MAIL MESSAGE that he would have a chance to get away with whatever he was hoping to get away with? This is Tiger Woods, for crying out loud, the golfer who can play his way out of any trouble, the businessman who made himself into a virtual billionaire and one of the world's most famous people, the public figure who has kept the world's media locked outside for more than a decade. And this was his grand plan? Get the woman to change her phone message? What then? Tie some shoelaces together? Put the thermometer up to the lamp so that it looked like he had a fever?

*What the hell is VH1's Tool Academy? I keep hearing it repeated again and again that Jaimee Grubbs was on VH1's Tool Academy, but I literally have no idea what it is. Fine, nobody wants to tell me, I'm going to look it up right now ... OK, apparently it's a show where "bad" boyfriends who are "tools" -- thus the name -- are sent by their girlfriends to some sort of charm school run by Trina Dolenz, whose claim to fame (and such words have rarely been used so lightly) was that she was married to Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees for 15 years. If this sounds to you like the sort of reality show they would have as a joke on The Simpsons, yeah, that thought crossed my mind, too. Only I'm not sure even the writers of The Simpsons would come up with a show about bad boyfriends being made good by the ex-wife of the drummer from the Monkees.

Jaimee, according to the show's Web site, was tired of being treated like arm candy by her boyfriend "Shawn," who is -- I swear I am not making ANY of this up -- an underwear designer. Tiger can pick 'em.

I don't know of any way -- I simply do not see any possible way -- that you can NOT make fun of Tiger for this.

But here was my second thought, and I'll admit right off that I'm probably WAY off base here. Nobody I know seems to agree with me, and they are probably right. But I'm going to say it anyway: Look, in general, people seem to be all over the map on the Tiger thing. Some are saying that this absurd scandal may scar Tiger Woods and others say that it will soon blow over. Some say that it may irrevocably alter his public image, while others say that it won't do that at all -- people are forgiving, look at Kobe! Some say that it is disgusting the way the media digs into Tiger's private life (it's nobody's business), while others want more and are busy predicting divorce and rather gleefully quoting a $300 million prenuptial agreement. It's hell to be in the public eye.

There seems to be one overwhelming consensus, though: People believe that it will not affect his golf game. At least that. Tiger Woods, after all, has never let ANYTHING affect his golf game. He has won under the most extreme pressure. He has won while in pain. He has won for a dozen years, and that's already a pretty long stretch of dominance for a golfer. Take a look at this list of the greatest major championship winners (7 or more) and the span during which they won:

Arnold Palmer, 7 championships over 7 years (1958-64)Bobby Jones, 7 championships over 8 years (1923-30)Ben Hogan, 9 championships over 8 years (1946-53)Tom Watson, 8 championships over 9 years (1975-83)Tiger Woods, 14 championships over 12 years (1997-2008)Sam Snead, 7 championships over 13 years (1942-54)Gene Sarazen, 7 championships over 14 years (1922-35)Walter Hagen, 11 championships over 16 years (1914-29)Gary Player, 9 championships over 19 years (1959-78)Jack Nicklaus, 18 championships over 25 years (1962-86)

The point is that you never really know how a golfer will age, but Tiger has already stretched his major championship greatness over a longer period of time than Watson or Palmer or even Hogan. Nothing seems to deter him, and nothing seems to distract him ... not from the ultimate goal of winning 19 professional majors.

And so, yeah, I can understand why people seem so certain that this bit of unpleasantness will not affect his game and will not keep Tiger Woods from winning his major championships. I can see a strong argument that maybe all this, in the end, will make Tiger even MORE focused, if such a thing is possible, and he will simply go to the next level of golf where he will win the Masters, pump his fist and then disappear in a flash of blinding light.

But isn't there another possibility? Tiger Woods has been a carefully constructed golfing machine. He has shown no weaknesses on the golf course or off. He has offered no escape for other golfers. When Tiger Woods' name has been on the leaderboard in the final round -- and his name is ALWAYS on the leaderboard in the final round -- everyone in the field has felt the enormity of his presence. Other golfers have tried too hard, they have breathed too easy, they have taken absurd chances, they have not risked enough, and they have settled for second place. You may or may not believe that one golfer can intimidate others -- people have different views on the subject -- but the continuous story line for a decade has been: "How do you beat Tiger Woods?"

Well, I would tend to agree that Tiger Woods will still play great golf. That would be my prediction. But I don't KNOW this. And, it seems to me, neither does anyone else. After all: Isn't it possible that something changed -- not just for Tiger Woods but for everyone who played against him? I'm not talking about judging Tiger's morality or anything like that... I would probably guess that there are a few glass houses out on the PGA Tour, just like there are a few glass houses in the media, and in the public and so on. I hope I have made it clear that Tiger's indiscretions -- whatever they might be -- don't interest me much. That's for him and his family and the tabloids to deal with.

No, I'm talking about that voice mail. His voice on the voice mail. That, friends, is something that I suspect you have never heard before. That is Tiger Woods sounding scared. That is Tiger Woods seeming unsure, confused, clueless. That is Tiger Woods breaking under the pressure.

That was my second thought -- "Holy cow, Tiger broke." What does that mean? I don't know. Maybe nothing. But everyone around the game seems so sure that it means nothing, everyone assumes even now that Tiger Woods the golfer is so driven, so focused on his goal, so utterly bloodless when it comes to swinging a golf club that he will just move on. And I just don't know. Professional golf is an odd game because you don't play against others, but you do. Nothing else is exactly like it. You play the land, and you can't be the best if someone scores lower. This is obvious, but it's weird; there's a lot going on out there, some of it is wordless, some of it intimidation, some of it confidence, some of it sturdiness, much of it unpredictable. Tom Watson was the best in the world in 1984 and he won once the next dozen years. David Duval won 13 times between 1997 and 2001 and never again. Ian Baker Finch won a British Open and five years later he could not break 80.

I am not saying that this sort of collapse happens to Tiger Woods. I don't believe that for a minute. But why are people so sure that he will be as good or better than ever? Think about it. Why are people so sure that Tiger will feel the same swashbuckling confidence, the same bold certainty, the same withering balance, the same invincible aura? And think about it from the other side. Will other golfers be quite as distracted when they see Tiger Woods on the leaderboard? Will they feel that similar hopelessness when paired with him on a Sunday at a major championship? Will they take hope, the way Rocky Balboa did in Rocky IV, and think: "You see? He's not a machine! He's a man!"

I remember talking with Junior Johnson -- one of my favorite sportsmen ever -- and he was talking about how hitting the wall changes a race car driver. He said: It changes a driver in ways that are hard to explain, hard to predict and hard to understand, even for the driver himself. It also changes the way everyone around feels about the driver.

Well, Tiger Woods hit the wall. He hit the wall hard and he hit it publicly, and perhaps for the first time some of his most intimate feelings and fears and flaws are out there to be examined and talked about and, yes, mocked. His family is at risk. His image is altered. His face is on the cover of tabloids. His life is different. I can't say that it's fair, but then again, that's Tiger Woods' voice on that message, not anyone else's. This is his reality.

I don't want him to fall as a golfer. I root for Tiger Woods, always have, and I have always expected him to break Jack Nicklaus' record, and I have always hoped to be there when he did. I do believe that he has played golf better than any man alive, and it has been thrilling to watch. I would feel sad for him if he did not break the record. That's a lifelong quest -- I root for people to finish lifelong quests.

But he's human. We've all heard that voice. And I'm just imagining a golfer with a one-shot lead over Tiger Woods with two holes remaining, and he's feeling all those nerves, and he's fighting all those inner doubts. And then, he hears that shaky Tiger Woods voice in his mind. And here's the thing: Maybe Tiger Woods will hear that voice, too.