Golf

I want the old Tiger back

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Robert Lusetich

After more than 20 years of covering everything from election campaigns to the Olympic Games, Robert Lusetich turned his focus to writing about his first love: golf. He is author of Unplayable: An Inside Account of Tiger's Most Tumultuous Season. Follow him on Twitter.

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Apparently, most of you think last week’s charm offensive was a calculated ploy by Tiger Woods to take the edge off the avalanche of anniversary stories as Thanksgiving approaches.

Tiger Woods scandal

ONE YEAR LATER

Thanksgiving 2009 is not a time Tiger will soon forget. We consider the effect on him as we look back at the scandal that rocked Tiger's world.

Congratulations, your prize is in the mail.

What else was he to do? If he figured out nothing else this past year, it’s that going into hiding and hoping the story goes away doesn’t work so well in this relentless age of TMZ and radaronline.

So he tried to get out in front of the story.

Woods wrote a Newsweek essay — well, he supplied the sentiments, which were likely polished in the way that Playboy touches up its centerfolds — appeared on ESPN’s Mike and Mike radio show and started tweeting, all within a 24-hour span.

The knee-jerk reaction among most of my peers was to decry it all as a cynical stunt. Woods, they cried, is a phony.

I disagree.

Each of those acts reveal exactly who he is, just where he’s at a year after his life was deconstructed by a sex scandal, and why from here on out we should only care what he does as a golfer.

The Newsweek piece shows that while he’s trying to reach out to fans, he’s still listening to IMG and that they’re both clinging to the dream of rebuilding the Tiger Woods brand with big sponsors.

Good luck with replacing those 50 rocks a year, fellas.

The radio interview, in which Woods repeated the themes of the essay — a reminder, if any was needed, that this is a guy born "on-message" — revealed that no matter how hard he tries, he truly doesn’t know how to change.

He was as guarded as ever and, as always, communication had to be on his terms.

I have no idea what he’s still protecting, but whatever it is, he’s determined to protect it. Old habits die hard with him.

But the tweets are another matter altogether.

In those lies the real Tiger.

Since last Wednesday, he’s made two entries to his Twitter account.

“The best part about phone interviews is getting to wear shorts.”

This is classic Tiger. I can just hearing him saying the words and laughing. It’s pithy, mildy amusing and trivial. But it’s thoroughly Tiger.

His next entry came after his alma mater, Stanford, beat their old rivals, Cal, in football on Saturday.

“The Axe is back in Palo Alto where it belongs.”

Now this is where Tiger lives. He’s a sports junkie and he loves his teams. Or, more accurately, he loves to gloat when his teams beat your teams.

In other words, he’s like a lot of American men.

“Most people have this conception that he’s different to everybody else but in actual fact, he ain’t,” his caddie, Steve Williams, told me in the middle of 2009.

“People look at him and marvel at how he can execute shots and finish off tournaments and have this incredible ability to win and they think he’s probably got something that nobody else has got when in actual fact, he doesn’t.

“He works harder than anybody else and he has an incredible desire to win.”

I suppose this is the long way to get to the question I pose to those who rant at me about Woods.

What do you want from him?

It’s fascinating how many people can’t give me an answer.

He’s not, as his late father, Earl, tried to tell us, the second coming of Ghandi, Christ or Buddha.

To steal from Monty Python‘s Life of Brian, Woods isn’t the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy.

We all know just how naughty.

But now what?

He’s paid a very high price for his mistakes. A year later, it’s time to move on.

Here’s what I want from Tiger Woods.

I don’t need him to bring peace to the Middle East or resolve the energy crisis or be a role model for my sons.

I just want him to try to scale the mountain again; to try again to be the greatest golfer these eyes have seen.

Because if 2010 has taught me anything, it’s that golf just isn’t the same without him.

And I don’t think I’m alone in that sentiment.

A wire story the other day noted that the average weekend audience for PGA Tour golf telecasts this year fell 21 percent to almost 2.8 million viewers.

Anyone care to guess why?

"Tiger's still a draw when he plays, but frankly until he starts winning again he's just another golfer," Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports and now head of his own sports consulting firm, told Reuters.

"I don't think there's much mileage in Tiger Woods anymore finishing 12 strokes off the pace."

But can he turn it around?

A look at his statistics this season — the only winless year of his career — betrays a disturbing truth hinted at by Pilson.

Tiger Woods devolved into just an average golfer.

He hit barely more than 64 percent of greens in regulation, below Tour average in a category he normally leads. In 2000, his banner year, he hit an ungodly 75.2 percent of greens.

TIGER'S TALE

Look back at some of the women with whom Tiger Woods was linked to before his divorce.

In 2010, the greatest closer in golf history saved his worst for last. For the first time in his career, his final-round scoring average was his highest.

And his total scoring average of 71.07 was three-and-a-half shots a round worse than his 2008 average. That’s 14 strokes per tournament.

He went from the best scrambler on Tour — getting up-and-down close to 70 percent of the time — to worse-than-average at 54.3 percent. One of the best sand players in the game — getting up-and-down out of bunkers about 62 percent of the time — he’s now one of the bottom feeders, at 47 percent.

Most tellingly, the greatest putter in golf -- certainly in clutch situations -- barely stayed ahead of the Tour average in 2010.

Looking to 2011, the real question is whether it was all an anomaly, triggered by the scandal and his subsequent divorce, or whether we’ve seen the best of Tiger Woods?

Arjun Atwal, who this year became the first Indian to win on the PGA Tour and is a frequent Woods practice partner in Orlando, sees a big bounce back coming.

"Mentally, he has changed a lot in the last two months,” Atwal told journalists in India.

“Post-divorce, he is a different person altogether.

“He has had a couple of top 10 finishes and slowly he is getting back to the groove.

“I can bet 2011 will be his year.”

If that’s true, then the signs will come early.

Tiger’s first event next season will be at Torrey Pines, a course he loves and one which he’s won on seven times, including that unforgettable 2008 U.S. Open.

I used to think all he had to do to win there was to show up.

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