Despite everything Woods is athlete of decade

The vote was for athlete of the decade, not husband of the

year.

His greatness on the golf course over the last 10 years was more

than enough to convince U.S. members of The Associated Press that

Tiger Woods deserved the award on Wednesday. His body of work was

simply too large to be erased by the human failings that have been

exposed during the last three weeks.

Role model no longer, he remains one of the great athletes of

our time.

Not without some reservations, of course. There had to be some,

because the revelations of the last few weeks bring everything

Woods has done into question except what he did with a set of clubs

and a little white ball.

It used to be so easy. He used to look so perfect.

That’s all changed, and so has the conversation. It can no

longer stop at the end of 72 holes when Woods is holding yet

another trophy over his head.

We once counted the majors and wondered when he’d be declared

the greatest ever. Now we count his mistresses, and wonder if it

will ever end.

Imagine a world that doesn’t include an early-morning crash into

a tree or a wife smashing car windows with a golf club.

If Woods would have only locked himself in his trophy room or

gone to bed early that night, we might not be having this

conversation. Instead, he would be releasing a statement saying how

happy he was that people recognized his extraordinary talents and

that he hoped to continue to provide entertainment on the course

for years to come.

Now Woods is in seclusion, day 20 of the Tiger-held-hostage saga

that seems to enthrall even people who don’t know the difference

between a 7-iron and a pitching wedge. He won’t surface from his

bunker to even acknowledge the award and he’s on an indefinite

hiatus from golf while he tries to somehow repair his image and his

marriage.

We know now that he’s not what he pretended to be. The carefully

crafted persona was just that, but we fell for the charade because

he seemed so different, so larger than life.

But what he did on the golf course was very real. He took a

niche sport and elevated it to a new status by dominating it so

completely that people couldn’t help but tune in to see what he

might do next.

Woods won major championships by stunning margins, hit shots

that left his fellow competitors in awe, and intimidated anyone who

dared get in his way. He became the first athlete to earn a billion

dollars, and made a lot of the guys who played against him rich,

too.

His putt on the final hole to force a playoff in the 2008 U.S.

Open at Torrey Pines while playing basically on one leg was one of

the great sporting moments, and a lot of Americans paused at work

the next day just to see him finish off the job. Being Tiger Woods,

of course, he did, and the celebration he touched off was muted

only by the sadness the next day when he announced that knee

surgery would keep him out for the rest of the year.

There are a million different numbers that can help explain his

greatness. Fifty-six wins, including 12 major championships, in the

decade compared to 50 wins and five majors for Phil Mickelson and

Vijay Singh combined would be one place to start.

But numbers can’t fully tell this story. To get that you would

have to be listening to the roars on the back nine at Augusta

National or watch the faces of fans lined up 10 deep just to get a

glimpse of him. Better yet, go to any driving range where parents

are trying to teach their kids to be the next Tiger.

Lance Armstrong had a great decade, too, enough to finish second

in the voting. But no one is buying their kids racing bikes for

Christmas so that one day they go out and win the Tour de

France.

Yes, Roger Federer is just as dominant in tennis. Same goes for

Michael Phelps, whom no one pays any attention to unless he’s

swimming for gold in the Olympics or holding a bong at a party.

In a perfect world we would like our athletes to have no flaws.

But we live in a world where even those who masquerade as role

models are very imperfect.

We may never believe anything Woods says again. He may never be

the same player again.

But there is no reason to doubt how great he has been.