Tiger's aura gone, probably for good
Oddsmakers didn't take long to make Tiger Woods the Masters favorite. Even his fellow competitors say they can see him trying on another green jacket.
They're expecting the Tiger of old at Augusta National. That might be because it's the only Tiger they know.
I say he'll be lucky to make the cut.
It's not just the five months he has gone without hitting a shot for real, though that surely can't help. Woods will be rusty, and the Masters is not a place to try to fine tune your game.
No, it's because the Woods saga is a story that has morphed into a lot more than just the tale of a man who pretended to be something he wasn't. Once one of the most esteemed athletes in the world, he's now a soap opera-like figure whose last scripted apology clearly showed he has a lot more left to accomplish in his 12-step rehabilitation program.
He'll go to Augusta still stinging from the pasting he's taken from the tabloids and the late-night shows since crashing his SUV Thanksgiving night. He'll go there vulnerable and, for the first time, unsure what kind of reception he'll get.
The media will want to ask him questions. The fans will want him to act contrite.
Kind of hard to swagger down the fairway and say you're sorry at the same time.
Unfortunately for Woods, it's a new game. He will tee it up on No. 1 the Thursday of the Masters with more questions swirling about him than the first time he played there as an amateur 14 years ago.
At least then we knew the answers. The kid was good and there was something about him that screamed greatness.
The aura grew over the years, as did the collection of green jackets. Now it's shattered for good.
The Woods we once knew seemed to enjoy sending his opponents broken and trembling to the scrap heap almost as much as he enjoyed picking up the winner's check.
The Woods we know now - wait! We still don't know who he is, do we?
``We have all put him up on such a pedestal, not only in the golf, but we took for granted the personal side, too,'' golf's No. 2 player Steve Stricker said Wednesday. ``We'll have to wait and see what the golf brings when he comes back. This may fire him up even more and make him even stronger.''
Hard to imagine that. The first glare may come not when he runs in a long putt to get into contention, but when someone screams out the name of mistress No. 5 in his backswing.
Who is going to fear a guy who spent the last two months confessing every failing of his life to a group of strangers?
The questions about Woods and the Masters used to be fairly simple, mostly about the state of his game. They're still fairly simple, but very different: Will Elin be there?
There likely will come a day when Woods' career is examined in two parts, and they likely will look very different. The first, of course, will be the 14 years since he turned pro - when he won 14 major championships, made a billion dollars, and was generally acclaimed as the best player to pick up a 7-iron.
The second may be more notable for what Woods couldn't do. He would have had trouble matching his early success even before he crashed his SUV, but it's even more unlikely now that he can dominate as he did in the past.
And that record of 18 major titles by Jack Nicklaus that he so desperately wanted to break? It might now be out of reach, along with the title that goes with it: greatest golfer ever.
So, welcome back to Augusta, Tiger, and don't mind that tabloid helicopter buzzing overhead. Same thing for those guys going through your trash, hoping they'll find a few old phone numbers.
The Tuesday press conference is standard procedure, so you'll be invited to show up. If you do, don't count on guys wearing green jackets to line the back wall in support as they did for Hootie Johnson when Martha Burk raised the issue of women members a few years back.
And, if you're going to carry through on your plan to treat the game of golf with more respect, make sure caddie Steve Williams packs a Sharpie for all those autographs you're going to sign with a smile.
Don't bother trying to pack your aura for the trip, though.
It's long gone.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org