Only one Tiger Woods
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Art Spander in Tiger Woods, U.S. Open, articles, golf

By Art Spander

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — It’s always been this way, hasn’t it, a world of stardom — in sports, the theater, even academics. Pavarotti was bigger than any opera in which he appeared.

In golf, it was Tiger Woods. In golf, it still is Tiger Woods.

He earned the recognition, certainly, as did Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. And yet, one could argue, the sport these days belongs to Jordan Spieth or Rory McIlroy.

What’s Tiger done lately, other than being Tiger?

You mean that isn’t enough? Then you don’t understand television. Or newspapers. Or tournament golf. Or celebrity.

Is it fair that ESPN spends so much time on Tiger when, say, he’s in 14th place going into the final round?

Short answer: No. Next question.

So far, heading into this 118th U.S. Open, which starts Thursday at Shinnecock Hills, the stories that haven’t been about Phil Mickelson, runner-up six times but no wins, or about Jordan Spieth, in a putting slump, have been about Woods.

About his return to the Open after missing the last three with his back problems; about the fact it’s been a decade since his last Open (and major) victory, 2008 at Torrey Pines; about his wonderful iron play and erratic putting.

In the NBA, it’s LeBron James, even though Steph Curry and Kevin Durant win titles. In the NFL, it’s Tom Brady, who does win titles. And in tennis it’s Serena Williams, who wins everything and even consents to having a documentary, “Being Serena,” made of her life and game.

Tiger is 42 and hasn’t won a PGA-sanctioned event for five years. And that makes him even more interesting. Can he still do it? Probably; you don’t lose greatness — and if so, when?

This is the last year of Woods’ U.S. Open exemption, an item that’s irrelevant. Somehow, knowing sponsors want a bang for their bucks, meaning good TV ratings, Tiger will be in the field for 2019 — at Pebble Beach, where Woods won in 2000.

For the first years of his career, after he left Stanford, turned pro and turned the game upside down and inside out, winning four majors in succession, breaking records, it was about Tiger’s golf. Then, beginning with the disclosures of infidelity, it became about Tiger’s life, the kids, the back surgeries, the recovery periods, the arrest for a DUI when he was on pain killers.

For nearly a quarter century he’s been on the course and in the headlines, captivating the purists, fascinating the curious, someone whose blend of ethnic background in an almost entirely Caucasian sport and virtually unmatched record of achievement made him unique.

And the manner in which he gained his last major, on a painfully injured knee that had him grimacing as he walked toward that ’08 Open, needing 91 holes to edge Rocco Mediate, was heroic stuff.

There’s been no one like Tiger, and while it’s dangerous to make such a prediction, surely there will never be anyone like Tiger.

So what he accomplishes from now on or fails to accomplish cannot be minimized. He’s not the best golfer these days; he remains the best story any day.

Change is inevitable in sports. Athletes grow older and decline, and while there always will be replacements, people who can hit as far, run as fast, the dynamic may be different.

Not too long ago, when Tiger was struggling, the thought — guilty, your honor — was that Rory McIlroy would be the new Tiger. Didn’t they make commercials together? Didn’t Rory win a few majors?

McIlroy is a fine golfer. So is Spieth. So are Patrick Reed, Jason Day and the others who are champions. What we have come to realize is they are not Tiger Woods. They don’t, as the cliché goes, move the needle.

The guess is that more people are wondering what Woods will do in this U.S. Open than anyone else in the field, wondering if he can find the touch with the putter that helped him to 14 major victories, four behind Nicklaus. 

“In a major,” said Woods about the Open, “the mistakes are magnified, as they should be. I’m looking forward to having the opportunity and having the challenge. Whether there’s any extra pressure, I think that’s just natural there would be.

“I mean, it’s a major championship. There’s only four of these a year.”

And in golf, only one Tiger Woods.

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