Thursday, April 11, 2013

All Eyes Are On Tiger — Well In Striking Distance

When he was Tiger Woods, a golfing phenomenon of this generation, he was so dominant that no one could beat Eldrick. Walking down the first fairway with his caddie Joe LaCava on Thursday afternoon, he was focused on winning his fifth Masters tournament title, beginning his quest for 18 major titles to surpass Jack Nicklaus’ all-time record.

He’s not an amateur athlete playing with the big boys and climbing the leader board at Augusta National Golf Club. He’s Tiger Woods. He’s a big boy. Yet he, too, can sputter and miss the fairway on a poor shot that affects every player’s game. Then again, he can try for his magic number five, after making birdies and blasting perfect shots, up and over the trees, that rested on the green as spectators in the galleries believe in a potential comeback.

If he wins this weekend, after reclaiming his spot as the No. 1 ranked golfer in the world, it would be accurate to say he’s back and our obligation to forgive Woods. If he wins this weekend, which he’s a favorite to don another green jacket come Sunday evening, Woods will reclaim his status in his respective sport on his path to redemption. As the world’s greatest golfer, standing in perfect position to take the lead, Woods can rehabilitate his reputation and his public image with a major victory for the first time since 2008, for the first time since his erotic scandal, for the first time since he allegedly neglected his ill half-brother who is suffering from multiple sclerosis and for the first time since allegations swirled about his use of performance-enhancing drugs.

And now, on this successful day of his career, in what puts him in striking distance for round two of the Masters on Friday, Woods is finally putting fear on players’ faces. Maybe he is back, but he’d have to win a major title before we can actually acknowledge that he’s Tiger. He has emerged from the darkness of a cheating scandal that stunned the golf world and dominated the front page of tabloids for weeks, for months and for nearly a year. He’s trying to contend, as his late father taught him the fundamentals of the game and how to be a competitor throughout his childhood.

Golf is a much better game when Woods is atop the leader board and when he’s playing his best golf, and as usual, he’s the subject of the Masters, simply because he’s the world’s No. 1 golfer and a legend, win or lose. The Tiger Comeback is interesting and fun to watch, and whenever he’s playing and dominating with aplomb, he’s the scariest athlete at Augusta, a place where he has enjoyed his greatest victories and will forever have lifelong memories. As Woods tries to find the smoothest way back to truly being the Tiger he once was, he’s more focused and knows he’s capable of removing the stains of his infidelity with a victory this weekend.

This was a day when he was a golfer from another planet, maybe not from Pluto, but from another galaxy and finished round of two-under 70. This happened on a day when Tianlang Guan, the 14-year-old sensation, shot at 73 in his opening round at the Masters. It’s a moment the China native will remember for years to come, and spectators were amazed by his maturity and poise, even though he’s an amateur. This is a remarkable story for a teenager who, as the youngest player in a major since 1865, is truly thriving and will one day embark on a lifelong pursuit.

And in this moment, after everything he has fulfilled in just the first round to become the topic of discussion all week long, you can sense that he will be around for years to come if he continues to impress viewers with his efforts and magnificent performances. And as nice as the story was, and always will be, Guan defeated Ian Poulter and Hunter Mahan by three strokes and Bubba Watson, the Masters defending champion, by two strokes. The kid to whom we grew to glorify, a confident and well-mannered teenager who was unfazed and stayed calm, beat the rest of the world and made golf popular in China.

The focus of golf, although there are other golfers who have mastered the game just as well as the world’s greatest, has been Woods, nonetheless with endless debates on whether he’d ever overcome adversity to be the central figure of the game and the same golfer he was 10 years ago. If there is going to be any moment in his career that he comes back, like the dominant athlete we once knew, it is going to happen at the Masters and so far he’s hitting the ball admirably. Now, we know all too well that Woods is capable of a fifth green jacket.

He knows he’s capable of beating the best in the world with his dominance, as good as he’s been, and he knows he was splendid in the first round, finishing with a 2-under-par round of 70. He’s not young, or as dominant, still the greatest, once again trying to win his first major in five years, long after he and Elin Nordegren split up, long after he had fallen from grace by cheating on his ex-wife. He’s playing well and he’s in another relationship, dating Olympic skier, Lindsey Vonn.

And while she was looking on and supporting her honey — wearing a soft brace on her surgically repaired right knee — her boyfriend hit six balls and putted each one. He might be more fascinating to watch than he has been in years, especially after putting together a convincing round that he hit 13-of-18 greens, in his 19th Masters. Woods had finally made his first birdie of the day at the par-3 6th, and sunk another one at the par-5 8th, then played Amen Corner in 1 under by birdieing the 13th. After that, he three-putted for his first bogey of the tournament at the 14th green, but then missed the 15th after a solid drive.

And you know Tiger still has it in him. This is about reclamation for Woods, a time when everyone is — yet again — talking about how he’s the hottest player coming into the tournament, in an environment where he’s experienced the greatest achievements.

The reality is that Eldrick just might be back.