For Tiger, A Mission Complete

THE MIDNIGHT MAN

Tiger is back, and the Midnight Man could not be more excited about it. (Credit: Getty Images)

There are two simple truths about American society. First, if you are guilty in the eyes of the media, you will be found guilty in the court of public opinion. Second, the people love a comeback.

Upon the release of a story alleging that Tiger Woods had numerous extramarital affairs, he immediately was found guilty by the American public and has been continually scrutinized ever since. But after almost two-and-a-half-years of personal reflection and growth, as well as overcoming numerous physical battles, Woods’ comeback came full circle yesterday with a victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.

When the National Enquirer published a story alleging Woods’ extramarital affair with nightclub manager Rachel Uchitel on Nov. 25, 2009, no one could have imagined the fallout that would ensure. Many, like me, dismissed the story as just another attempt by the Enquirer to boost sales by making an outrageous claim against the world’s most famous athlete. Yet, just two days later, Woods was involved in an early-morning car accident that the media linked to his marital troubles. In the following weeks, more than a dozen women came forward admitting to having an affair with him.

Woods finally admitted to his infidelity on Dec. 11, 2009, and subsequently took an indefinite break from golf. This news shocked the world and changed his image forever. Those who once loved him began to hate him. Those who already despised him seemed validated in their hatred. And then the skeptics began to ask questions. They wondered how such an extremely private person with a clean-cut image could have done this to his family. More importantly, they asked whether Woods would ever be the same on the golf course.

I cannot give you an answer to the first question – Woods’ alleged infidelities lay with him and him only. But for the past two years, the answer to the latter question has been a resounding no. Woods lost his title as the world’s most marketable man, as Accenture, AT&T, Gatorade, General Motors, Tag Heuer and Gillette dropped him as their spokesman. His wife, Elin, divorced him. He changed swing coaches, from Hank Haney to the young Sean Foley. He fired his long-time caddie, Australian Steve Williams. And on the course, Woods simply couldn’t win. Though there were stretches of play where he looked like the Tiger of old, particularly at the 2010 and 2011 Masters, Woods was not able to do what had seemingly become second-nature to him: win.

But during the past few months, things slowly started to change. At the invite-only Chevron World Challenge, Woods broke through and ended his winless streak. He continued his strong play at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, finishing third in a strong field containing many of the world’s best players. Back in the United States a few weeks later, Woods performed well at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. At the Honda Classic, behind his best final round ever, Woods finished second to Rory McIlroy. It only seemed a matter of time before he once again claimed victory in a PGA Tour-sanctioned event.

Then came the WGC-Cadillac Championship two weeks ago. Entering the fourth round tied for fourth place, analysts and fans expected Woods to make a run up the leader board. But after just 12 holes of mediocre play, he withdrew due to a strained left Achilles tendon. Many wondered whether Tiger had experienced another devastating setback on his long road to recovery.

On Sunday, Woods proved those people wrong, when he completed his comeback with a victory at “The King’s (Arnold Palmer)” tournament.

It is too early to say what Woods’ win really means. On a personal level, I am sure Tiger has to be extremely happy and proud. For a man whose only goal is to win each and every tournament he plays in, that goal has been accomplished. But on a larger scale, Woods’ win could mean two things.

First, the Tiger that we all know and love has finally returned. Though this proclamation may be premature, if you were watching his play this weekend, you realize that the Tiger today is not the Tiger of even three months ago, much less the past two years. He finally has control of his new swing and he seems to have rediscovered his putting stroke. The other players should be concerned – if Tiger has returned to form, expect big things from him this year.

Second, his victory could allow the public to finally forget his past indiscretions and embrace his amazing comeback. For the past two years, the tour, the sport and its fans have severely missed Woods. While Phil and Co. have done a remarkable job of keeping golf relevant, the sport only truly thrives when Tiger plays well. I think Woods’ victory finally will allow the American public to look past his mistakes, move forward and support the 14-time major champion. Like I stated above, America loves a comeback story.

Here’s to hoping America loves and roots for Tiger once again.  I surely am ready to.

Advertisements

The American Golf Revival

BY THE MIDNIGHT MAN

The eccentric Rickie Fowler is one of the bright, young faces of the American golf revival. (Credit: AP)

When the United States lost to Team Europe in the 2010 Ryder Cup, golf analysts simultaneously proclaimed the end of American dominance in golf and the rise of the European player.  And for most of the 2011 season, this prediction rang true. Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke (both from Northern Ireland) won the U.S. and British Opens, respectively. Martin Kaymer (Germany) and Lee Westwood (England) each rose to be the No. 1 player in the world. Luke Donald (England), in addition to ending the season ranked as the No. 1 player in the world, won the PGA Tour Player of the Year award and finished atop the tour’s money list. Despite the rise of a number of young American golfers throughout the season, European players had effectively taken over the sport and seemed poised to strengthen their grip this year.

But after the first two months of the 2012 season, it’s become apparent that any declarations that U.S. golf is dead were premature. Though McIlroy is clearly playing the best golf on tour and Justin Rose (South Africa/England) captured this past week’s World Golf Championship event at Doral, American golf is back and may be headed for a potential revival that could last for decades. With 12 PGA Tour-sanctioned events completed, American players have captured 10 victories, providing proof that an American golf revival is currently underway. Led by the “Lefty” that needs no description, expect a big season from American players, culminating in what promises to be a heated Ryder Cup this fall at the Medinah Country Club in Illinois.

Here are nine other American players to watch for during the 2012 season:

Bill Haas – The son of former PGA player Jay Haas, Bill rose to stardom during the 2011 season, winning at the season-ending Tour Championship as well as capturing the 2011 FedEx Cup Championship and the $10 million prize that accompanies it. Haas has already been victorious this season, winning the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club in a playoff over Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley. With his big game and steady demeanor, look for Haas to win at least one more time and to contend in all four majors this year.

Hunter Mahan – A four-time winner on the PGA Tour, Mahan has started the 2012 season strong, defeating McIlroy in the final of the World Golf Championship – Accenture Match Play Championship. Known for his strong iron play and solid putting stroke, 2012 promises to be a big year for the 10th-ranked player in the world.  Watch for Mahan to compete well all year, especially at the U.S. Open at San Francisco’s beautiful Olympic Club.

Keegan Bradley – A St. John’s University product and nephew of LPGA legend Pat Bradley, Keegan took the PGA Tour by storm as a rookie, claiming  Rookie of the Year honors after winning at the Byron Nelson Championship and the PGA Championship last year. Since the start of the 2012 season, he has been a fixture on the Sunday leader board, finishing in a T-2 at the Northern Trust Open and T-8 at this past week’s WGC-Cadillac Championship. With a big game and steady putter, Bradley likely will contend at all four majors this year and add a few more victories to his resume.

Webb Simpson – Perhaps the hottest player on tour last season, Simpson hopes to continue his strong play this year after rising to sixth in the world. Seemingly in contention every week in 2011, Simpson finished the season with victories at the Wyndham Championship and the Deutsche Bank Championship, leading him to second place finish on the 2011 money list.  While he has started 2012 slowly, expect the clutch Simpson to add at least two more titles to his career total and enter the discussion as America’s top golfer by season’s end.

Johnson Wagner – A relative unknown to those outside the golf world, Wagner is probably more famous for his 70’s porn star mustache than his actual game. However, with a victory at this season’s first full field event, the Sony Open, Wagner has started his 2012 golf campaign well.  Look for this Texan to compete well throughout the year and enter into the Top 50 worldwide by the summer.

Steve Stricker – The veteran from Madison, Wisconsin, Stricker is known as being one of the best putters in the world, if not the best.  A twelve-time winner on the PGA Tour, Stricker is the highest ranked American player at fifth in the world.  Always solid tee to green, Stricker has already won once this year at the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions.  Watch for Stricker to finally capture a major this year, with his best shot coming at this year’s PGA Championship played at Kiawah Island’s majestic Ocean Course.

Bubba Watson – Perhaps golf’s longest hitter (he uses a PINK DRIVER!), Watson may be the PGA Tour’s most eccentric golfer. A firm believer in his own ability, Watson – unlike many of his fellow professionals – does not employ a coach of any sort, choosing instead to coach himself. Though unique, this strategy seems to work well: Watson has won three times on tour, including twice in 2011 (at the Farmers Insurance Open and the Zurich Classic of New Orleans). He’s also started 2012 strong, as witnessed by his second place finish in this past week’s WGC-Cadillac Championship. He’ll likely hoist his fair share of trophies this year, but his unpredictability makes a major victory difficult to envision.

Rickie Fowler – Long believed to be America’s answer to Europe’s McIlroy, crowd favorite Fowler has yet to take the leap from good to great. Blessed with a powerful swing and smooth short game, the debatably well-dressed Fowler (who wears an all orange outfit on Sundays) hopes to make 2012 his official coming-out party. After claiming his first professional win in October’s Kolon Korea Open, the 23-year-old seems ready to assume the throne of best young golfer in America.

Tiger Woods – There isn’t much to say about the world’s most famous golfer. The only question as the 2012 heats up is whether Tiger will add to his 14 majors and be one step closer to breaking Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. Until his withdrawal for Achilles tightness during Sunday’s WGC-Cadillac Championship, Tiger had been playing well, even finishing second (to McIlroy) at the Honda Classic. If the injury is minor, expect Tiger to re-enter the winner’s circle at least twice this year. However, if the injury lingers, the much anticipated “return” of Tiger may have to wait one more season.

*Notable Omissions – Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Nick Watney, Zack Johnson and Brandt Snedeker.