Tiger Woods is once again the best golfer in the world. Exactly a year ago, Woods reached the apotheosis of ungracious petulance, kicking a golf club across a tee box and snarling his way around the Augusta National course in Georgia. Twelve months later, he is back in the groove and hot favourite for the Masters.
So what? We always knew Woods was a master of self-belief and willpower. What makes his comeback different from all the other gutsy stories of sportsmen who have dragged themselves back from despair?
The story of the revived Tiger Woods only becomes moving when you understand what came before and, possibly, what may come next. When a sportsman says he has discovered “The New Me”, it is nearly always time to switch off the television and reach for the sickbag. Usually, but not always. If you’ve given up on human nature, it is only a short jump to giving up on sport. The prospect of change, however faint the possibility, rightly draws us in.
First, let’s recall Woods Mk I, the peerless champion with nerves of steel. This sportsman was only reluctantly a member of the human race. When Woods “apologised” after his fall from grace in 2009, he offered the explanation that he was “human” and “not perfect”. The words nearly choked him. Whichever spin doctor wrote the line had obviously never seen the man play golf or interact with people. Some sportsmen affect coldness as a competitive mask. With Woods, it seemed to go all the way to his core, as though humanity was something to be rebutted rather than embraced. Personality was a form of weakness, a flaw to be ironed out of his game like a faulty backswing. Woods aspired to be half god and half machine. He was a grudging genius of willpower and self-control. The irony of his fall was that it was caused by such familiar failings. The man who despised weakness was derailed by it.
Woods Mk II – the phase he has only recently shrugged off – was a baffled man. Justifiably so. The gallery of sycophants had turned into a pack of critics. When Woods was winning, everyone glossed over his surliness and contempt for ordinary life. When Woods’s game went missing, he was suddenly a fair target. The media and public that had once ignored his contemptuousness now delighted in picking apart his swing and his character. Sponsors fled, fans turned up their noses. Fifteen years of pent-up anti-Woods sentiment venomously bubbled up to the surface.
And Woods floundered. The injustice of it seemed to appal him. After all, an elite sportsman cultivates his public image partly by negotiation. He tests out what plays well with the public. “Do you like this? The broad smiles and family-man photo shoots? OK, I can do more of that, no problem.” A sporting persona can be a bit like method acting. First you act the part, then you become it. Woods had probably long started believing his own myths, even drawing strength from them. Suddenly exposed, the cracks in his life found their way into his game. Fraud crept into his putting stroke.
No longer. Enter Woods Mk III. In 2012, Woods was the 35th best putter on the US tour. This year he is number one. Putting is about nerve and self-belief, not athleticism or even technique. Some argue that a single piece of advice from his Ryder Cup partner, Steve Stricker, helped Woods regain the surety of his putting stroke. But it seems deeper than that. Woods is looking happier. He has gone public about his relationship with Lindsey Vonn, the American downhill skier and Olympic gold medallist. Vonn is strikingly different from all the women who were once linked to Woods. She is financially independent, brilliant in her own right, highly respected and physically brave. However good he is under pressure, Woods must yield to his superior when it comes to pure physical courage.
Woods may have stumbled into a relationship with a woman whom he cannot avoid treating as an equal. The idea that his game might be inspired by a loving relationship with a woman he surely respects is not as insane as it initially sounds.
Above all, we can leave to one side the familiar sporting clichés about the triumph of willpower and strength of character. Those qualities never left Woods, even at his lowest ebb in the dark years, when he could scarcely find a fairway and he putted like a flaky journeyman. He never stopped trying or competing. It just wasn’t working. The wonderful aspect of Woods’s comeback is its mystery. Something has simply clicked, perhaps in the man as well as the golfer.
Even the greatest performers can lose their confidence, apparently permanently, only to find it again in the strangest manner. In the middle of his career, Bob Dylan misplaced his creative voice so completely that he decided to retire. In total despair, walking home in the rain one night, Dylan heard a jazz song drifting out of a club. “It was like he was saying, ‘You should do it this way,’” Dylan wrote in his auto - biography, Chronicles. That was the beginning of recovery.
Woods probably never believed in such a thing as voice, the search for an authentic mode of expression. Yet it applies to everyone who performs for a living, whether they believe in it or not. That is why there is something surprisingly moving about Woods’s return to form.
It sounds absurdly naive, doesn’t it, to search for redemption in the story of Tiger Woods? But I can’t help it. Against my better judgement, a part of me wants the new Tiger to surpass the colder triumphs of the old. Don’t bet against it.
Ed Smith is the author of “Luck: What it Means and How it Matters” (Bloomsbury, £16.99)