In late March, he won at Bay Hill, Arnold Palmer’s course. Two weeks before that, he won at Doral, Donald Trump’s course. After these victories, Tiger Woods would take two weeks off before teeing it up for the Masters in mid-April, on Bobby Jones’s course at Augusta. A win there would be his fifth. Palmer won the Masters four times, but surpassing Palmer isn’t Tiger’s goal. In fact, he has already done that. Palmer may have made modern professional golf into a sport that is followed by fans who have never set foot inside a country club or even on a golf course; he may be the most popular personality in the history of the game; but Palmer won a mere seven major championships in his career. Tiger Woods has twice that many and has made it his solitary, determined quest to get five more. That would move him ahead of Jack Nicklaus, the only man who has won more majors than he has and who, with six Masters championships, is the only man with more than Palmer and Woods have now.
Tiger Woods, then, needs to win the 2013 Masters to close the gap that separates him from Nicklaus. That gap keeps him from being, unquestionably, the best there ever was.
There was a time, not so long ago, when this would have been considered an occasion of real athletic glory for Woods. He last won a major in 2008. It was a U.S. Open, the toughest of the four major tournaments, and it went to an 18-hole playoff and then to sudden death. Woods played on a bad leg and limped around the course. But he won on the first hole of sudden death, then promptly went in for surgery. “He beat all the rest of us, and did it on one leg,” one of the other tour golfers said.
The Nicklaus record—which once seemed forever secure, like DiMaggio’s streak or Ted Williams’s .400 season—looked vulnerable back then. Once he had rehabbed the leg and shaken the rust off his game, Woods would return, dominate, and win more tournaments, to include those five majors he needed to move beyond Nicklaus.
Then . . . the scandal.
If this is the age of anything in American sport, that thing would be scandal. Michael Vick, the NFL’s most electrifying player, goes to prison for running a dog fighting operation. Barry Bonds and other Hall-of-Fame-caliber baseball players turn out to have accomplished what they did with the help of performance-enhancing drugs. As did Lance Armstrong, who made a second career out of sanctimoniously denying all charges of doping and of going on the attack against his accusers. And then there was the Penn State football scandal, which ruined Coach Joe Paterno’s reputation as a man who did things the right way and revealed him, instead, as someone willing to tolerate the presence of a sexual predator within his program for the sake of winning.
The Woods scandal didn’t result in any jail time or criminal charges or congressional investigations, as did, for instance, the allegations that Roger Clemens had used steroids to retain the hop on his fastball. Woods was revealed as a serial adulterer, so it was just another sex scandal, except for the fact that there were so many women and some of them were of the elegantly trashy breed known as porn stars, and the fact that the thing was in such stark and hypocritical contrast to his image, painstakingly crafted and fiercely defended, as a family man, role model, and, even, racial healer.
Instead, he was just a heel. Another randy jock.
Furthermore, while the scandal did not result in any jail time, Woods was cited for some minor vehicular infractions. He’d tried to get away from his angry wife in his Cadillac Escalade and had run the car off the road, over a fire hydrant, and into a tree not far from his house. His wife followed him and smashed the rear window of the car with a golf club, providing material for many, many jokes on late-night television and elsewhere.
Woods, who had been secure and untouchable and unknowable, was now very much the other thing. He went from being idolized to ridiculed. From Sports Illustrated covers (Sportsman of the Year twice) to endless source material for the National Enquirer.
There was also the considerable financial fallout. He was, according to Forbes, the first athlete to earn a billion dollars. After the scandal, he lost almost all of his high-profile endorsements, Nike being a conspicuous exception. One study estimated shareholder losses from the damage to brands caused by the scandal at between $5 billion and $12 billion.
Then there was the incalculable part that nobody liked to think about and certainly not to joke about, the inevitable divorce and whatever damage the whole thing inflicted on his wife and two very young children.