Tiger Woods frowns on the fifth hole at the PGA Championship in Louisville, Ky., where he missed the cut Friday. | David Cannon/Getty Images
Updated: September 11, 2014 6:40AM
The writer Richard Ben Cramer began a brilliant profile of the legend Ted Williams with a simple truth: ‘‘Few men try for best ever, and Ted Williams was one of those.’’
So was Tiger Woods. He not only tried, he got there and stayed there for more than a decade. But as he scuffled around Valhalla and missed the cut at the PGA Championship, it became increasingly obvious that that Tiger Woods exists in memory only.
This is not something to celebrate. Routine excellence is the norm across the spectrum in professional sports; people who play games for a lucrative living are expected to perform at a level to which we ordinary Joes can only aspire. Their feats are why we watch, why we follow so faithfully, why we care (and spend) so much.
True greatness transcends routine excellence, whether it’s Ted Williams with a bat in his hands, Jim Brown with the end zone in his sights or Tiger Woods striding into Sunday’s final round with the tournament in his pocket.
Their flaws away from the arena tend not to matter as we watch and marvel at what they do better than anybody else doing it. Matter not to us, and obviously not to them.
There is another line in Cramer’s 27-year-old Esquire piece that captures Williams and applies to Woods. Teddy Ballgame craved the fame due him for being acknowledged as the world’s greatest hitter (or fisherman) but loathed the vapid celebrity that often accompanies fame in modern culture. It was an impossible reconciliation, or ‘‘a bitch of a line to draw in America’s dust,’’ as Cramer wrote.
Woods burst upon professional golf with a maniacal determination to unseat Jack Nicklaus as the game’s ultimate champion and started collecting major titles almost as routinely as Williams accumulated base hits. Early on, Woods’ handlers (and his father) sought to conceal his ruthless competitiveness within the cloak of a philanthropic family man, and it worked for a while.
But when an SUV, a fire hydrant, a golf club and an irate wife led to the revelation of an appallingly lecherous lifestyle five years ago, Woods’ fall from grace was stunning. Once exposed, a fraudulent image invites more scorn and less forgiveness than a simple bad one; Lance Armstrong and Alex Rodriguez are sports world outcasts, while Mike Tyson trundles on as an object of bizarre fascination.
Woods won 14 major championships in the 11 years before his world crashed, and none since. It seemed only a matter of time before he eclipsed Nicklaus’ record 18 majors, but now it’s an unlikely proposition.
That’s not to say it’s over for him — Tiger won five times last year and took home his 11th PGA Player of the Year award. But majors glory continues to elude him, and major championships are the standard by which greatness in his field is measured.
Golf, moreover, is beginning to resemble tennis with the emergence of so many hungry, gifted international players. Against that backdrop, Woods is no longer the favorite to win any tournament he enters.
Part of his malaise is physical. Woods didn’t strike a golf ball as much as he attacked it, and countless repetitions of a truly vicious swing have taken a toll on his knees, back and shoulders.
Part of it is psychological. Woods has lost faith in his driver, so his wayward bombs leave him vulnerable on any course that requires driving accuracy. At 38, he’s still as trim and strong as an NFL defensive back, but he also seems to have lost his mojo on the greens; those 12-footers he used to drain with laser-like precision too often slide by, and he no longer makes every putt he has to make.
Part of it, too, I think, is shame. He may affect the same king-of-the-world swagger, but in his heart of hearts he knows he was exposed as a figure far removed from his public image. He’s a human being, flawed like the rest of us.
As Woods climbed gingerly into a golf cart after a sore back forced him out of last week’s WGC Bridgestone event, I thought of Gale Sayers and Bobby Orr and Mark Prior and other transcendent athletes who were deprived of being all they could have been because their bodies betrayed them.
Tiger, at least, had a longer run at the top.
I hope he gets back there. Our games are more interesting when the stars are involved. Who was David without Goliath?