There is no such thing as a sure thing. For the first time since I began covering Tiger Woods at the 1997 Masters Tournament, the universal plot of that cliche rings true. All of the presumed milestones no longer seem preordained in the wake of the tabloid scandal that has realigned the world of the world's undisputed No. 1 golfer.
There is no sure thing.
For all of his gifts, Woods' greatest weapon in his arsenal of dominance has been his will. His mental strength has steered him clear of every obstacle thrown his way -- including countless assumed and discarded rivals.
Two swing changes didn't stunt him. Three surgeries barely slowed him down. Marriage and fatherhood had no immediate affect on his win rate. His father's death fueled another gear after a brief mourning. The presumed weight of unprecedented expectations couldn't deter his mission to win his Tiger Slam.
Nothing seemed to rattle him. He won the 2008 U.S. Open on basically one leg. He erased the doubts about what effect reconstructive knee surgery would have on him by winning seven times worldwide this year and leaving peers in his dust in another FedEx Cup, money title and PGA Tour Player of the Year campaign. His dominion over his chosen sport is so dominant that his quests to own every record have been almost universally presumed. Even Jack Nicklaus, the man whose 18 career majors give him a tenuous hold on the only accepted statistical claim to superiority, has repeatedly said he expects Woods to surpass his standards.
Nicklaus only offers one qualifier: "Unless he gets hurt."
Now we have a wounded Tiger, but the injuries aren't at all what we expected. The run-of-the-mill bumps, bruises and breaks have been inconsequential. This self-inflicted trauma, however, might cut Woods much deeper than anything he's ever experienced.
This sordid situation has clearly caught Woods off stride. Unlike all of his previous challenges, this was something he seemed utterly unprepared for. You need only listen to him in that disturbing voicemail to his alleged mistress to tell just how out of sorts this ordeal has made his previously charmed life.
We've never heard that voice from him. It was desperate. It was stammering. It was confused. It was scared.
All we've heard from Woods in the 14 years he's lorded over the international scene is cocksure confidence. We've heard him angry. We've heard him disappointed. But we've never heard him anything less than unwavering.
To be reduced to that desperately frightened voice pleading for help in a crisis is anathema to every bit of the invincible image Woods has so carefully created. It has rocked his world like nothing before, and he has only himself to blame.
Who can say this new Woods will be the same force of will when he resurfaces in the public eye? Who can say that that voice won't be the one in his head when the pressure of winning a major championship presents itself? Who can say that that voice won't be the one his opponents hear when they try to stand up to him?
For a sport in which one person can't physically do anything to impede an opponent, Woods has nevertheless been able to dominate.
Players can claim all they want that Woods doesn't intimidate them, but his presence on a leaderboard is palpable. It throbs in the subconscious of everyone. It messes with the internal chemistry that lets players pull off shots under pressure.
Woods thrives in that situation. Most others don't.
Will it be the same? This is supposed to be a big year in Woods' career quest. The majors set up for him perfectly in 2010 with the first three played on courses -- Augusta National, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews -- where he has won multiple times.
Even the most cynical skeptics all but assumed that Woods would impose his will on at least two of them if not sweep up another grand slam. This is supposed to be the year that pulls him within range -- if not even -- with Nicklaus.
Woods still might. I mean, nothing has stopped him before. Not pain. Not pressure. Not other mere mortals.
Like many others, a very rational part of me believes Woods will conquer this challenge as he has everything else. Why not? He always has. His skills are simply too good to fail for long.
But another equally rational side wonders if we've already seen the best this man has to offer. That this personal life crisis has diminished him in ways we can't begin to understand. That this is the unforeseen injury Nicklaus always warned about. Personally, I hope not. Personally I hope that Tiger can pick up the pieces of his family life and put it back together. I hope that he can maintain that otherworldly focus and drive to be the greatest champion we've ever seen. I hope that he can continue to inspire awe on the golf course with his indomitable will. But I don't know. Scandal never seemed to diminish Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant or countless other superstars in other sports. But they play games in an atmosphere of controlled chaos where the body works off adrenaline and instinct.
How will Woods be able to handle those still moments -- shot after shot, round after round -- when he is standing over the ball with thousands of people around him staring in silence and quietly judging the man before them? Will he seem as enormous as he once did?
We aren't sure anymore. In the era of Tiger Woods, not knowing has never been a problem before.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
CADDIE BACKS WOODS
Tiger Woods' caddie, Steve Williams, said Saturday he supports his boss. He refused to discuss Woods' private life, although he said the golfer had confided in him.
"That's what friends are for," he told the New Zealand Herald. "You support them through good and bad. It's like marriage, really."
Williams also told the newspaper he expected to carry Woods' bag in San Diego the last week in January.