Top story No. 2: Tiger's crash and fall

by | Senior Writer

If you will pardon what English teachers call a homophone, the end of the 2010 season represented a never-before-seen scene.

Even in his embattled, kryptonite-riddled form of the past season, nobody had ever taken down Tiger Woods in such dramatic, emphatic fashion as did Graeme McDowell on Dec. 5.

McDowell dropped lengthy bombs on the final green in both regulation and the first hole of a sudden-death playoff to wrest the Chevron World Challenge title from Woods, the latter's first and last real chance at winning a tournament in the worst season of his personal and professional life.

"Well, he's been doing it to us for all these years," McDowell said, two weeks later.

Talk about symmetry. Turns out, Hell didn't have a happy ending.

In essence, the seasonal script wrapped the same way it opened for Woods -- in the trees, off the rails, in uncharted territory. McDowell dispatched Woods, who for the first time as a pro blew a four-shot lead after 54 holes and failed to win, providing a crystalline bookend to the former world No. 1's head-turning, stomach-churning season.

Crystalline as in, Woods didn't hoist a single trophy all year for the first time since before puberty. It was quite a paradox of kismet -- everything went right for Graeme, while everything went left for Tiger.

"Pretty much a dream season," McDowell said Dec. 14.

It was nothing but cold sweats and nocturnal nightmares for Woods, who endured a comeuppance for his sex scandal the likes of which have never been seen. Two books detailed his behavior, police issues and extramarital affairs. Numerous porn movies parodied his once seemingly idyllic life. Earlier this month, NBC's Law & Order broadcast a thinly veiled episode about a philandering pro golfer.

During the past 13 months, a new vita item was added to the Hall of Fame résumé of the greatest player ever: disgraced laughingstock.

He lost endorsement deals, most of his intimidating aura, his swing, his putting stroke, his trophy wife, his swing coach, his No. 1 ranking, his Teflon reputation and a large chunk of his self-esteem. The most recognized athlete in the world transformed in a matter of weeks into tabloid fodder that provided a solid year of standup comedy material.

Did you hear Phil Mickelson called Elin Nordegren? He wanted to get some tips on beating Tiger.

In the process, Woods even reinvented how the ever-evolving media covers stories, as traditional outlets relied on saucy and unsourced celebrity websites few in the sports world had heard of before late November 2009. The evolution of his story will be studied in journalism schools for years.

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But mostly, the rules changed for Tiger himself, by his own hand. Ten feet tall and bulletproof, the marketing centerpiece of the PGA Tour, a bastion of credibility and integrity for his first 14 years as a pro, it all disappeared faster than his lead in the final round at the Chevron event.

He posted the worst finishes of his life. He wasted chances at major-championship venues where he had won in dominant fashion earlier in his career. He didn't qualify for the Ryder Cup team on merit. Players made statements that nobody dared whisper just a few months earlier.

Whereas previously nary was heard a discouraging word -- outside of a few verbal landmines set by Steve Ames or Rory Sabbatini along the way -- now players couldn't wait to take on the foundering, incredibly human superstar.

Is there such a word as vincible?

"I would love to face Tiger," Rory McIlroy said a few weeks before the Ryder Cup matches in Wales. "Unless his game rapidly improves, I think anyone on the European team would fancy his chances against him."

If not players on the Solheim Cup team. Heresy? Woods' indomitable air was gone. Veteran Scott Verplank demystified the guy even further in the fall when he spoke frankly to the Golf Channel about Woods' change of face.

"All I know is that the world's a lot different than it used to be," Verplank said. "As talented as Tiger is, I would suspect he's going to find his golf game. But I think his shield of invincibility has been dissolved. I think it's been dissolved some on the golf course, too. I don't think guys are really all that worried about him."

No question, over 2010, Woods became a pedestrian pro. When he teed off shortly after dawn in the final round at the Bridgestone Invitational, fighting mightily not to finish last in the field, fans watching could probably have been tallied on two hands.

The damage was staggering, and not just to Woods himself. TV ratings dropped. Rounds played nationally declined. Attendance at many tour events fell off. Some of it was attributable to an ailing economy, some to the toxicity of the scandal. Those once-ubiquitous hats with the TW logo were few and far between. Fans occasionally taunted him with coarse comments and thinly veiled innuendo.

The Chevron event was a mute testament to Woods' year off the course, too. Network TV ratings on weekend rounds in 2010 were down 20 percent, conceivably because Woods wasn't often in the mix. That hardly can be construed as good news, since the tour is heading into rights-fee negotiations in 2011. The existing contracts with NBC and CBS expire after 2012.

Tiger Woods' collapse at the season-ending Chevron World Challenge was par for the course in a humbling year. (Getty Images)  
Tiger Woods' collapse at the season-ending Chevron World Challenge was par for the course in a humbling year. (Getty Images)  
Yet with Woods leading for the first time all year heading into the final round, the ratings at Chevron, a Silly Season event with a short field, were up by 170 percent from 2009, when some nameless stiff named Jim Furyk won the tournament.

Yeah, Furyk -- the guy who was just named the 2010 PGA Tour Player of the Year. That's the difference Woods makes in terms of eyeballs when he's in the mix: Furyk is the third-best American player of the past decade, but the Nielsens have indisputably proven that millions want to track the travails of Woods most of all.

Of course, perhaps a third of those fans are now rooting against him.

Woods, who never misses anything, claimed he blocked it all out. But those harassing airplane banners overhead at Augusta National were just the beginning of a season filled with off-color comments about his X-rated personal life.

Woods didn't contend on the back nine on Sunday all year, and for a sport that has relied on him as a one-man Pied Piper, that meant the music largely stopped for casual golf fans. Everybody knew for more than a decade that Woods was the primary needle-mover in golf, but once he became a mostly irrelevant player, the gas gauge hovered at perhaps a quarter-tank.

Woods showed signs of emerging from his competitive coma toward the end of the year, with intermittent flashes of competence, if not trademark brilliance. Even after he fell apart in his final round of 2010 and lost to McDowell, he sounded optimistic.

"It was a great week," Woods said, "even though I didn't win."

True or not, let's pause for a moment to reflect on those jarring sentiments.

Over his first 15 years, no other example springs to mind when Woods expressed the tiniest degree of satisfaction in failing to win, especially after blowing a four-shot overnight lead. Again, this was unfamiliar terrain, testament to the degree of damage he has experienced.

Indeed, Woods fought back and reclaimed the lead on the back nine of his final 18 holes of the year, then watched as McDowell dropped the twin lightning bolts on his head, exclamation points that stand as our final mental memories heading into the offseason.

"He'll be fine," swing coach Sean Foley said the following day at PGA Tour Q-school finals. "I am not worried in the least."

Woods' first start of 2011 is expected to come at a familiar venue, Torrey Pines Golf Course outside San Diego, where his track record is nothing short of unprecedented. For goodness sake, he has won six of the past seven times he has played there, including the 2008 U.S. Open title. He has never finished outside the top 10 there as a pro. Another off week to start his 2011 season would represent yet another dent in the armor, which these days seems like it's made of aluminum foil.

Dude needs fresh air, a change of scenery. At some point over the winter, Woods is expected to pull up shop after 14 years in Orlando and move down the coast to a zillion-dollar manse in a town called Jupiter, which seems only fitting.

The guy we had gotten to know over the past two decades now seems like he came from another planet.


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