Ever since the scandal that caused Tiger Woods’ carefully crafted public image to collapse like a house of cards, the golfing great has not won a tournament. The longest drought of his career now spans 16 months and 17 events. But if ever there was a tournament for Woods to get his groove back, the Arnold Palmer Invitational would seem to be it. Not only has Woods won the event six times, but the Bay Hill course is a short drive from his Orlando-area home.
Unfortunately for Woods, the home-course advantage did not help in Thursday’s first round. He had trouble making putts and controlling his tee shots in the wind and shot a 1-over-par 73, leaving him seven shots behind the leader. “I didn’t drive the ball very well at all today,” Woods said, expressing a frustration that has become common since his return to golf last April following a five-month attempt at crisis management.
Much has changed in Woods’ world since his victory at the 2009 Australian Masters—an event attended not by his then-wife Elin Nordegren but by one of his alleged former mistresses. Woods, 35, is a divorced father of two. He’s no longer a sought-after commercial pitchman, or the first athlete to come to mind when you hear the term “role model.” He has a new coach, Sean Foley, and he’s working on a new swing aimed at improving his control. Woods hopes the new coach and new swing help him correct the change that probably gnaws at him most: the loss of his world No. 1 ranking.
Woods is currently No. 5. Some now wonder if he’ll break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 Grand Slam titles, an achievement once considered as easy for Woods as slam dunking is for LeBron James. Woods has been stuck on 14 Grand Slam titles since June 2008. To his credit, he remains confident. Asked recently if he thought he would surpass Nicklaus, Woods said, “Absolutely. I believe in myself.”
Golf fans still believe in Woods. He still attracts the biggest crowds at events, and the heckling has virtually stopped. It’s the winning that Woods and his fans want to experience again.
Cecil Harris is the author of three books, including Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis from Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to the Williams Sisters.
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