Despite F Scott Fitzgerald’s assertion to the contrary, there are plenty of second acts in American lives. If truth be told, the star-spangled heartland loves a redemption story and if the redemption involves a celebrity athlete whose life and career were torn apart by scandal, then so much the better.
Tiger Woods was the ultimate American athlete, blessed by talent and fame and wealth. And then, in the aftermath of a car crash in the dead of a Florida night three-and-a-half years ago, he became a pariah, humbled by daily revelations about his private life. His form slumped and his swing fell to pieces.
But now he’s back – back in the hearts and minds of his homeland, back as the number one golfer in the world, back as the most invincible athlete in American sport, back as the favourite for every tournament he enters. As the Masters, the first of the year’s four major championships, reaches its climax, at Augusta National Golf Club on Sunday, it’s a brave – or foolhardy – person who would bet against Tiger winning his 15th major and resuming his charge on overtaking Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18.
Already this year, he has won three times on the PGA tour, brushing aside his rivals with an ease that was eerily familiar. Also familiar to those who pay attention to such things – sponsors, the money men of the PGA tour – are the TV ratings that have been generated by Tiger’s return to the top of golf ’s pile. When Woods won in Florida last month, coverage of his final round attracted five million viewers – the best for a tournament Sunday since 2006.
Redemption indeed. And there has been more from where that came from, not least away from the golf course where Woods, eschewing his obsession with secrecy over his private life, revealed that he is dating the American Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn. American sport now has its very own version of Brangelina.
Woods has been famous since the age of three, when he appeared on American TV whacking golf balls around to the delight of no less an icon than comedian Bob Hope. But if he wins on Sunday, he will ascend to heights reserved for the truly iconic. Peter Kostis, one of America’s most respected television golf analysts, compares Woods to boxer Muhammad Ali.
“Tiger as a human being and as an athlete polarised the nation in very much the same way that Ali did,’’ he says. “When Ali fought, people stopped what they were doing and watched – half of them because they wanted to see him win, the other half because they wanted to see him take a beating. Tiger is the same – half the country is desperate to see him win another major, the other has their fingers crossed that he fails.”
Kostis has watched Tiger develop into one of the most ruthless winners in the history of sport. Unlike those who predicted that the scandal would finish him, he always expected the golfer to return to where he is now.
“Tiger had too much talent and too much competitive spirit and desire to disappear,’’ says Kostis. “Am I saying he will be as dominant as he was in 2000–1 [the period when he won four successive majors]? No. But he could come close – he is that talented, and right now he is that comfortable with himself and with his game.”
As for those who stand between the 37-year-old American and the prize he seeks, all eyes will be on Rory McIlroy, whom Woods supplanted as world number one last month. The Northern Irishman has struggled with his game recently, but he is a mercurial soul whose fortunes can change quickly. The world of sport would like nothing better than to see these two huge talents battling it out over Augusta’s famous back nine come Sunday.
“I don’t think I’m any different from the ordinary television viewer when I say I’m hoping for a showdown between the two rivals – a golfing version of the Ali–Frazier fights of the 1970s. What a spectacle that would be,’’ says Kostis.
As for the winner of such a contest, Europe will be supporting the young lad from Northern Ireland, but the hearts and minds of America lie with their fallen idol. Tiger Woods to win? “I’m not going to make any predictions,’’ says Kostis. “Except to say that the man with the lowest score will win.”
Coverage of the Masters begins on BBC2 on Friday at 5:30pm, Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 6:30pm, on Sky Sports 1 on Saturday at 7:00pm and Sunday at 6:00pm, and on Radio 5 Live on Saturday at 9:00pm and Sunday at 8:00pm
Lawrence Donegan is the author of Four-iron in the Soul, based on his experiences as a caddy