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Quietly Number One

Does it seem to you, that at some obscure hour, sometime during the past five years, the NBA season went year-round? We were never told, no one reported it, but now the merciless truth lies on the dinner table like a bleeding pig. The NBA season never ends. Playoffs go to June, then training camps open. And again. Without end.

Thought you'd want to know.

Tiger Woods has become one of the best players on the PGA Tour. He's come a long way down Golf Mountain from where he used to live, high up there above the brume, where money grows on trees. It says something about where Woods was, that while his decline is significant and unmistakable, he's still the number-one-rated player on the PGA Tour, with three tournament victories this year, including a Masters victory, and winnings of $3.8 million.

Last week, Woods missed the cut at the Byron Nelson Championship. Of course, he made the cut in 142 previous tournaments, spread out over seven years; in fact, he's only missed the cut three times in his entire career. Still, one is always unpleasantly surprised when called upon to witness mortality.

One of the hardest roles in sports is being a frontrunner. We have the wolf in us, a gene that makes us want to run with the pack. When two or more humans compete in sports, the wolf-pack gene makes the less talented play better and the more talented play worse, each competitor unconsciously reaching for middle ground. That's what impressed me most about Tiger in his glory years: not his victories, but the margin of his victories.

He won the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes. He won the 2000 British Open by 8 strokes. He won the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 strokes. He competed against the best professional golfers on earth and stomped the manhood out of them. And smiled.

Some recite Woods's stats as if to prove nothing has changed. Woods has 43 PGA Tour wins. There are four Masters Tournament victories in there. He's 29 years old and has won nine majors. Jack Nicholson didn't win nine majors until he was 31. And so on.

But that was another life. Marking from this year's Masters, it's been two and a half years since Woods last won a major. Nowadays, he plays golf like someone who doesn't diligently practice. He's brilliant for a few holes, awful for a few shots. Tiger's brilliant is good enough, so his round of golf ends up under par. On most days. He won the 2005 Masters by one stroke after being forced into a playoff by not-a-household-name Chris DiMarco. Woods did the forcing; he bogied the last two holes of regulation play. That never happened before.

I don't think the constant reconstruction of his swing is to blame for his drop in play, a fall that brings him down to being the best among many. Frankly, I don't think that has anything to do with it. He's newly married to a movie-star beautiful, 24-year-old Swede. He bought a three-story, 155-foot yacht, named her Privacy, and my guess is, he's decided to have a life and be one of the best golfers in the world instead of living alone and playing golf in a place where only he can compete. Being best or close to it is good enough.

He has money, he has a $105-million-dollar contract with Nike that expires next year. By the way, his first contract with Nike was worth $40 million and expired in 2001. He gets more millions from American Express, Accenture, General Motors, Electronic Arts, and I'll stop here. The money comes out to $80, $100 million a year. You can get by on that.

I think what he's telling us is that he doesn't want to be a god anymore. He doesn't want the heat of that much publicity or to continue being on the business end of that much human fantasy. I think he wants to be the best or near the best and have the rest of us leave him alone. That could never happen if he kept flying as close to the sun as he did in the late 1990s. If he kept doing that, I'm not sure we'd allow him to live.

But it was one king-hell of a run. Tiger Woods was, at one time, the Annika Sorenstam of the PGA Tour.

Annika Sorenstam, 34, is the new Tiger Woods. She won last week's Chick-fil-A Charity Championship, which despite its lame name, is a highly regarded tournament, this year fielding the top ten LPGA 2004 money winners, plus every LPGA 2004 tournament winner, plus every active member of the LPGA Hall of Fame -- in other words, the best players in the Republic of LPGA. Sorenstam won by ten strokes. That makes 60 tournament victories. She's won 8 out of the last 11 tournaments she's entered. That's impossible.

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Does it seem to you, that at some obscure hour, sometime during the past five years, the NBA season went year-round? We were never told, no one reported it, but now the merciless truth lies on the dinner table like a bleeding pig. The NBA season never ends. Playoffs go to June, then training camps open. And again. Without end.

Thought you'd want to know.

Tiger Woods has become one of the best players on the PGA Tour. He's come a long way down Golf Mountain from where he used to live, high up there above the brume, where money grows on trees. It says something about where Woods was, that while his decline is significant and unmistakable, he's still the number-one-rated player on the PGA Tour, with three tournament victories this year, including a Masters victory, and winnings of $3.8 million.

Last week, Woods missed the cut at the Byron Nelson Championship. Of course, he made the cut in 142 previous tournaments, spread out over seven years; in fact, he's only missed the cut three times in his entire career. Still, one is always unpleasantly surprised when called upon to witness mortality.

One of the hardest roles in sports is being a frontrunner. We have the wolf in us, a gene that makes us want to run with the pack. When two or more humans compete in sports, the wolf-pack gene makes the less talented play better and the more talented play worse, each competitor unconsciously reaching for middle ground. That's what impressed me most about Tiger in his glory years: not his victories, but the margin of his victories.

He won the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes. He won the 2000 British Open by 8 strokes. He won the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 strokes. He competed against the best professional golfers on earth and stomped the manhood out of them. And smiled.

Some recite Woods's stats as if to prove nothing has changed. Woods has 43 PGA Tour wins. There are four Masters Tournament victories in there. He's 29 years old and has won nine majors. Jack Nicholson didn't win nine majors until he was 31. And so on.

But that was another life. Marking from this year's Masters, it's been two and a half years since Woods last won a major. Nowadays, he plays golf like someone who doesn't diligently practice. He's brilliant for a few holes, awful for a few shots. Tiger's brilliant is good enough, so his round of golf ends up under par. On most days. He won the 2005 Masters by one stroke after being forced into a playoff by not-a-household-name Chris DiMarco. Woods did the forcing; he bogied the last two holes of regulation play. That never happened before.

I don't think the constant reconstruction of his swing is to blame for his drop in play, a fall that brings him down to being the best among many. Frankly, I don't think that has anything to do with it. He's newly married to a movie-star beautiful, 24-year-old Swede. He bought a three-story, 155-foot yacht, named her Privacy, and my guess is, he's decided to have a life and be one of the best golfers in the world instead of living alone and playing golf in a place where only he can compete. Being best or close to it is good enough.

He has money, he has a $105-million-dollar contract with Nike that expires next year. By the way, his first contract with Nike was worth $40 million and expired in 2001. He gets more millions from American Express, Accenture, General Motors, Electronic Arts, and I'll stop here. The money comes out to $80, $100 million a year. You can get by on that.

I think what he's telling us is that he doesn't want to be a god anymore. He doesn't want the heat of that much publicity or to continue being on the business end of that much human fantasy. I think he wants to be the best or near the best and have the rest of us leave him alone. That could never happen if he kept flying as close to the sun as he did in the late 1990s. If he kept doing that, I'm not sure we'd allow him to live.

But it was one king-hell of a run. Tiger Woods was, at one time, the Annika Sorenstam of the PGA Tour.

Annika Sorenstam, 34, is the new Tiger Woods. She won last week's Chick-fil-A Charity Championship, which despite its lame name, is a highly regarded tournament, this year fielding the top ten LPGA 2004 money winners, plus every LPGA 2004 tournament winner, plus every active member of the LPGA Hall of Fame -- in other words, the best players in the Republic of LPGA. Sorenstam won by ten strokes. That makes 60 tournament victories. She's won 8 out of the last 11 tournaments she's entered. That's impossible.

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