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Tiger now carries substantial baggage

By Monte Poole, The Oakland Tribune –

It all comes roaring back this week, the stunning introduction, the singular attraction, the utterly dominating force, the shocking disintegration, the exposed hedonism — the entire wretched and riveting encyclopedia of Tiger Woods.

(PHOTO: Tiger Woods watches his tee shot on the 7th hole during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, Florida, Sunday, March 25, 2012. )

He returns to the Masters, where 15 years ago Woods announced his presence with bright colors and a brilliant game, conquering the fabled grounds of Augusta National and planting himself firmly on the collective consciousness.

Tiger’s return to the womb of his legend is breathlessly anticipated largely because he arrives with air beneath his feet. After more than two years without an official win and several months fluctuating between marvelous and maddening, he finally put it together last weekend to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational by 5 strokes.

It was enough to reheat debates simmering since that Thanksgiving 2009 night when his walls turned to glass, curtains falling and sheets pulled back, revealing that most of what Woods and his handlers had packaged and sold was fraudulent, calculated and cultivated to maximize profit.

Can Tiger come back? Can he be that Tiger again? Is he back?

It’s not that simple, though. And for Woods it never will be that simple again.

Tiger now carries substantial baggage, most of it self-generated and all of it unwanted. It is permanently affixed to Woods and his image. It stalks him, taking up residence in any space he occupies.

He’d like to focus on golf, and maybe he can. Maybe he can ignore the storm clouds gathering and recapture the magic that once placed him above all others.

But those clouds are formidable. They are unforgiving. They threaten Tiger and, worse, they mock him.

Woods is scheduled to arrive at Augusta National on Sunday, five days after the release of a book written by his former coach, Hank Haney, and two days before the release of a pornographic movie in which three of his alleged former mistresses spend 90 or so minutes kissing and telling.

The timing of these releases is, of course, designed to coincide with the Masters, the patriarch of majors, pompous as hell and proud of it. No one attracts more attention there than Woods.

All these months later — after the succession of tramps waving their alleged trysts with Tiger like winning lottery tickets, his trip to rehab, the family split, the coach split, the caddie split, the hot dog flung toward him at the Fry’ Open — Tiger’s old indiscretions are revived, percolating anew.

If you’re Woods, you had to expect they would. You had to know your old existence, the comfortably shielded sham of a life to which you had become accustomed, is as gone as Elin and the kids and that spurious veneer.

Even on those days when the stark differences, Tiger Past and Tiger Present, don’t smack him in the face, Woods still has to know the unflattering past is lurking.

The golf, then, is but one component of his challenge, the one factor he can control to a reasonable degree. When he tees it up, the books and movies and gossip must stay behind the ropes.

Will that provide enough room to see if at age 36 he can create a new Tiger Woods who can be as ruthlessly efficient as Tiger of old?

The Masters is the ideal place of all for him to reshape and redefine himself. He has won it four times, the first in ’97, when at age 21 he silenced the snooty old south, altering stereotypes and putting an emphatic end to decades of monochrome dominance in this exceedingly difficult game.

Uniquely young and uniquely brown and supremely confident, Tiger submitted a 12-stroke victory that inspired hundreds of millions, notably youngsters and people of color.

Regardless of the outcome next weekend or how many majors he might win in the future, we have seen the last of the Tiger who was transcendent in nearly every conceivable way. He cannot be that young and that fresh again.

He can, however, regain his status as the world’s greatest golfer. Tiger’s influence as a cultural icon has fallen, but he still can make an impact on the course. His primary goal, to win more majors than anyone who ever lived, remains in play.

Woods arrives this week as the favorite, but he must contend with young Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and, always, Phil Mickelson. The field has closed.

It’s Tiger Time, we think. We know for sure this week is an opportune time to see if Tiger can navigate his own personal forest, which will dictate whether he can be magical or has become merely mortal.

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