The swoosh-stamped ball rocketed off the face of his three-wood, its 240-yard path bending in the shape of macaroni as it banked around a cypress tree on the right side of the fairway, did a flyby of the Pacific on the left and went wheels-down on the 18th green about 15 feet from the pin last Saturday at Pebble Beach. In the distance Tiger Woods, dressed in a Great Gatsby number—white shoes, white linen pants and a cream sweater—was in turn-back-the-clock mode, flashing a hell-yeah smile that was prehydrant, prestrippers, pre--alleged love child.
Twenty-four hours later, on a Father's Day afternoon, the gallery at the U.S. Open was reminded of the difference between the past and the present. Woods was vulnerable, not invincible, without an encore in his bag for Saturday's round of 66, flailing to finish with a 75 on an unforgiving course that seemed set up with trapdoors. He was razzed, not revered, when a plane circled over him at the third hole, dragging a banner that read TIGER: ARE YOU MY DADDY? The sign was another piece of stock footage in the mockumentary detailing Tiger's pursuit of Jack Nicklaus's 18 major titles. Now pan to the heckler on Thursday: A fan on the 9th tee box, who was apparently annoyed by Woods's snippy "none of your business" response to a pretournament press question about the state of his marriage, yelled out, "It's our business, Tiger. You made it our business!" There was a hiss from the crowd directed at the man, but the heckler shot back, "What? You want this scumbag to win?"
Well, do you? With the British Open three weeks away, with another chance for Tiger to win his 15th major and inch closer to Jack, do you find yourself asking this: Just because the past has to surrender the stage to the present, why does a guy like Tiger have to be the one taking the bow? "I'm torn," says Anne Joyce, a computer consultant from San Diego who followed Woods most of Saturday. "I want to see history, but there will be kind of an ick factor when Tiger breaks the record." The public dissonance over a cad's right to the throne of a beloved figure sounds a lot like the way it was in 2007, the year an inconvenient rumor haunted baseball. Then, another big hitter, who, like Tiger, could fill out a shirt the way oranges stuff a Christmas stocking, was dogged by vitriol as he rounded the bases en route to Hank Aaron's home run record. Respect his accomplishments, Giants fans pleaded. Fraud, opposing spectators raved. The taking of the home run title was viewed as a kind of identity theft, with Barry Bonds assuming the role as a king with a fool's gold crown, replacing an authentic hero in Hammerin' Hank. What should have been a feel-good moment was turned into a joyless slog marked by an are-we-there-yet drudgery.
Every time he played, Bonds, like Tiger, was face-to-face with detractors. They weren't the well-heeled types, with money to pay pilots to haul their messages, but Bonds's foils did possess visual aids of their own—fake syringes made of chicken wire and cardboard cutouts with Magic Marker asterisks. Tiger, like Bonds, has also attained the notoriety that comes with landing on the radar of the feds: Bonds, for whipping up a flaxseed-oil defense for the government; Woods, who is not accused of taking performance-enhancing drugs, for his connection to a Toronto doctor who is known for his magic touch with athletes and charged with ferrying PEDs over the border.
Bonds, like Tiger, can flip the switch on a smile that masks a complex disposition. An ever-changing mood ring, Bonds demanded two lockers and a massage chair in the San Francisco clubhouse and threw his teammates under the bus when it served him. (He intimated that Mark Sweeney was responsible for his failed amphetamines test.) As a loner on the Tour, Woods demands security guards even in secure areas and will throw greenkeepers and Steve Williams off the island when it suits him. (Tiger blamed the bumpy greens for his poor putting on Thursday, then tacitly blamed his caddie for his club selection on a 10th-hole bogey on Sunday.) Neither Bonds nor Woods has been the most accountable guy off the field. Both have had to cope with kiss-and-tell embarrassments, though Tiger is way ahead in the count.
For all their similarities there is one important distinction: Bonds was never confused for a darling in the endorsement game while Tiger once rubbed shoulders with tycoons eager to pay him anything for his seal of approval. How much does it cost to live a lie? Around $30 million last year in lost endorsements for Tiger, according to CNBC last week. But the more telling figure of where Tiger stands with the public is his Q score, which measures a celebrity's appeal. For a decade Tiger was a gimme to make the top of the sports list alongside Michael Jordan, but earlier this month he plunged to No. 25. Who was the Tiger sex scandal good for? Jack Nicklaus. During the period in which Woods's likability quotient fell from 44 to 30, Jack got a Tiger bounce, improving from 29 to 36.
Success usually helps the fallen athlete rise again (see Bryant, Kobe), but Tiger has a more complicated route to redemption: If he adds more major titles, he may lose more ground. Chasing down a golden legend isn't easy for the tarnished. As Bonds could attest, Tiger can't win.
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As Tiger nears Jack's mark, do you ask yourself: Just because the past has to surrender the stage to the present, why does a guy like Tiger have to be the one taking the bow?