There was something odd about the scene Thursday morning in Abu Dhabi. The defending U.S. Open champion, a 22-year-old rising star with charisma to burn, walked the fairways, chatting with an older player sporting one tour win in the last two-plus years. One of these men was Rory McIlroy. The other was Tiger Woods.
Woods began his 2012 season on the right foot, shooting a 70 at the HSBC Championship. In fact, he looked a lot like the Tiger of old as he hit 17 of 18 greens in regulation. Unfortunately, he looked like the Tiger of recent once on the green, needing 34 putts to get to the clubhouse.
The juxtaposition with McIlroy made it almost impossible to ignore the fact that the days of Woods' dominance are now but a distant memory. At 36 and dealing with myriad injuries, the chance of him catching Jack Nicklaus' all-time record of 18 majors dissipates by the moment. As of now, he's four shy. And while it may have seemed blasphemous to say even a few years ago, it's hard to imagine him becoming a consistent threat to win the big tournaments.
That car accident outside Woods' Florida home set in motion an unbelievable set of events. It's sort of a reverse fairy tale. A bizarro Disney script. In the days and months, and, yes, even year after that event, the media monitoring of golf's former golden boy was immense. Now? Not so much.
You hear things. Tiger has a new swing. Tiger has a new caddy. This is a tournament Tiger's won before. And so on.
But let me ask you this: Do you still care about him?
God, it seems crazy to even ask that. There's validity, though. He no longer holds that special place atop the sporting food chain. He's been relegated down the flow chart.
My answer, much to my surprise, is yes. When he was winning like clockwork, I never appreciated his brilliance. When a player or team is that good, it's human nature to take that greatness for granted. The moment he disappeared from the Sunday leaderboards, however, there was a hollow feeling.
Golf is just more exciting when Woods is involved. He's a polarizing figure. One side is rooting for him to win, the other wants to see him choke. The common thread is that they want to see him.
It's enticing to see an athlete who's accomplished so much face a seemingly monumental challenge. I believe between the injuries, the time away from the links and all the mental obstacles, a return to greatness would be Woods' greatest accomplishment.
There was something weird with the pairing on Thursday, alright. After so many years of finding Woods, the spotlight didn't know where to shine.