Commentary

Time to step away, Tiger Woods

Originally Published: August 9, 2010
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

I was wrong.

Human nature was right. It often is.

In the case of Tiger Woods, I just didn't want to believe he wasn't invincible. I thought returning to golf would normalize Woods, that being surrounded by the greens, familiar country clubs and forgiving fans would be the best medicine for a dominant player dealing with a personal crisis and widespread public scorn.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesMany thought Tiger Woods' going back inside the ropes after his self-imposed exile would help him. Instead, as was the case this past weekend at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, it humiliated him.

But returning to golf after a self-imposed absence didn't normalize Woods. It's humiliated him. It's exposed him. It's turned arguably the most feared athlete in sports into an insecure, timid stranger whose feel for the game has vacated him.

It feels wrong to say this, but at this point the obvious is unavoidable. It was a mistake for Tiger Woods to return to golf this year. He should have waited until he resolved his personal issues, because they appear to be haunting him with every swing.

Tiger has avoided questions about the effect his personal troubles have had on his game, but if you watch defeated Tiger's body language and his frosty back-and-forths with the media, Woods plays like he'd rather be anywhere but the golf course.

Imagine that -- the golf course as Tiger Woods' kryptonite.

Recently, he was asked about his practice habits during his slump, and I was stunned when he admitted that because of spending more time with his children, he was barely practicing.

Take away any person's comfort zone, and it's going to have a dramatic effect on his or her performance. I just mistakenly thought Woods was immune.

Tiger might not have been the best husband in the world, but his wife and children provided sanctuary and support. He's violated that relationship, and it's probably weighed on Tiger in unimaginable ways. No man is going to sleep well at night -- much less play well on the golf course -- knowing he's caused untold damage to his family, especially his children.

We were naive. Most of us believed someone with Tiger's extraordinary mental toughness could overcome anything -- even destroying his family and reputation -- and return to being the same dominating golfer.

We were wrong.

Tiger shot 18 over par at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational this past weekend, and even worse, he appeared to mail it in on a course he's won on seven times. Before this year, "mail it in" and "Tiger" belonged in the same sentence about as much as Albert Haynesworth and Jenny Craig. But this was Tiger's worst outing as a professional, and the truly frightening thing for Woods is that there's no reason to believe things will improve when he plays the PGA Championship this week.

Tiger has impressively pursued becoming the best golfer to ever play, but at this point it's impossible to discern whom or what Tiger is playing for. Is he playing for himself? Is he playing for his family? Is he playing for his sponsors?

The way he's struggling on the course, Tiger looks like he's lost his motivation. So why is he playing at all? Why not shut it down after the PGA Championship and beg out of the Ryder Cup? Why did he commit to playing in Shanghai and Australia in November and in Dubai for a European Tour event next year? Going to a different continent isn't going to solve his problems, as his performance at the Open Championship proved.

As of now, Tiger is expected to qualify for this month's Barclays at Ridgewood Country Club. But he's 119th in the FedEx Cup standings, and only the top 125 make the field. The idea of Tiger not qualifying once seemed absurd. But when Tiger shows up at the course these days, it's hard not to expect the worst. If Tiger is again subpar this week, it's just going to continue to chip away at his increasingly fragile psyche.

If you think Tiger should hang around and continue to prove how average he can be, you haven't heard how tormented he sounds.

Tiger has made the right cosmetic moves to fix things, but maybe it's time he realized that this situation requires more than just superficial changes. He's fired his swing coach. According to numerous reports, the end of his marriage is imminent. He's grown a goatee -- maybe his way of looking tough, even though he's not playing that way.

And since Tiger can't fire himself, he is left with just one option: abandon the rest of the golf schedule before he loses whatever confidence remains. Tiger has been a consummate winner throughout his career, but sometimes losing -- especially if you aren't accustomed to it -- doesn't make people like Tiger toughen up. Sometimes it just makes them more aware of their own inadequacies.

I'm not writing Tiger Woods off. I believe he'll make a comeback and be just as good or better than he was before.

Just not this year.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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