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Tiger Woods at the 2011 Masters, and the quest for a dramatic third act in life

Tiger Woods at the 2011 Masters, and the quest for a dramatic third act in life

It's Masters week, which means -- at least for a few days -- we're going to be thrown back into the third act of Tiger Woods' Shakespearean existence.

If it seems like we've been here before, it's because we have. Every major tournament Woods has entered since returning from his self-imposed, soul-searching sabbatical has been framed as the third act in what I like to call the Rise and Fall and Rise of Tiger Woods. Reality is a little trickier than framing though. Even though it may go down as the most fascinating tale in sports history, I can't say just yet whether it's a tragedy or a comedy. It may depend on how the third act plays out.

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The First Act, of course, was his meteoric rise to fame. The beautiful golf game, the beautiful wife and kids, and a virtual empire of endorsements and riches. No one, at least it appeared, better handled the pressures of sports and fame than Tiger Woods. By the time he limped off the course with the U.S. Open trophy in hand after defeating Rocco Mediate in 2008, he was only adding to his own legend.

The Second Act was, of course, the fall. The fire hydrant, the Perkins waitress, the porn stars, the awkward press conference and then the divorce. You know the details. You've heard the jokes. We don't need to rehash them, but it's all part of the narrative. A powerful man undone by his own hubris and insecurities.

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The Third Act, however, we're still in the middle of. The Third Act is supposed to bring us the hero's inevitable redemption. Tiger Woods will -- most likely -- start winning golf tournaments again, and when that happens, a lot of people will believe that balance has been restored to the universe. We'll have the dramatic final act where Woods catches Nicklaus and breaks his record. The world will embrace him once again, and if there is a wedding at the end, we'll look back on much of the second act as a comedy. (That's how it worked with Shakespeare's plays. His comedies, almost by rule, had to end with a wedding. So if you're out there, Future Mrs. Woods, hang tight. There may be an 11-carat ring with your name on it.)

Problem is, this might be tragedy. (In dramatic terms, of course. Real tragedies, we should quickly point out, are what people in Japan are dealing with.) This might not have a redemptive ending. Tiger has never done particularly well playing the underdog, even though that's the role everyone expects him to play now. People keep saying things like, "I really like the fact that he's flying under the radar somewhat. That he's not the favorite. Because he'll feed off all those doubts."

But Tiger Woods is not the U.S. Olympic hockey team in 1980. If you look at it objectively, he's more like the Russians. He's the superpower everyone assumed was invincible. He got rocked on his heels, and is now struggling with doubt, figuring out failure. Tiger Woods was one of the biggest bullies sports had ever seen. Mentally, he had more in common with Mike Tyson than Muhammad Ali. He doesn't feed off doubt. He feeds off an aura of invincibility. And that's gone -- just look at the way Ian Poulter was calling him out this week, saying he won't finish in the Top 5 -- along with his physical advantages.

So many people seem to assume the Third Act will be redemptive, that he'll figure it out at any moment. Sometimes, I'm one of them. I'm a sucker for a good story, after all. But Woods is dealing with a two-way miss and an increasingly average short game. That wouldn't be such a problem if he could still putt the way Yo-Yo Ma plays the cello, but he can't. You can get occasionally hot with the putter when you get older, but once you hit 35, all your best rolls are behind you.

It's been six years since Woods won the Masters. There is a reason for that. Just because Nicklaus won four major championships after the age of 35 doesn't mean Woods will do it as well, something Tiger's biggest supporters can't seem to grasp. Nicklaus didn't have a knee that had to be rebuilt multiple times. Late in his career, he was still a long hitter compared to his peers, which Woods no longer is.

It would be great theater if Woods summoned something deep within himself, figured out his new swing, and had a late career surge that helped him reclaim the throne.

But it's far more realistic that he'll scrape and struggle and tweak and tinker, and that he'll never quite recapture the magic of his youth. Yes, there may be another major or two along the way. It would be stunning if he never won another. But what if, as Shakespeare wrote in Henry VIII, the rest of his career is just "a long farewell to all my greatness?"

What a beautifully sad ending that would be. 

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