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Lazarus: Woods’ lackluster return

­­On the 14th green at Augusta National on Sunday, we saw a new Tiger Woods – a suddenly vulnerable Tiger Woods.

Not vulnerable as the perfect role model superstar, that was already lost. He was vulnerable in his last sanctuary of normality – as a golfer on a golf course.

For the past six months, Tiger Woods (the brand) has been systematically dismantled, banished into hiding and then brought back into the public eye with every word, facial hair and action scripted to perfection.

We heard how he was ready to win again. We heard how he felt a burden had been lifted. We heard how he was more focused than ever. And we believed it.

While we mocked his desperate voicemails to his mistresses and watched his new Nike commercial featuring his late father with either admiration or astonishment, we never doubted his athletic greatness.

This is the savior, after all. A man who does the meaning of the word impossible on a golf course; a man who could orchestrate one of the greatest infidelities of all time one night, and then go shoot a 66 the next day.

We expected to see the Tiger of old on Sunday. On the 14th hole, we saw Happy Gilmore.

Coming off a birdie on 13 to keep him in the hunt, Woods had a short birdie putt to put him within striking range heading into the final four holes of the tournament. The Tiger we knew sinks this putt without fail.

On Sunday, he didn’t. After missing the birdie putt by a few feet, Tiger walked straight up to his ball and nonchalantly tapped in to settle for par.

Except that he missed. Tiger did the unthinkable – he faltered mentally. His stroke was about twice as fast as it needed to be – a clear sign of frustration – and his shot lipped out. Then again, without hesitation, Woods quickly approached his ball, this time sinking the bogey putt.

Squint your eyes and you could almost see Adam Sandler mercilessly hacking away at his ball in Happy Gilmore.

Whatever sense of invincibility Tiger had, he left it on the 14th green. There it was, a man defeated. Half a year of admissions, apologies and a lack of answers had apparently taken its toll.

Sensing his Masters championship slipping away as his birdie putt rolled past the hole, Tiger lost control. Yes, he wears his emotions on his sleeve on the course, slamming clubs and swearing after a bad shot. But then he goes and drills a seven-iron out of the trees within a yard of the pin.

Rushing and missing a gimme par putt? That’s not Tiger, it can’t be Tiger.

Will it be Tiger, though?

It would be foolhardy to extrapolate too much from Tiger’s Masters performance. After a six-month layoff, he still finished tied for fourth in the most signature event of his sport. He responded to his meltdown on 14 by eagling 15. By any stretch of the imagination, Tiger did not play poorly.

It just wasn’t, well, it wasn’t Tiger-like. And that’s the problem. We tune in to watch the greatest golfer in the world dominate his sport in a way no one ever has or ever will. Anything less and we feel shortchanged.

So, did what we witness on the 14th green at Augusta National on April 11, 2010, mark the beginning of the end of Tiger’s stranglehold over the golfing world or will it just be a minor blip in the history books?

Tiger will go on to win more majors. He has too much talent not to win. Yet what the entire golfing world saw on 14 was proof that Tiger was in fact vulnerable. Never before had anyone seen the great Tiger Woods collapse like that and most assumed they probably never would.

Tiger’s biggest strength – the fear he struck in his competitors – is gone.

Mike Lazarus wrote an entire column on the Masters without mentioning Phil Mickelson. Ask him who won the tournament at [email protected]

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