Best thing about the Masters? Tiger Woods was overshadowed. He played poorly, yet still finished fourth.

The most amazing thing about him, though few get it, isn’t his dominance, but what he does when not dominant. Because sometimes he wins and always he seems to contend.

His first tournament back, he suffered no meltdowns. He was caught cussing a few times. Big deal. Maybe he served notice he’s not going anywhere (you know aside from sexual addiction rehab). Maybe he told us there are more majors with his name on them.

But if Tiger made a statement, so did the rest of his sport. Between Fred Couples’ almost winning in sneakers, Tom Watson cheating time, Anthony Kim’s swashbuckling 65 and Phil Mickelson’s anti-Tiger victory (because, let’s face it, do you want to be Mickelson for a day because you want to win the Masters or to know what it’s like to share such a fantastic moment with your wife?), Tiger Woods … well, he didn’t really matter.

He brought home the ratings. He had the decency to contend without winning. He played poorly enough and superbly enough to remain interesting and curious. But, after Thursday, he still wasn’t the story.

Score one for refreshing?

It’s easy to forget, but there’s an assumption that goes along with the circus that surrounds and follows Woods. That assumption is he remains the world’s greatest golfer.

This isn’t to suggest he won’t be. On the other hand, we now know what his not being the best might look like. It will look like CBS’s Saturday and Sunday broadcast of the Masters.

It’s not an impossible world to imagine. Really, it’s easy if you try. It’s a more sane world. It’s a world that requires fewer showers.

It’s a world that no longer inanely asks what Woods must do to restore his image, but instead asks what he must do to get his life together. Assuming people care deeply about his personal life at all, because nobody cares about the personal lives of Steve Stricker, Lee Westwood, nor Ian Poulter and they’re the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 players in the world.

It’s a world that only laughs or shakes its head at that silly Nike commercial featuring the voice of Earl Woods while Tiger stands silently. If you must tell the world how sorry you are again, call another press conference.

Having witnessed the Tiger circus ever since he failed to safely exit his driveway, I think of other once-in-a-generation-bigger-than-life athletes. Always, just two come to mind.

Muhammad Ali.

Michael Jordan.

Always, I quickly discard Jordan because he, like Tiger, though the greatest player in his game, required a marketing machine to become the icon he became.

(Bill Russell won more championships, Wilt Chamberlain changed the game, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson saved the game, blah, blah, blah).

Ali stood alone.

In his prime, he hardly endorsed a thing. He was bigger than life because he just was. He spoke his mind. He took stands. One of them, refusing the draft, might have cost him his career.

Ali was the real thing.

Woods became an icon by dominating his sport, by doing it while looking like nobody else ever to dominate his sport, and by Nike telling the world how much he was dominating his sport, not to mention Buick, Gatorade and American Express.

Ali had convictions.

Woods has clients.

Enough, still, perhaps, to win back the world just as long as he’s the world’s greatest golfer. He may do it.

He may not.

Life will go on.

Golf will go on.

Maybe better than before.

Clay Horning 366-3526

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