Fixing Tiger Woods: Let him 'play'

As the Tiger Woods comeback continues to derail, it's safe to say his mission to reinvent himself is, so far, a failure.

The official reason Tiger pulled out of the Players Championship this past weekend is neck spasms. But it's pretty obvious that more than his neck has been bothering him since he reappeared at the Masters last month.

Tiger, who parted ways with his swing coach, Hank Haney, a day after he withdrew from the Players Championship, used to look and act like -- and be -- the world's greatest golfer. But these days, he looks like a prisoner, like someone trapped in a life that doesn't quite fit him.

After seeing him suffer through some uncharacteristic career lows -- withdrawing from a tournament for the first time since 2006 and missing his sixth cut as a professional at Quail Hollow after posting his worst score on U.S. soil -- I'm beginning to think that maybe he should return to being the old Tiger.

I thought getting back to golf might solve a lot of his problems. At the least, I thought it would ease the paparazzi's obsession with him and reduce the frequency of questions being asked about his character. The cardinal rule in sports has always been that all is forgiven as long as you win, which Tiger used to do better than anyone else.

But I was working under the assumption that a rehabilitated Tiger would be just as mentally tough as a philandering Tiger.

That hasn't been the case so far, and it makes me wonder: Is Woods a better golfer when he's juggling numerous women? He was always mentally stronger than his competition on the course. Is there a connection to the way he played hard and chased women even harder when he was off it? Rick Reilly raised the possibility back before the Masters that Tiger's golf game might be affected by the changes in his life. (See his column here.) That could be what's happening.

Don't misunderstand me. What Tiger did to his wife and children is low. And in no way am I suggesting he should resume his role as a cheating husband.

But after everything we've learned about him in the past six months, it's fair to suggest that Tiger shouldn't have been married in the first place. Now, he seems determined to portray himself as a magnanimous, enlightened individual, but the truth is he's just another dominant athlete with a chaotic personal life.

Let's engage in some grown-up talk for a minute. Many of our greatest sports figures spent their free time doing exactly what Tiger did. Some of them behaved worse than Tiger did.

Magic Johnson, the greatest point guard in NBA history and now an ESPN analyst, admitted to Oprah Winfrey that he had sex with four or five women at a time. Wilt Chamberlain, one of the greatest centers in NBA history, infamously claimed he slept with 20,000 women. Michael Jordan, the greatest player in NBA history, reportedly coughed up $168 million in his divorce, which was granted a few months after a judge ruled he didn't have to pay the $5 million an alleged former mistress was seeking in a lawsuit. Lawrence Taylor, arguably the NFL's greatest defensive player, told "60 Minutes" in a 2004 interview that he spent $1,000 a day on prostitutes and once came to a team meeting wearing handcuffs left over from the previous evening's escapades with call girls. Last week, Taylor was charged with third-degree rape and patronizing a prostitute; the accuser was 16 years old.

I'm not condoning, and I'm certainly not championing, their recklessness and irresponsible behavior because their actions weren't without serious consequences. But it's just a fact of life that superstar athletes, like worshipped entertainers, sometimes accumulate women like statistics and championships.

It might be distasteful to some of us, but it's as normal to them as sinking a jump shot or a par-saving putt. It seems to feed their egos. Tiger even mentioned in his initial mea culpa media statement that he had felt "entitled" and so hadn't considered the repercussions of his affairs.

If those other athletes I mentioned had lived and played under the level of scrutiny Tiger faces on a daily basis, their mental resolve might have been weakened, too.

Of course, a great player can be a good family man; just look at Kurt Warner. But when a dominant athlete is suddenly separated from his lifestyle of entitlement, as Tiger was, it shouldn't come as a surprise if he undergoes some withdrawal symptoms.

Look at it this way. Woods survived the death of his father and won the 2008 U.S Open on one knee. But a mysterious car accident in November and constant prying into his private life by the National Enquirer, TMZ and other tabloid-style media outlets have proved to be much more difficult for him to overcome. As mentally tough as Woods is, he seems to be uncomfortable with the idea that people are judging his lifestyle and regarding him as a lousy husband and father. Very few people want to be thought of as a bad guy.

Right now, Woods looks shaken on the course and agitated off it. I can't say I blame him -- the tabloids are just as obsessed with him now as they were six months ago. One of Tiger's alleged women, porn star Joslyn James, has been holding news conferences to coincide with his tournament appearances and reportedly is filming a parody porno (um, aren't they all?) about her sexual experiences with him.

I don't say this lightly; but at this point, a divorce might be the best thing for Woods' golf game. If he is freed from the expectations of being a married man -- which in theory would lessen the judgment of the public -- he might not feel obligated to carry out his promise to be a better man and a more respectful person on the golf course. As a single man, even if he's with a different woman every night of the week, he might not be so universally perceived as a shameless sleazebag. Derek Jeter has been connected to a number of women, and no one thinks of him in those terms. But Jeter isn't married.

And if Tiger is allowed to be who he wants to be in private, maybe he won't appear to be so unbalanced when it's time to perform publicly.

I've always believed that circumstances change but people don't. Tiger's circumstances certainly have changed. Maybe he shouldn't be trying so hard to change himself.

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