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Opportunity knocks for Tiger Woods

What a mess.

It's the most concise way to describe the past 18 months for Tiger Woods, a man who, almost three years ago to the day, sank a 12-foot putt on the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open to force a playoff he would eventually win. Replays showed the ball bouncing its way across the afternoon Poa annua greens like a stagecoach heading west, then curling into the right side of the cup as the scene around the 18th green at Torrey Pines exploded in universal joy, that rare moment in sports when even the most cynical of fans found themselves throwing their hands in their air and soaking up the limitless abilities of a golfer for whom history held no equal.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the only man powerful enough to bring down Tiger Woods was none other than Tiger Woods. His announcement Tuesday that he would not be able to play in next week's U.S. Open at Congressional was the latest in a seemingly never-ending parade of self-inflicted failure.

It started with a still unexplained car crash no more than a long bunker shot from his own driveway. Then came the parade of women. The rehab. The public apology. The divorce. And now, the injuries.

Commenting on Woods this week, reigning U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell said "[Tiger's] mental health is one question, and his physical health is now another."

Maybe the two issues shouldn't be separated. In fact, the more one considers Tiger's past, the more it seems a case can be made that his physical setbacks are tied to the very same issue that caused the rest of his life to implode, as well.

For the first 20 years of Woods' life, he was, by every estimation, a geek. It was bad enough that he played golf. But there were also the big round glasses, the pants that never seemed able to keep pace with his skinny legs, and the first name -- Eldrick -- an original creation of his parents who wanted their son's name to begin with "E" (for father Earl) and end in "K" (for mother Kultida).

He arrived at Stanford anxious to make a new name for himself. The only name that stuck was "Urkel," this despite having won three consecutive U.S. Junior Amateur Championships and the first of what would be three straight U.S. Amateurs.

So Tiger soldiered on, hitting golf balls in the pouring rain by day and getting turned down for dates by night, choosing instead to focus on a career goal that he knew would trump the ephemeral popularity of adolescence.

In the middle of 1996, everything changed. Tiger won his final U.S. Amateur that August, signed an eight-figure deal with Nike a few days later and won his first PGA Tour event in October. Popularity followed, and Woods -- despite his father's warning that adoration was coming -- was largely unprepared for it.

In a matter of weeks, he went from Stanford nerd to Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year. Put more simply, Tiger Woods became "cool" without ever knowing how to be cool.

Rather than letting the world see and embrace the real Eldrick "Tiger" Woods -- the wide-eyed, well-mannered kid with terrible vision and a childhood stutter -- Woods looked to the clich├ęd high school memories of what made someone cool and became just that. He learned how to melt reporters with his glare. He hired a caddie to act as his de facto goon. He worked out until he was built like a defensive end. And in doing so, he put his sinewy golf body at risk while alienating a contingent of fans that loved his golf but hated him.

At times, this whole Tiger saga has felt like a bad John Hughes film. A nerd wakes up to find out he rules the school, only to collapse under the weight of his own popularity. Yet that's the heart of the issue. As someone who has written about Tiger extensively and watched him for hours on end, I don't think Tiger's destructive behavior is a result of narcissism as much as he's been undone by the unfulfilled fantasies of his 15-year-old self.

Tiger's not the only example of this. This week, one has to look no further than Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), whose rise and fall parallels Tiger's, right down to the backdrop of blue drapes for his mea culpa. Again, in Weiner, we see a man who, by his own admission, spent his youth being teased for his name and whose Twitter profile pic shows him at 17 with a suede jacket, big hair and an even bigger turtleneck.

But he worked hard and pressed on. He was the youngest person to serve on the New York City Council when he was elected at 27. And, by 1999, he was a bona fide U.S. congressman, spending his days bouncing from one cable news show to another, clenching his jaw, sniping at reporters and racking up Facebook friends in the process.

Where the attention of Woods was harder to get, Weiner made it easy. All a woman had to do was leave a comment on one of his YouTube speeches and a friend request from the congressman himself arrived almost instantly. In doing so, Weiner outed himself as either the most confident man on planet Earth or a gigantic dork who still couldn't believe cute girls wanted to talk to him. I would argue that it's the latter.

The glimmer of hope for golf fans is that although Weiner's career is likely over, Woods still has a chance to salvage his. Will he ever have the same level of fawning adoration he had in 2008? Doubtful. But seeing that it destroyed him the first time around, how can that not be a good thing? And, at just 35, there is still time to repair his knee, fix his life and finally show the sports world the real man he never pretended to be.

Bob Smiley writes for TV and film and chronicled Tiger Woods' 2008 season in the book "Follow the Roar." His first novel is due out next spring. He can be reached by email at BobSmiley77@gmail.com or on Twitter @SmileyBob1.