It's OK to root for Tiger Woods again

PARAMUS, N.J. -- Tiger Woods has cried uncle enough. We should let him up now, release the choke hold, quit stomping in his putting line.

No, Tiger isn't big on public acts of contrition. If you require a sobbing confessional on Oprah's couch or an on-his-knees, begging-for-forgiveness plea to the viewing masses, you're barking up the wrong tee.

But Wednesday afternoon, Woods did say it was his fault, again. He did say he's made a ton of mistakes in his life, again. He did say he's going to have to live with those mistakes, again.

The divorce is final, Elin Nordegren has spoken at last, and her former husband has suffered a gaping self-inflicted wound. His famous red shirt has been bloodied enough.

It's OK now to root for Tiger Woods to win golf tournaments, starting with this one right here, The Barclays, the first event of the rest of his so-called life.

Asked at the Ridgewood Country Club if he felt a sense of relief or remorse after making the divorce official Monday, Woods said, "I don't think that's the word. I think it's just more sadness, because ... you don't ever go into a marriage looking to get divorced. That's the thing. That's why it is sad."

Woods destroyed his version of Camelot by bedding more women than Hugh Hefner could count. He took a 2-iron to his own good name, the world's most popular and admired athlete reducing himself to a punch line at a cocktail party.

"I've been through hell," Nordegren told People magazine.

Tiger sent her there, and paid for it in ways no nine-figure settlement could cover. But with the paperwork signed, the children accounted for, and man and ex-wife on the record with their closing thoughts, it's time to remember why we cared about Tiger Woods in the first place.

He plays a game with which only Jack Nicklaus is familiar.

Nobody went to see Woods for a lesson in marital bliss, or a dissertation on parental responsibilities, or a roadmap on how to avoid temptation in nightclubs, casinos, even fast-food joints.

Sports fans were captivated by Tiger's ability to master an impossible game, to destroy the competition in terminator form.

Golf is much better off with Woods in that role, saving the casual fan, the non-diehard, from the Kaymers, Oosthuizens and McDowells in the field.

People get in the sports fan business to watch and appreciate athletes who can extend the boundaries of human achievement: Muhammad Ali. Michael Jordan. Tiger Woods.

Rory McIlroy has a shot to be a transcendent figure someday, but he's got a long par-5 to go from here to there. Woods still has a lot of prime years left in his bag. Everyone who cares about the game should hope he remembers how to make Sunday putts on the back nine of a major, and sooner rather than later.

Woods has five to go to beat Nicklaus' magic number, 18, and suddenly it seems he'll have a devil of a time getting there. Monday, Woods admitted he struggled this summer with his tee-to-green focus, his admission of serial infidelity and the fallout making it almost impossible to keep his eye on the ball.

"It was a lot more difficult than I was letting on," he said.

Way back when, Woods laughed when asked if his engagement to Nordegren, and then his marriage to Nordegren, and then his decision to have children with Norderen might inflate his scores.

"It's always something," he said.

If engagement, marriage and fatherhood didn't hurt his aim, is it possible divorce might help his game?

Next year, maybe. But even during Tiger's pro-am round at The Barclays, one of his playing partners, Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy and co-owner of the Oklahoma City Thunder, offered that Woods "had a lot on his mind."

McClendon called Tiger "one of the greatest rock stars ever," and said he didn't ask Tiger about his divorce because "you wouldn't want to say the wrong thing. ... It wasn't on my conversation list."

Woods put the subject on his own conversation list, agreeing to take questions from reporters about a nightmare of his own design. "My actions led us to this decision," he said. "And I've certainly made a lot of errors in my life and that's something I'm going to have to live with."

Woods didn't commit a felony here. He did what many athletes, celebrities, rock stars and politicians do when fame, fortune, power and hubris conspire with a heavy travel schedule separating figure from spouse.

He did the human thing. He succumbed.

And succumbed and succumbed and succumbed.

This time last year, Woods would've never fathomed his charmed world would end up in so many little pieces. His biggest concern at the 2009 Barclays? One of his pro-am partners repeated a joke Woods told at the expense of the Liberty National course designer, Tom Kite, and Tiger was furious it ended up in the paper.

Those were the good old days, when Woods still had an image to protect at all costs. That image -- Tiger Woods, everybody's all-American -- can never be restored.

But now that the man has been roughed up enough, it's time to let him breathe. Woods appeared genuinely sad and remorseful and ashamed Monday, at least in his own icy way.

And here's the thing: Tiger can still do what we all got so hysterical watching him try to do.

If he can never recapture Camelot, Woods remains capable of chasing down Nicklaus as the greatest champion of all time.

It would still be a hell of a story and achievement, the Tiger passing the Bear, even if Elin isn't present for the congratulatory kiss.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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