While I’m no fan of Gwyneth Paltrow, let’s for a moment apply the concept of one of her less nauseating movies to the life of Tiger Woods.
Let’s assume in this Sliding Doors scenario that Tiger kept his 3-iron in his pants at the peak of his career.
What would his career statistics look like now? Might he long ago have passed the two records he most covets, Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors and Sam Snead’s 82 PGA Tour event wins? What impossible benchmarks might he have set by now?
And the biggest question of all: Does this thought ever cross his mind?
Until that fateful Thanksgiving night in 2009 when Eldrick wrapped his car around a fire hydrant and a conga line of mistresses knocked each other over in the rush to the public confessional, Tiger was invincible.
He had by that stage been the world’s number one golfer for more than nine years, give or take a couple of patches in 2004-05.
He had long since overtaken Greg Norman in the most weeks at No. 1 department.* No record, not Nicklaus’ or Snead’s, looked safe in Tiger’s sights.
More than that, he possessed that coveted psychological edge. Other players were beaten before they even got their putter out.
But in November 2009, we found out he was human after all. And fallible. Oh so fallible.
And therefore beatable.
Tiger hasn’t won a major since, preoccupied at various times by divorce, sex rehabilitation, injury and erratic form. Though he has managed to claw his way back to the world No. 1 position for the past 54 weeks, his record pre-Fornigate and post tells the story of two different golfers.
Next week, the US Masters will tee off at Augusta without him for the first time in 20 years, while he rests up from surgery to a back which, one way and another, has been sorely tested throughout his career.
Even when he’s fit to play, Tiger’s presence no longer intimidates the rising new guard. The Adam Scotts, Rory McIlroys, Jason Days and Patrick Reeds of the golf world are following their own call to greatness. By the end of the tournament, one of a handful of players — the two Aussies among them — could well be the new top dog.
Golfing writer Dan Jenkins declared somewhat prophetically in 2001 that there was little standing between Tiger and the mantle of the greatest golfer of all time. “The only two things that can stop him,” he said, “are injury and a bad marriage.”
Woods, always the over-achiever, pulled the quinella.
He may yet snare Sam Snead’s record, now just three wins out of grasp. But he will never catch the Golden Bear.
So there will forever be a debate about which of them is the greatest, a debate which Tiger, if you’ll pardon the pun, could have put to bed long ago.
* Greg Norman was number one for 331 weeks. Tiger has been number one all up for 677 weeks and counting, though not for much longer, one suspects. The official rankings were introduced in 1986, long after Jack Nicklaus’ best playing days.