The past three years have been a long strange trip for Tiger Woods. Once the world’s most feared golfer, his dominance and aura have vanished. It’s difficult to determine which has had the toughest year between the world economy and Tiger Woods’ world ranking. Tiger now has the intimidation factor of Winnie the Pooh’s best friend Tigger and the course demeanor of Eeyore, the donkey.

It was a humiliating week for Tiger Woods. Not only did his caddie of 12 years, Stevie Williams, receive chants in support as he and his golfer Adam Scott walked up the 18th green atop the Bridgestone Invitational leaderboard in Woods’ first tournament back. Oh, and he also earned twice as much as Woods on the week, Swiss watchmaker Tag-Heuer allowed his endorsement deal to expire. And that was before Tiger missed the cut with an abysmal ten-over par performance. It was too bad, because at 35 years old, Tiger Woods is officially racing the clock in pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ majors record.

Very few great athletes have had careers so promising interrupted. Grant Hill was once considered the first in a line of “Next Jordan’s” during the 90’s until an ankle injury stole his athleticism and years from his career. At the time of his 400th home run, Ken Griffey Jr. had a more flawless swing than Tiger himself and was on pace to eclipse Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record before a slew of injuries halted his career. While the anatomy of Tiger Woods’ knee may one day be the showcase exhibit of the fictional Sports Medicine Hall of Fame, there is one athlete whom Tiger should look to emulate.

Not many athletes can identify with Tiger’s fall from Mt. Olympus except an unlikely character. However, if he wants to find a model for comebacks, Tiger should look to Muhammad Ali. Ali’s three year banishment from professional boxing for refusing to fighting in the Vietnam War is similar to Woods’ banishment from leaderboards and endorsements. While Ali refused on moral grounds as a conscientious objector, Woods ignored his conscience while cheating on his wife. The two athletes, their sports and their eras are slightly different but the principle is the same.

While Ali eventually rose from the ashes and clinched the heavyweight title, it appears at times that Tiger may never return to glory. Physically, Woods is still in better shape than 99% of the PGA Tour but mentally, he has trespassed on the Mike Tyson zone. At his peak, Woods’ mental fortitude and will to win were greater traits than his natural talent, swing or his physical conditioning. It’s also what separated him from Sergio Garcia, the Anna Kournikova of golf.

Watching Tiger flail evokes images of Tyson’s plummet from atop the world of heavyweight boxing. Oddly enough, both of their demises were preceded by glimpses into their athletic mortality.

In the late 80’s and a portion of the early 90’s “Iron Mike” Tyson was winning bouts quicker than Woods would later run away with tournaments. He was the baddest man on the planet. It was difficult to find anyone who wanted to square off with Tyson inside a ring until Tyson crossed paths with Buster Douglas on February 11, 1990. Up until that point, Tyson never had to last more than four or five rounds before he’s knock the grease out of his opponent’s jheri curls. However, Douglas exposed Tyson by going the distance with Tyson in Tokyo, Japan.

Finally, in the tenth round of the bout, Douglas caught Tyson off guard with a powerful uppercut that caused Tyson’s knees to buckle, followed by a flurry of bunched that sent Tyson to the canvas for the first time in his career. Referee Octavio Meyran proceeded to count out Tyson who stumbled on his knees. Tyson finally rose to his feet, but his career never recovered. After losing to Douglas, Tyson was convicted of rape in 1992, never won another major fight in his boxing career and became a sideshow. Douglas lost his next bout to an up and comer named Evander Holyfield and retired.

Conversely, it has been nearly three years since Tiger won his last major at the 2008 US Open on a bad knee that would sideline him for six months but Tigers’ troubles first began at the 2009 PGA Championship. Woods began the final round of the major tournament with a 2-stroke lead at 8-under. Usually, Tiger’s red shirt would cause his opponents to wilt down the stretch. What Tyson did with his fists and his demented demeanor, Tiger accomplished with his mystique. Not this time though. On the 14th hole, Woods was overtaken by the Y.E. Yang, who would never surrender.

Prior to the 2009 PGA Championship, Tiger had won every major he led through 54 holes in 14 attempts. That’s all 14 majors for those counting at home. Tiger’s Sunday claws had been sheared. In a weird, cosmic twist Y.E. Yang was Tiger’s Buster Douglas. It was Yang’s first major and his second PGA Tour victory. Yang has not won a PGA tournament since. Neither has Tiger. Three months later, Tiger pristine image came crashing down in a literal fashion.

Tiger had another long major drought that stretched from 2003-2005. During that streak, Tiger tinkered with his swing, putter and switched swing coaches. However, that drought had its differences. Tiger was not yet married, his father, Earl was still in his ear, and he was just entering his prime. Today, Tiger is dealing with strife in his personal life and on the course. This time, Woods’ drought extends to all tournaments and majors. If reports of Tiger’s financial struggles are true, he may have to resort to cameos alongside Tyson in the Hangover 3. Surprisingly, the PGA Tour hasn’t seen an increase in viewership from NASCAR fans tuning in to watch the wreckage.

However, nothing is set in stone. Despite, the bleak outlook, Woods can realistically rebound to challenge Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. Contrary to popular belief, Woods has actually been competitive in tournaments over the past two years but that only occurs after he’s done two things. been allowed to shake off the rust. Then, he re-injures himself, rehab and becomes competitive. Soon after, he’ll cross a black cat and re-injure himself.

Woods was magical on the front nine at this spring’s Masters. Then, he faltered on the back nine and finished fourth. It wasn’t until Woods withdrew from the Wells Fargo Championship, that he disclosed the knee and achilles injuries he’d suffered in the third round of the Masters. It was an injury that forced him to miss half the season.

We’ve lost perspective and remember only his flurry of failures over the past three years. Tiger needs consistency. He is done for 2011. Tigers’ missed cut assured that he would fail to qualify for the FedEx Cup Playoffs. But for the sake of his 2012 season, that may be a hidden blessing. For the next few months, Tiger can focus on re-discovering his putter, finding his swing, finding fairways again and most importantly finding himself. He’ll also be given the opportunity to rest his billion dollar knee.

It’s not commonplace to compare heavyweight boxers with golfers but Ali and Tyson make for great parables. When he does return to the tour Tiger will have a choice to make. For the greatest golfer of our generation, the 2012 PGA Tour season will either be his waterloo or the site of his career resurrection. Tiger can either follow the path of Iron Mike or Ali.
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