The Tiger Woods story grows bigger, and juicier

Two years ago, after following Tiger Woods down the fairway for a couple of days at the U.S Open at Oakmont, I confided to friends an observation that seemed too absurd for public consumption.

From the back, the dude looked like Barry Bonds.

His neck was oddly wide. His shoulders were absurdly broad. His biceps were busting out of a tight shirt.

For the first time, he wasn’t just better than everyone else, he was also bigger. He looked not like a technician lining up a tee shot, but a slugger getting loose for batting practice.

He looked weird. He looked stuffed. He looked dirty.

I confided it, but never wrote it, because who would believe it?

Tiger Woods in the same sentence as the most infamous (alleged) steroid user? He was too smart, too scripted, too careful.

Thought so, anyway.

Now I wonder.

The New York Times report this week that links Woods with a doctor who promotes human growth hormone would have been silly two months ago but makes scary sense today.

If a guy is a chronic cheater off the course, what kind of leap is required to believe he could be the same sort of cheater on the course?

That distance is now a mere hop and skip after the newspaper reported that Dr. Anthony Galea is under a joint U.S.-Canadian investigation for providing athletes with performance-enhancing drugs.

One of the athletes who has rehabilitated under Galea’s care is Woods, who allegedly was visited at least four times by the doctor in Woods’ Orlando, Fla., home.

During those times, Woods’ agent claimed the golfer received nothing more than Galea’s groundbreaking platelet-rich plasma therapy for his reconstructed knee.

“The treatment Tiger received is a widely accepted therapy, and to suggest some connection with illegality is recklessly irresponsible,” Mark Steinberg wrote in an e-mail to the Associated Press.

You know what’s really recklessly irresponsible? Dealing with a doctor who has a history of using and prescribing the banned HGH substance, that’s what.

All the healers in the world, the best money can buy, and Woods chooses an eccentric 50-year-old HGH peddler who not only prescribes it to older patients, but says he injects himself five days a week to keep up with a wife who, he says, is 22 years younger?

“If the body is healthy, then your mind and intellect are free to study, to feed your spirit,” Galea told the New York Times in an interview.

Woods has been feeding his spirit quite enough, thank you.

In past cases, from Olympians to major leaguers, nearly anyone involved with a steroid salesman is eventually found to have been using steroids. Yet while the PGA Tour tests for performance-enhancing drugs, no sporting organization has found an acceptable noninvasive test for HGH.

So this story might go nowhere. But its legs have already taken it miles farther than anyone imagined, which marks the true and lasting danger of Woods’ dalliances.

The public thinks, if there’s even a chance he’s guilty of running a harem while married with two young children, there’s a chance he could be guilty of anything.

Once we realize we don’t know him, then we stop trusting him.

And once we stop trusting him, then he becomes vulnerable to people ignoring the amazing flight of his ball and concentrating on the unsettling size of his neck.

The public has already made up its mind about him, and Woods is not getting a mulligan. According to a USA Today/Gallup poll this week, Woods’ favorable rating has fallen to 33% from a poll-record high 88% in 2000.

As the public leaves him, so do advertisers, with global consulting firm Accenture PLC completely dumping him and Gillette pulling his commercials indefinitely.

Then there’s Phil Knight, Nike chairman and Woods’ sponsorship godfather, who told SportsBusiness Journal that he considers Woods’ infidelity issues “a minor blip” in his career.

If all this turns out to be only about infidelity, perhaps he’s right.

But if Woods is also sleeping with HGH, the blip becomes a boom.

Woods won’t just lose all his endorsements -- when was the last time you saw Barry Bonds selling anything? -- but he’ll also lose his last bastion of support, his galleries.

Even those guys wearing plaid pants and fat cigars don’t much tolerate golf cheats. If golf fans go nuts when they think a guy is using a juiced driver, imagine what they’ll think about a juiced body.

And, yeah, it’s fair to openly wonder now whether Woods is juiced.

We freely wonder the same thing about other pro athletes, don’t we? Through all this, the sad reality is that the once-supernatural Tiger Woods has become one of them, nothing special anymore, now perceived as just another jock for hire who will do anything to win.

Yeah, it’s a real shame Tiger Woods’ name is being written in the same sentence as Barry Bonds’.

Or is it the other way around?