Tiger Woods has fallen from great

I'm painting the Masters in brown azaleas and blue jackets here, but somebody has to say it.

I feel sorry for Tiger Woods.

The odds of many folks agreeing with me are the same as Amen Corner turning atheist, but the feeling is as clear as Tuesday's windblown sky.

I feel sorry for Tiger Woods.

I was sitting in front of him at his annual Masters news conference, watching those circles under his eyes, listening to the heaviness in his voice. And, in searching for words to describe the achingly sullen encounter, I could only come up with one.


He is desperate to win again, to matter again, to be Tiger Woods again and, believe me, it's not a good look.

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After spending the last 18 months feeling sorry for his family and the destruction he wrought upon them, I am now feeling sorry for him and the enduring damage he has done to himself.

Has any sports star's fall from the heavens ever spiraled this far for this long? While other sports villains in this country are eventually forgiven through the healing of time and the power of success, Woods has enjoyed neither, remaining perpetually locked behind the bars of public perception.

Ben Roethlisberger won an AFC championship within a couple of months of being suspended for jerk behavior, and he's a hero again. Michael Vick became the NFL's most exciting quarterback within 15 months of his release from prison, and people are giving him keys to cities.

Woods has gone more than 16 months without winning a tournament, failed in his last 10 major tournament attempts, and has not yet even been given the benefit of the doubt.

Enduring months of public humiliation followed by months of goofy golf, Woods has essentially spent the last year and a half in the sand. He caused it, he deserved it, but at what point does the world get past it? At what point does his game get past it?

"Yeah, yeah, I feel bad for him," Jack Nicklaus said Tuesday. "I feel bad for his family. … I feel bad that he got himself in that position."

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Since the destruction of his marriage and the decapitation of his image in the winter of 2009-10, Woods has appeared in 16 official tournaments with zero wins, only three top-10 finishes, and seemingly nobody really cheering for him to bust out of it.

Can he break Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles? Doubt it. He's 35 and he needs five more major victories to do it and, in the words, of Nicklaus, "That's more than a career for anybody else playing."

Can he tear off his scarlet letter and feel the world's embrace again? In a minute. A victory here would do it. A victory anywhere, accompanied by the sort of real emotion that would cast him as real person dealing with a human condition, would fix everything.

He's certainly capable of that win — his knee seems healed and his new swing is improving. But is he capable of the sort of humanity that could make that win stick?

In Tuesday's news conference, once again, it didn't seem like it. While he wasn't under the microscope of last year's tense and bitter gathering — the first after his five-month sabbatical to deal with his personal issues — he was just as dry and defensive.

I asked how his off-course struggles have affected him on the course. He essentially didn't answer, saying, "Well, I think it's getting back to playing golf, and getting into the rhythm of that."

He was asked the same question in a different way, and again he didn't answer, saying, "Last year was last year and this year is this year."

Even when given a perfect chance to be sentimental, he passed, describing the legendary drive into Augusta National thusly: "Driving down Magnolia Lane is just looking at some trees, really."

This sort of chilly attitude worked when his golf was hot. But now it reeks of the bitterness of an athlete whose best days are gone. His arrogant act used to be sort of cool. Now it just seems callous.

When asked if the world has seen the best of Tiger Woods, he simply and quietly said, "No."

For the sake of the game of golf, I hope he's right. But lots of folks think he's wrong.

When Phil Mickelson was asked if he thought Woods could still break Nicklaus' record of 18 major victories, he said, "I don't have an opinion, no."

When Ian Poulter was asked by the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein of Woods' predicted finish his week, he said, "I don't think he'll finish in the top five."

When Nick Watney was asked to compare Mickelson and Woods, he said, "Phil, obviously, as of late, and Tiger early."

Early, and over? If so, it would mark the single greatest fall in the annals of sports, and, really, who would wish that on anybody?

"You know, I think that we're taught to have forgiveness, and I wish him well," Nicklaus said. "I hope he gets his game back and I hope he comes back and plays well."

Tiger Woods surely doesn't want pity from Nicklaus or me or anyone else. But at this point, it's all anybody can give him, and that may be the most pitiable thing of all.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com twitter.com/billplaschke

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