Woods isn’t leaving for good, or even for long

Published 7:40 am Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Until two weeks ago, until that moment his SUV went pin-balling down the street out of control, it seemed nothing could stop Tiger Woods.

Even now, after two weeks of a media frenzy over his late-night accident and infidelity, the last thing he is going to do is throw in the towel himself.

Woods isn’t leaving golf for good, or even for very long — at least that’s the guess here. In a statement on his Web site Friday evening, he said, “After much soul searching, I have decided to take an indefinite break from professional golf. I need to focus my attention on being a better husband, father and person.”

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As anyone who’s tried to become better at any one of those things can attest — let alone all of them — it’s a never-ending task.

Although Woods’ statement didn’t provide details about how long that “indefinite break” might last, it seems certain now to extend beyond the San Diego Open at the end of January, when many people expected him to make his 2010 debut. Truth be told, we probably won’t have a real gauge of how long he will be away until the Masters rolls around in April.

As the regular tournament wins have piled up, Woods increasingly has turned his focus toward the majors. If he hasn’t shown up by the Masters, it becomes possible to imagine him letting the rest of the season go. Keep in mind he already has won majors at both Pebble Beach and St. Andrews, the site of next year’s U.S. and British Open, respectively. He might rarely have a better chance at the calendar Grand Slam.

In the days right after the Nov. 27 crash, it seemed premature at best — and silly at worst — to speculate on whether the clamor that forced Woods into exile would endanger the goal he set for himself as a kid: overtaking Jack Nicklaus and his 18 career major victories at the top of the game. The story about Woods taping a list of Nicklaus’ accomplishments and his age at the time to his bedroom wall is well-known. Of all the obstacles we thought might derail that pursuit — even as he beat Nicklaus to every mark — a lack of discipline wouldn’t have made the top 10.

Yet one thing we knew is that the only way to eclipse that total was for Woods to be as good as Nicklaus was for as long as Nicklaus was. Tiger is about to find out how daunting that can be.

Nicklaus was married when he came out on tour during the 1961 season, and Jack II, the oldest of his five kids, was born that September. That means Nicklaus won when there was a growing family at home making demands on his time, that he kept winning after burying the most important influence in his life, his father, Charley, in 1970, and then won some more while trying to grow the Golden Bear brand — 24 years between his first major and his last.

Woods, on the other hand, started out with only as many distractions as he wanted, but he has since lost control over that number. His top priorities now — becoming a better husband, father, and person — are even harder to attain. But as Nicklaus’ example made clear, family and golf are not — and probably cannot be — mutually exclusive.

When a handful of reporters caught up with Nicklaus in Florida earlier this week, he was on a high school basketball court following an awards ceremony. When the subject of Woods’ future came up, Jack was initially uncomfortable saying anything at all.

“It’s none of my business,” he began. “I’ve had no comment at all about it.”

When pressed, Nicklaus said “our public is pretty forgiving at times. Time usually heals all wounds. I think the hardest thing is obviously his family.”

Nicklaus didn’t venture a guess when Woods might return, or even how he would know when the time was right. That’s different for everyone. But the one thing that Nicklaus seemed certain about is that Woods would resume the chase.

“He’s a great athlete,” Nicklaus said. “He’ll figure it out.”

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.