Tiger Woods' magic is gone for good

In the emblematic red shirt that has always signified victory, Tiger Woods won the AT&T National on Sunday. With it came another step up the all-time wins list -- past Jack Nicklaus -- and the soaring television ratings that are a reminder of what Woods first meant and still means to golf.

If Tiger Woods isn't back, he can see his return to the top from here.

But this isn't reverential homage to athletic greatness. There are plenty who couldn't wait for Woods to return to dominance after his personal life exploded like a windshield confronted with a speeding 9-iron. This is not to dwell on what led to his fall from grace, but to ask what it could have been like if Woods had lived up to the image he created.

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Tiger Woods has won three tournaments this year. He may return to the top as golfer, but it still won't be the same.

We don't see many athletes fall apart at the height of their fame. Usually, it is when their playing days are over. Pete Rose, Mickey Mantle, Lawrence Taylor, Marion Jones; the list is sad and long. Even Michael Jordan has faced challenges in his move from the court to the boardroom.

But even if Woods continues to dominate the leaderboard, he will never really be back. He has punctured a myth he carefully tended with the help of marketing consultants, agents and public relations executives.

We will tolerate flaws in sports heroes. And for someone as legendary as Woods, it would take more than a prickly demeanor and a reclusiveness worthy of Greta Garbo to keep fans from clamoring for autographs.

His excellence as a golfer is one reason. The mythos of Tiger Woods would have been impossible without it. But don't underestimate the power of what Woods' story meant. As a reluctant hero who emerged triumphant, he embodied so much more than mechanics and wins.

For a decade, Woods was the flesh-and-blood equivalent of a fictional hero, his battlefields confined to rolling greens, the mental composure without narration. Luke Skywalker applying the Force to his putter.

There was his father, Earl, a man of modest means who honed great skill in his son. Every father who takes his son to the ballpark can relate to the emotional heft of that relationship, of wanting something so badly for your child. There was his mother, Kultida, quieter but imbuing her son with the inner calm needed to confront sand traps and crucial 20-foot putts.

Woods wasn't winning just for himself. He claimed a spot for African-Americans like his father when he played at Augusta National and other exclusive courses. He was not the first, but his racial legacy in a sport that began in predominantly white country clubs only enhanced what he meant to the millions who tuned in to see him.

His ability to layer Tiger Woods, the golfer, with these noble themes made him seem larger than life.

Until he was human again.

What has changed? Woods is still his father's son. He still paved a way for thousands of aspiring golfers of color.

But more than his marital status changed in 2010. It was as though kryptonite had been applied. His powers were depleted and the myth punctured, like Achilles felled by a well-placed arrow from the bow of Paris.

The Woods we see winning now is less mythic, having struggled with injuries, losing and issues like child custody and property division.

Tiger Woods will never be back. Not really, not to the way he was the first time around.

Not in the way that makes a parent look into a child's eyes and say, When you grow up, you can be anything you want to be -- like Tiger Woods.

There may be another incarnation for the golfer. Woods is only 36, as he said twice in his news conference after winning the Memorial. It is a very young age to have built a legend and then watch it burn.

There is time to rebuild.

Is Tiger Woods back? Maybe, but the magic of his story is forever changed.

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