If any athlete in any sport deserves the benefit of the doubt based on reputation, it is Eldrick "Tiger" Woods.
Woods, in the midst of his worst season on the PGA Tour, finds himself in danger of being left off the U.S. Ryder Cup team that begins competition Sept. 26 at Gleneagles in Scotland. Perhaps in the place golf was born, Woods can give his career new life by doing America proud. He has earned the right to try, notwithstanding the last six months.
Falling out of the top 10 in the world rankings for the first time since March 2012, Woods stands 71st in Ryder Cup points. He is winless in eight tournaments in 2014, missing the cut in two and withdrawing from two more because of injury. At last week's PGA Championship, Woods winced through consecutive erratic rounds of 74 that hurt fans to watch almost as much as they did for him to play.
Woods' back aches. Yours would too if you carried a sport for the past 15 years.
Yet when Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson announces his three at-large selections Sept. 2, Woods should be one of them — as long as he is healthy. A broken-down body in need of rest is easier to overlook than Woods' overall body of work. Woods has seven weeks to heal his back and hone his game, which he could do by adding a European Tour event or two.
Nine golfers qualified for the U.S. team at the PGA: Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler, Jim Furyk, Jimmy Walker, Phil Mickelson, Matt Kuchar, Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed and Zach Johnson. Now comes the hard part for Watson, who will be second-guessed whatever he decides with Woods.
Here's another opinion: Watson's potential reward is worth the risk when it involves the greatest golfer of his generation, who, at 100 percent, still possesses the potential to play like it on a world stage with the stakes high — especially with the stakes high.
Obviously, that won't happen if Woods continues to miss fairways and greens like a weekend duffer. But if he somehow regains the rhythm that made him a legend, everybody wins. Some golf analysts wonder if Watson can afford to use a captain's pick on Woods.
But with the Americans decided underdogs against the Europeans, can Watson afford not to in case Woods, even for just 18 holes, rediscovers the magic? If you were forming a U.S. Olympic basketball team, wouldn't you still want an aging Kobe Bryant around as an option to hit the final shot in the gold-medal game?
"If Tiger wants to play, I would certainly choose him," Jack Nicklaus concurred recently in a conference call.
Nobody can use Tiger's present to make an argument for Woods. But invoking Tiger's past changes everything. Watson implied as much Monday by telling reporters he would "be a fool not to consider" Woods despite a mountain of statistical evidence stacked against him.
"I don't make this comment loosely. ... He is Tiger Woods," Watson said. "He brings something to the team in a big way. He's a very positive influence on the players."
It came as no surprise that Watson revealed Woods expressed a desire to participate in the biennial match-play competition, in which he has a 4-1-2 singles record and 13-17-3 overall mark.
"I want you to pick me,'' Woods told Watson.
Not everybody does. Paul Azinger, the Ryder Cup captain for the last U.S. victory in 2008, spoke out against the possible selection by telling Golf Channel that seeing Woods now was as difficult as watching "Van Gogh paint by numbers."
"I just don't see how you can pick him at this point," Azinger said. "I think Tiger actually will call Tom and say: 'I want to bail you out of this. I am just not quite ready.' With all due respect to one of the greatest players of all time, I would say you have to pass him up this year."
Woods seems more likely to stop cussing than to start coming up with reasons not to compete. If he understood restraint, he would have pulled out of the PGA after tweaking his back on the practice range. Even if shutting down for the season makes sense, that doesn't sound like the cutthroat competitor America has come to know.
Watson was asked if he believes Woods will tell him the truth about his health, the decisive factor.
"Absolutely," he said. "I trust Tiger to give me the straight skinny. I trust him inherently."
Watson can prove it by adding Woods to the team; not necessarily for the player he is but for the one he was — and still could be in any given round.