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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Tiger Woods is a superstar, but he's also proven to be mortal

Tiger Woods reacts on the first green during

Tiger Woods reacts on the first green during the first round for the 2020 US Open at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck on Sept. 17, 2020. Credit: JUSTIN LANE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/JUSTIN LANE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

It was the summer of 2007, and ESPN had airtime to fill. So it concocted a bracket-style elimination tournament designed to determine the "Ultimate Sports Star."

Called "Who’s Now," it widely was mocked, for two reasons. The first was that it was a silly, ill-defined concept. The second was that everyone knew before it started who would win.

Sure enough, Tiger Woods blew out LeBron James in the final round, with 63.8% of the vote. Because after all, who the heck else could be the ultimate sports star?

And this was before Woods’ dramatic, one-legged victory in a playoff in the 2008 U.S. Open, which seemed to forever cement his iconic sports status.

Then, life happened.

Anyone over the age of 10 should know better by now than to think star athletes and other rich, famous people are different from you and me in the end. But Woods’ trajectory over the past dozen years is another reminder.

They stumble, they bumble and they bleed, in Woods’ case most recently in the form of a serious one-vehicle accident in Southern California early Tuesday morning.

The crash required him to be rescued by a fire department emergency crew. He was hospitalized and had surgery for multiple leg fractures.

The cause is not yet known, but there is only one thing that matters in the short term: Woods’ health.

He is 45 and has nothing left to prove on a golf course. He has two children on the cusp of adolescence and has plenty left to do with them. If his injuries preclude him from playing golf competitively again, so be it.

Being alive and in otherwise good health trumps all here.

Ben Hogan suffered multiple, life-threatening injuries in a car crash in 1949, but he was only 36 at the time, and he returned to win six major championships after recovering.

That ship already had sailed for Woods, who won the Masters in 2019 but otherwise has struggled with multiple back injuries and surgeries, which even before Tuesday had made him a question mark for the 2021 Masters.

The only golf that matters now is the kind he plays with his son, Charlie, who turned 12 earlier this month. In December, they played together at the PNC Championship.

"It’s so much fun for me to see him enjoying the game," Woods said then. "That’s the whole idea. Just enjoying it, hitting shots, creating those shots."

Shortly thereafter, Woods had a fifth surgery on his back.

When news of the accident first came on Tuesday, it was impossible not to think about Kobe Bryant, who died 13 months ago in a helicopter crash in Southern California.

But Woods’ injuries are not life-threatening, even if they are career threatening.

If so, it would be the latest setback in a career that seemed destined to achieve heights previously unknown in the sport. In 2009, Woods had won 14 majors, only four away from Jack Nicklaus’ career mark.

Then came that Thanksgiving night, when his SUV ran over a fire hydrant near his home, opening the floodgates to a series of revelations about his active extramarital sex life.

In 2017, he was found asleep behind the wheel of a car in Florida and charged with driving under the influence, which he said was the result of a reaction to medication for his back pain. He pleaded guilty to reckless driving.

None of this seemed possible in 2007, when Woods bestrode the sports world, unchallenged as its top dog.

But "Who’s Now" soon became "Who Was Then," when it turned out the guy was all too human, like the rest of us. Just get well soon.

New York Sports