James Lawton: Is Rory McIlroy's fun over now Tiger Woods is back?
With the highest respect to the extremely creditable mice who have been growing more sturdily competitive and so much wealthier over the last two years, we have to note this morning that the cat, or rather the Tiger, is back.
This is not to insult or in any way diminish the superb consistency of world No 1 Luke Donald, the brilliant opportunism of young Rory McIlroy in winning the US Open or the enduring quality of Lee Westwood's game. It is just to say that The Man has indeed returned and who among all those who celebrate the quality of a supreme champion, a man who can still quicken the blood simply by appearing on the first tee, can have the smallest touch of regret?
From this category we probably have to exclude all those who rose up with such moral indignation when the private life of Tiger Woods was revealed to be sharply at odds with his corporate image. Of course, there were grounds for serious criticism, and perhaps even some solemn contemplation on the problems that can arise when a young man has been bred on celebrity and the highest expectations from his toddling days.
As Woods said in a largely despised public confession, he had let down his young family, all those who trusted him and, not least, himself. Yet for some of us the rush to bury Woods, to single him out as a pariah who represented all that was bad both in life and at the highest level of sport, was excessive, even vengeful.
It was as though he was paying a specially high tariff for being so brilliant, so dominant, for so long.
Now it would, of course, be premature to suggest that while the Tiger this last weekend was winning his first title in more than two years – the Chevron tournament staged by his own charitable foundation in California – and McIlroy and Westwood were beating more formidable fields in other parts of the world – the new order of the game had been swept aside.
By his own admission, there is still much to work do on his re-modelled swing and all-round game before Woods can assume, at the age of 35, that he is serenely back on the trail of the five major tournaments which would carry him past Jack Nicklaus's all-time mark of 18 victories.
It is something he needs to say and we have to understand, but then it is also true that when the Tiger sank two birdies to hold off 2008 US Masters winner Zach Johnson something huge and vital came back to the world of golf.
In the euphoria of his triumph, however, he said something that might prove to be quite prescient when the game resumes in the new year after the shortest of close-season breaks. He said that it had been a long time since his last victory, but in a way it didn't seem so long at all. What did that tell us? It was that a nightmare might indeed be over, that what had become so impossible, so relentlessly blocked, might just be free again.
He also reported that when he sank his winning birdies and punched the air, in the way that was for so long his trademark, it was an "awesome" feeling. It was, he added, a sweet mixture of nerves and the deeper comfort that once again he might just do something.
Certainly, it has to bring serious pause to all those who have been writing his obituary for some time now. The Tiger was shot through, it was said, and the new world belonged to the young pretender McIlroy, a golfer of stunning ability.
Woods hardly discouraged such speculation as he slipped deeper into the agony of prolonged failure. Yet this was before McIlroy took a celebrity tour in the wake of his triumph at the Bethesda Country Club and, after slumping at the Open, complained about the kind of weather you sometimes experience on the Channel coast.
Any enthusiasm here for the possibility of a Tiger renaissance – at around the age when Nicklaus was still six titles short of his record – must be tempered by the reality that one minor win – if that can be said of something which brings a prize of three quarters of a million dollars – is the merest deposit on what was beginning to resemble a disaster fund. Yet if it also true that Nicklaus didn't experience anything like the humiliations endured by Woods these last two years, he does admit to his own days of considerable desperation.
"I woke up one morning," he once said, "and I realised I had lost a lot of those things that had made me successful. I was overweight and under-motivated and I thought of my father who had done so much to help my career. I decided I still had time to get myself going again."
It was a historic resolve that made Nicklaus for so long the undisputed champion of golf. Is Tiger Woods, with the worst of his public trial behind him, now making a similar one? It is most tempting to think so. There is, after all, no allure in all of sport quite like the possibility of restored genius. It is, so to speak, the cat's whiskers.