Just under a year ago, we took a talented young golfer and turned him into a god. Fortunately, for Tiger Woods, he has turned himself back into a man.

Unfortunately, for Tiger Woods, he’s had to do it by losing.

That’s right. Tiger loses. He loses close. He loses far. He loses a playoff. He loses by collapsing on the final day. He even loses, once, by missing the cut.

I know this is hard to believe, given the fact that nearly every TV commercial, magazine cover, hat, shoe, glove, club, ball, bag and Wheaties box celebrates Woods as a winner. And for the casual golf observer — the guy who catches highlights on “SportsCenter” while making himself a late-night sandwich — it might appear that Tiger is winning every week, since we see so much of him.

But the truth is, these days, Woods is more footage than front-runner. You know the last time Tiger actually won a PGA tournament? Last July.

That’s right. Eight months and counting.

“It’s not a bad thing for people to say I haven’t won in eight months,” he said last week before the Bay Hill Invitational in Orlando, Fla., “because that means they expect me to win.”

Of course, they expected him to win at Bay Hill, too. And sure enough, he came into the final day as co-leader. Remember last year, when the sight of Tiger in front of the pack reduced other golfers to mushy-stroked spectators?

Not anymore. On Sunday, Ernie Els, playing side-by-side with Tiger, stormed past him, bettering Woods by 12 strokes, leaving him in the dust.

Nothing mushy about that.

And it’s not the first time.

Close but no cigar

Take a look at Tiger’s record this year. In the season’s first PGA event, he charged from behind on the last day, but Phil Mickelson held him off to win at the Mercedes Championships.

Next time out, at the Buick Invitational, Tiger tried but couldn’t catch Scott Simpson.

Next time, at the Nissan Open, he forced a playoff with Billy Mayfair. Tiger lost.

He then went to the Doral, in Miami, and finished eight golfers behind someone named Michael Bradley, who, for all I know, could be Bill Bradley’s brother, Ed Bradley’s cousin, or Milton-Bradley’s uncle.

And last week, at Bay Hill, Tiger went from tied for the lead on Saturday to 13th place on Sunday, shooting the second-worst round of his pro career, a 77. He finished not only behind Els, but also behind guys like Bob Estes, Jim Furyk, Andrew Magee and Stephen Ames.

Line up any of those guys on the street, and I defy the average American to identify them as golfers — unless they’re wearing pink pants.

What’s that you’re saying? “Where’s the Tiger Woods we’re always told about? Didn’t he win the Masters?”

Of course he won the Masters. And that’s what started this whole overblown hype machine in the first place. (No. I take that back. What started it was when Nike signed Tiger to a $40-million contract. As a company that should be in the cosmetics business, considering how it specializes in image, you knew right away that if Tigermania didn’t exist, Nike would invent it.)

As it turned out, Woods stunned the world at Augusta, hugged his father in an emotional climax, and Nike needed no help getting his balloon off the ground. There were many in my business who, after seeing Woods demolish the Masters’ field, then capture the Byron Nelson Classic his next time out, predicted that Woods “might not lose again all year.”

That would have to be called “overstating the case.”

The fact is, Tiger won the Masters at least partly because it is a course that plays to his strengths. At the other three majors, he did not fare so well. He was 19th at the U.S. Open, 24th at the British Open and 31st at the PGA Championship.

Anyone else put up those finishes, you are not seeing him on David Letterman.

Arnie and Jack couldn’t do it

Now, if it seems like I’m being harsh on Woods, I am not. Stating a guy’s record should never be considered harsh. But perhaps the very idea of criticizing Woods has become somehow taboo, and that is an insult to him, as well as other golfers.

In point of fact, I think his current “slump” (he did win a non-PGA event in Thailand) is not only good for Tiger, but good for us. The amount of pressure placed on this marvelous young talent is almost beyond measure. Every week, he is supposed to live up to some ridiculous standard. Ben Hogan didn’t win every time he went out, nor even the majority of times. Same goes for Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus.

Yet, in hailing what Woods can do for the human race, we forgot to let him be human. He’s 22. In golf, that’s a barely unwrapped Christmas present.

He is still near the top of the money leaders, still drives the ball like Hercules, and is likely playing better overall golf than last year. He may well be, before he is through, the greatest golfer to ever play the game.

But he should be allowed to work his way up to that, same as everyone else. And in the meantime, he’s going to lose. And when other golfers beat him, they should be celebrated for their victories, which are more than just Tiger Woods defeats.

In two weeks is the Masters. The hype machine will crank at full speed. But Woods, like all golfers, has now tasted more defeat than victory. As his date with destiny approaches, the kid who broke down barriers should be allowed to get off the pedestal.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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