For years, golf has been touted as a growing market: Any product, business, or contract that was golf-related was supposed to be a sure thing.

But it wasn’t really golf. It was Tiger.

When Woods had to miss months of competition last season because of his knee injury, TV viewership of golf events dropped by nearly 50 percent.

People hadn’t bought golf; they’d bought Tiger. Woods spoke to their hopes and aspirations: His was a success story marked with grace, graciousness, and conservative values. Yet the reality of his life couldn’t have been more different, and people are now looking at the ever-growing procession of girlfriends and saying, “Where did these come from?!?” The yuck factor has gotten pretty high, and it is not just Tiger, but golf itself, with all its self-deluded premises, that will take the hit.

Democrats are just starting to realize they’ve made the same mistake. They thought the 2008 election meant people bought the ideas of the Left. In fact, voters were both rejecting various policies of the last eight years – the Iraq War, runaway government spending, and so on – and embracing a fill-in-the-blank-slate version of “hope” and “change” embodied by Barack Obama.

But now that people have seen the pork-filled stimulus bill, the economy-ravaging prospects of cap-and-trade, and the authoritarian nightmare of government-run health care, they are saying, “Where did these come from? This is not what I bought.” Like Tiger’s many girlfriends, the policies that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid hope to pass reflect reality, but they are not at all what people fell in love with or wanted to see.

Now Democrats have a choice. The Left is demanding they pass something, anything, to mobilize their base for 2010, claiming that the party lost seats in 1994 because its voters were dispirited by the failure to pass HillaryCare. But choosing to pass health care now is rather like saying to Tiger, “Go have another fling – heck, have several! You’ve already made your money and can afford to be yourself. The hell with public reaction; the public will get used to it.”

Tiger is smarter than that, as are his sponsors, who know that the damage done is almost irreversible. Salvaging the image of “Tiger” will requires huge mea culpas and timeouts. Whether motivated by his family or his future, he’s publicly sworn off the women and is trying to be what he sold himself as, both to the public and to his wife. That’s the only way he might be able to regain some of the critical trust that he squandered. And that’s the plan of a man who doesn’t have to face re-election next year.

Democrats seem to be figuring out how dangerous the path they have chosen might be. Many now view their health-care plan as politically suicidal. More sober campaign strategists might suggest that, if Democrats don’t pass this legislation, liberals can be motivated to turn out to elect more liberals as part of their caucus, while moderates and independents will be grateful that they went back to the drawing board, and Republicans will find that a key issue that motivates their own base is much diminished.

By contrast, if Democrats do pass legislation that more than 50 percent of Americans reject (many of them intensely), the Republican turnout will be extraordinary. And those Republicans will be joined by furious independents who feel betrayed that the man and the party they elected turned out to be something very different from how they were advertised.

We’ll soon learn if Democrats are willing to change their ways so that they can salvage the public’s trust, or if they are willing to sacrifice their credibility for years to come.

– Heather R. Higgins is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Voice and an erratic but enthusiastic golfer.