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The Year of Living Dangerously

Turmoil turns to triumph for Tiger. Learn what really happened inside his camp, and why we might be about to see his best yet.

January 2008

Tiger Woods was getting better.

Sure, he was only fulfilling a corporate obligation with 24 people who had won a day of golf with him through an equipment-company promotion. But as he stood on the practice tee at a Florida resort before his small audience, perfectionism overpowered perfunctory.

He took the participants through his precise thought pattern in a step-by-step talk-through of his pre-shot routine. He demonstrated in detail his unifying principle of the last four years: Hank Haney's theory of parallel swing planes. He displayed his trademark twirl on shots he particularly liked, along with the lost-in-flow expression. "I want you to actually get something out of this, OK?" he implored at one point. He didn't have to add, "Like I am."

Later, in the banquet room for a closing 45-minute question-and-answer period, Woods chose to use some intimate details from his guarded life as an example of how every experience is an opportunity. When asked to identify the most important thing he had learned about golf in 2007, Woods paused for several seconds, murmured, "Great question," and, in an even voice, opened up.

"Not necessarily golf-wise, but life-wise, I think I've grown quite a bit this year," he said. "After my dad passed last year [Earl Woods died at age 74, after a long battle with cancer, on May 3, 2006], I played well, but I was still not really feeling all that great about life in general."

As the audience leaned in, Woods didn't pull back.

"I felt like I hadn't really appreciated having Dad around. I didn't talk to him as much as I should have. I didn't call him, didn't see him, wasn't there enough. It was kind of in my mind through the entire last year and even the beginning of this year. That I didn't do enough."

As the words filled the big room, there was only stillness.

"But when I had [daughter] Sam this year, I wanted to take in every moment and appreciate everything. And I think that's where my life has changed off the course. And no doubt I played better as a result. But it's sad. One thing I regret is that it took the fact of my dad's passing for me to appreciate how good my life was with him. I wish I had been able to realize how good it was when he was there."

Growth.

The candor, the realness, for a moment, turned Woods into every son who ever lost a father and wrestled with the complicated aftermath. It was an intimate mea culpa one could barely see Woods delivering to close friends on his yacht, "Privacy," let alone in a generic setting with people he might never meet again. But the person who at 20 proclaimed, "I am Tiger Woods" so confidently had clearly, at 31, been giving a lot of thought to just exactly who he wants that to be. And the answers he came up with put him on the most assuredly self-determining path of his life.

When Woods began the year, it seemed that any inner turmoil from his father's death had been left on the 18th green at Hoylake. After all, he'd followed his emotional victory at that British Open with another at the PGA Championship, closing 2006 with six straight official PGA Tour victories.

When Woods made it seven in a row at Torrey Pines last January, questions about missing Earl Woods stopped, replaced by inquiries about Byron Nelson's record winning streak and the impending birth of Woods' first child.

But those in the inner circle knew the impact of Earl's death lingered. They found Tiger distant and less patient. It turned out the tears of Hoylake were much more a beginning than an end.

"There was a sense of loneliness about Tiger that didn't go away for a long time," says Steve Williams, the caddie and friend Woods embraced at Hoylake. "He had more mood swings. I'm a pretty hard-nosed person who doesn't take anything off anybody, and I consider it my professional obligation to bring anything I think will help Tiger to his attention. But for a while after Earl's death, I didn't speak up as loudly as I normally would. There are times in people's lives when you have to be more understanding."

"Tiger is human," says Haney. "He's so good, there's an illusion that he can be fixed like a machine. Just adjust his golf swing, and everything will be all right. Competitive golf is more than the golf swing. It's a million things."

As Woods' focus eroded, his golf lost its sharpness. The loose play became particularly conspicuous at the Masters. Starting one stroke back on Sunday, a start-and-stop 72 wasn't enough against Zach Johnson's 69, as Woods lost by two.

Though Tiger takes pride in hiding "tells" from everyone -- competitors and family -- even he couldn't completely hide his emotions. After playing the Wachovia Championship pro-am in May with close friend Michael Jordan, who has said his father's death in 1993 led to his first retirement from basketball, Woods told The Charlotte Observer's Ron Green Jr. that he spent the wee hours of the following morning staring at the hotel-room clock as he marked to the minute the one-year anniversary of Earl's death. "It was a tough time," he said, later adding: "I just wish I could talk to him, hear his voice and ask him for advice on certain things. Basically he was my best friend."

Though Woods won the tournament, his struggle down the stretch is what prompted Rory Sabbatini to call Woods "more beatable than ever" and add, "I like the new Tiger." After indifferent golf at the Players and the Memorial, Woods produced often-brilliant ballstriking at the U.S. Open, but he came up lacking again. Another closing 72 -- on Father's Day, and the day before his wife, Elin, gave birth after a difficult pregnancy -- was only good enough for second.

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