DiazApril 12, 2010

Man In Motion

After a 144-day absence, Tiger Woods returns to competition. For both him and golf fans, the re-entry is a work in progress

Focus On Golf: Masters Week was hardly a blur for Woods, who finished T-4 in his first tournament in nearly five months.

Focus On Golf: Masters Week was hardly a blur for Woods, who finished T-4 in his first tournament in nearly five months.

Tiger Woods' return to competitive golf at the Masters last week was all about questions -- probably more than any professional athlete coming back to any sport has ever faced.

Beginning with his much-anticipated Monday press conference, Woods acceded to media examination in an easy way that brought back memories of his less-jaded amateur days. And while he left Augusta National not having revealed where and when he will play again, what he is being treated for in therapy or the status of his marriage, just the process of putting his game on display revealed much that inquiring minds have wanted to know.

For example, how would the fans -- sorry, patrons -- receive him? Well. How would other players interact with him? Awkwardly. How would golf's officialdom, in the person of club chairman Billy Payne, treat him? Admonishingly. How much would he react to poor shots in a manner for which he has been increasingly criticized? A little. How would he play? Erratically, although his T-4 finish at 11-under 277 included torrents of brilliance.

And most interestingly, would Woods still be tough? With all the public pummeling he's undergone, with a professed renewed emphasis on balance and Buddhism and statements such as "It's not about championships; it's about how you live your life," and with the possible loss of self-confidence that can result from public humiliation, could Woods remain as he had always been -- fierce, relentless and unsatisfied by anything short of victory?

The answer was a resounding yes, revealed over a weekend that Woods entered two strokes out of the lead. After two early birdies Saturday, Woods looked ready to enter closer mode, only to lose his swing and his poise with three bogeys in a four-hole stretch. But he responded with the same old scary will, making birdies on four of the last six holes to salvage a raggedy but respectable 70.

Sunday, Woods was more definitive. He got off to the worst final-round start of any event in which he has been in contention. His opening drive was a horrific pull hook into the ninth fairway. The next four holes included a popped-up tee shot, a fluffed bunker shot, a bladed 50-yard pitch, a fat 4-iron and a smother-hooked drive. When he barely squeezed in a six-footer for a bogey on the fifth, he was three over for the day and seven behind the leaders.

But that's when Woods somehow summoned attack mode. After hitting his first green in regulation on the sixth, he holed a cut 8-iron for an eagle-2 on the seventh and birdied Nos. 8 and 9. A pushed drive on the 11th and a carelessly missed tap-in on the 14th undermined two more birdies and another eagle, but he managed to play the final 12 holes in six under par.

Still, there was no contentedness in Woods' immediate reaction. Rather than the optimistic big-picture assessment CBS' Peter Kostis was attempting to elicit during their post-round interview, Woods was classically curt. "Yeah, I finished fourth," he said. "Not what I wanted. I wanted to win this tournament." The fact that Woods chose not to suppress his disquieting intensity before millions of viewers he knew were both expecting and desiring a more chastened and satisfied Tiger signified that he still values victories more than being liked.

Purely as the golfer he is, Woods had every right to feel frustrated. Throughout his 30s, Woods has specialized in consistency through mistake avoidance, particularly in the crucible of a final round. At the Masters he was just the opposite. In 72 holes he made 17 birdies and tied a Masters record with four eagles (11 and two of which came on the weekend), but also recorded a sloppy 14 bogeys. In a role reversal, Phil Mickelson, usually the more mistake-prone of the two, made only six bogeys.

In retrospect, Woods would probably like to take back the disclosure at his Monday press conference -- surely designed to placate his critics as much as following the tenets of rehabilitation -- that he would "try and obviously not get as hot when I play." The first two days were without incident, but as crunch time neared, a mis-hit 8-iron on the sixth Saturday inspired the following: "Tiger Woods, you suck. God dammit." That his first three-putt of the tournament immediately followed might present Woods with a golf-motivated reason for calming down.

On the other hand, Woods' habit may verge on the involuntary, because after the round he claimed no recollection of his outburst. "If I did, then I'm sorry," he said. The high road was one Woods had already taken in his reaction to Payne publicly chastising him Wednesday ("It is not simply the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here; it is the fact that he disappointed all of us"). Although he had been surprised by Payne's public comments, Woods' response was, "I've been disappointed in myself."

But by Sunday, Woods was clearly tired of what he no doubt sees as an emerging game of Gotcha. Asked by Kostis about his displays of temper, Woods impatiently responded, "I think people are making way too much of a big deal out of this thing." But for all the frustrations, the rollercoaster week was probably the most enjoyable Woods has experienced since Nov. 27.

Although Woods' preparation had included six sheltered rounds on the course under the eye of instructor Hank Haney in the weeks before the tournament (at least one of which was reportedly in the 80s), his public reentry into competitive golf began when Augusta National first opened its gates to patrons at 7:39 a.m. Monday. Woods was hitting balls on the club's new, state-of-the-art practice ground when one of them yelled out, "Greater than Ali, Tiger! Greater than Ali!"

Though most of the gallery reaction was more restrained, Woods insisted he never heard a negative comment aimed at him all week. Several times, he went out of his way to express his gratitude for how he was received, while admitting he had been nervous about it. "It blew me away to be honest with you," he said Monday.

He enjoyed a calming morning 18 holes with Fred Couples, who Woods has regarded fondly since playing a practice round with him at his first Masters in 1995. During the practice-round days, Woods consciously seemed to slow his walk and general movements, as if trying to decompress from the stress of the preceding months. He also tried to make eye contact with the gallery, continually saying "Thank you," to their encouragement and probably signing more autographs than he did all of last year.

At his Monday press conference Woods was clearly tense at the outset, and some exchanges were strained, especially when he refused to give details about the events of Nov. 27. But he seemed to relax near the end of the 35-minute session, revealing information that helped provide a fuller picture of Woods the golfer, such as the fact that he tore the Achilles tendon in his right leg in December 2008 while running during rehabilitation from ACL surgery. He said the injury continued to trouble him throughout 2009 and was the primary reason he lost distance. "I couldn't push off of my right side," he said.

At the Masters, Woods occasionally hit a few long tee shots, but for the week ranked only 20th in driving distance with an average of 283 yards, some 14 yards behind Mickelson. It appears the 34-year-old Woods, who was a career-low 21st in driving distance on the PGA Tour in 2009, has either voluntarily or by force given up the distance advantage he held on his peers in his early years, and has become a more precision-oriented player whose tee-to-green strength has shifted to his irons.

Woods has maintained that a foundation of his recovery is a recommitment to some of the Buddhist principles he was raised with by his Thai mother, Kultida, and which he gradually abandoned after turning professional and living a jet-set life. When asked if he believes he might have played even better if he had kept the principles in his life, Woods responded, "I would like to say yes. I would be more centered, more balanced, and that's what I'm headed toward." He paused and added almost chillingly, "I just lost that and unfortunately lost my life in the process."

At the same time Woods indicated he realizes that the former state of mind with which he was competing was unsustainable. "When you live a life where you're lying all the time, life is not fun. And that's where I was," he said. "Now that's been stripped all away, and here I am. And it feels fun again."

It was Woods unplugged, but he switched into a different and edgier mode Thursday, when he shot 68, the first time he had ever broken 70 in the first round of the Masters. Haney saw a correlation between Woods' more upbeat attitude and his play. "He has been good mentally from the time we started working in March," said Haney. "The golf game itself was not great. That's why he surprised me Thursday. I thought his drive on the first hole [which was piped down the middle] was one of the greatest drives of his life because that was a big moment. But I think his head has been in a very good place, and I hope that continues going forward because I believe it will help his game."

Woods himself resisted any touchy-feely sentiments. When asked what the day had meant to him, he said, "It meant that I'm two shots out of the lead. That's what it means."

Perhaps such cold reductionism is the way Woods must look at the game, and the way he will continue to. If so, it also means that while changes to Woods the man may someday become profound, changes to Woods the golfer will be subtle. That's maybe not a bad thing, considering he has won 14 major championships and 71 official victories staying with prose over poetry.

But forced to look inward as never before, Woods may find that the way past Nicklaus and Snead ultimately lies in deriving greater enjoyment from his gift. And though he grinded as hard as ever for four rounds, there were moments at this Masters where Woods might have begun to see the wisdom of another way.

It's a question only he can answer.

Diaz

__ Fan Friendly: Woods signed more autographs than ­normal at Augusta, and the patrons reacted well to his 11-under 277. Harry How/Getty Images (left); Stephen Szurlej (right).__