December 30, 2007

The Tiger I Know

Golf World's senior tour writer says golf's No. 1 is as intuitive and inscrutable as ever -- and don't expect that to change

If there's a fascinating contradiction to Tiger, it is that the most ruthless competitor alive is as non-confrontational as they come.

If there's a fascinating contradiction to Tiger, it is that the most ruthless competitor alive is as non-confrontational as they come.

We met on the eve of the 1996 Skins Game in his room at the La Quinta Resort near Palm Springs. One month shy of his 21st birthday, Eldrick Woods already had two PGA Tour victories, a head of bad hair and a level of self-assuredness you don't find in people twice his age. To call young Tiger cocky, however, would have been a misread.

Six months removed from his sophomore year at Stanford, Woods seemed like a kid whose pursuit of premium education had sharpened his wit and dulled his ego. The 90 minutes we spent together were filled with needles, laughs and salty language, the highlight coming when Tiger delighted a small audience with swing imitations of Arnold Palmer, Fred Couples and several others.

They were hilarious because they were impeccable, a reality act that proved just as funny when Woods mimicked my own action a few years later. He'd seen me take four or five cuts with his persimmon driver earlier that spring at Isleworth and said nothing, but during a practice session in Dallas, Tiger suddenly broke from his routine, hunched his back and opened his shoulders.

"You still doing this?" he asked, replicating my outside-in downswing with a touch of humorous exaggeration.

As the world's best golfer made fun of me, I wasn't sure whether to feel flattened or flattered. "Hit the inside of the ball," Woods added in a voice that made it sound like more of a command than a suggestion. I shot 73 at Preston Trail CC the next morning, and in the 6½ years since, those six words of advice remain the simplest and most reliable golf tip I've received from anyone.

By no means should one get the impression Woods and I hang out, go to dinner or socialize even a little bit. We don't. Although he has been good for a lot of laughs and some of my fondest memories as a ­reporter, our relationship is strictly business. As Golf World previews the 2008 PGA Tour, as I enter my 13th year on the beat and Woods approaches his 12th full season on golf's main stage, I thought it might be worth sharing how much -- and how little -- the game's top player has changed since our paths first crossed. One of his recent commercials does a pretty fair job of portraying the Tiger I've gotten to know.

Tennis superstar Roger Federer brushes his hand against Woods' cheek, impressed by his close shave. Tiger shoots him a look, then turns to French soccer stud Thierry Henry as if to say, "What's with this knuckle­head?" It captures Woods' dry comedic nature and, at the risk of gleaning too much from the scene, a certain lack of comfort over the violation of his personal space.

One thing about Tiger: He'd rather you not get too close, physically or emotionally. Notably missing that night before the Skins Game was anything resembling heavy conversation, and until recently, Woods seemed allergic to public introspection. It was a trait that served him well on and off course, no doubt reinforced by the backlash of a GQ article that appeared in 1997. Much of that story's focus played off Woods telling a few dirty jokes and displaying his juvenile side. If behavior from the movie "Porky's" doesn't exactly make you a deep thinker, the GQ incident killed any chance of Tiger developing a glib or analytical public persona. The vulnerability factor was too high, the reaction too extreme, but most of all, the alternative came naturally.

His late father, Earl, was the king of contemplation whose busy brain coincided with a therapeutic urge to transmit those thoughts, but Tiger is a different animal. When God-given ability lands you on network television before kindergarten, reflex tells you to ride your talent and avoid mental clutter. Woods' willingness to trust his instincts has as much to do with his greatness as any physical attribute. His read-and-react sensibilities rarely betray him, which further reduces any urge to become philosophically inclined.

Diagnosis without depth. At the Byron Nelson Classic a few years back, I kidded Tiger about holding a 45-minute press conference and not offering a sentence of insight or substance. "You're better at saying nothing than you are at golf," I commented, to which Woods replied with a hearty chuckle. Now I realize he doesn't necessarily leave crumbs on purpose -- generally speaking, it's not his nature to get meditative or anecdotal.

Plenty of players are reluctant to open up to the media, but with Woods, introspection leads to complication, and complications are dangerous. Our private conversations have been just as thin. Five minutes after ribbing him about his inane media servings, I watched Tiger offer a putting tip to a well-known tour pro on the TPC at Las Colinas practice green. The player was genuinely appreciative of Tiger's counsel and would be seen an hour later working on the same alteration. "He'll still suck," Woods assessed with a straight face as he headed swiftly toward his next task.

[#image: /photos/55ad9c8ab01eefe207f7e007]|||Tiger, Phil and John Hawkins|||Illustration By Keith Seidel

Perhaps it was the impact of three life events -- marriage, death, birth -- that stirred Tiger's internal Zen. He has become more reflective and, on occasion, more revealing since Earl's passing in May 2006, although evidence of this change dates back to fall '04. In his first media-center appearance after his wedding, Woods finally ended six months of goofy denials by confirming his working relationship with swing coach Hank Haney.

One of our best chats occurred last January at Torrey Pines before Woods' first start of 2007. I flew to San Diego with low expectations, especially since an assignment for another magazine meant I had to ask him about the pre-British Open fishing trips he used to take to Ireland. Fresh off a couple of phone-interview requests that had been turned down during the off-season, I could smell another blow-off from 3,000 miles away.

In all my encounters with Woods, we've never had a cross word, nor has he been anything close to rude, but I've been around him enough to know when not to bother him. You have to be able to read his vibe, and when I found him alone on the Torrey Pines practice green that Tuesday morning, the vibe couldn't have been better.

As is often the case in these situations, Tiger enlivened the process with a couple of conversational diversions. I think he does this to remind you he's human, to deregulate the interview routine and keep things from getting too serious, but also, it's a bit of a defense mechanism. The fewer questions you ask, the less he has to reveal or be accountable for. It's his way of maintaining control while accommodating your needs.

At Torrey Pines, for instance, Woods asked me if I watched the semifinals of the Australian Open the previous evening, an odd question since the live telecast began at 3 a.m. on the West Coast. Sometimes, fate deals you a good hand. The time change had me awake at a ridiculous hour, and yes, I had seen the match, which we were able to discuss. I don't know if it bought me an extra five minutes, but it certainly didn't hurt.

Woods said he stopped going to Ireland because fishing had gotten boring. "I'm out there a half-hour and my ADD kicks in," was how he put it, a response I didn't take literally. Regarding criticism a couple of months earlier from Tom Pernice Jr., who had hammered Woods and Phil Mickelson for skipping the '06 Tour Championship, Tiger's reaction was unusually subdued. He might have dropped an expletive or two but wasn't sure he'd even approach Pernice on the matter.

If there's a fascinating contradiction to Tiger, it's that the most ruthless competitor alive is as non-confrontational as they come. Mickelson had called Pernice shortly afterward and unleashed a blast of his own. Woods, as it turned out, never said a word. "Nothing whatsoever," Pernice told me last week, a silence that could be interpreted in a number of ways and represents one of the more tangible elements of Tiger's mystique.

Few tour pros offer perspective in a 12-ounce can better than Paul Azinger. "If I've got a 10-footer to save my life and have to pick somebody to putt it, I'd take Tiger," Azinger said this summer. "He just has to promise me he won't miss it on purpose." My guess is that nobody would find that line more amusing than Woods. To call him cold-blooded, however, implies that his method of operation lacks purpose or reason, which is silly. Tiger is remorseless. When he finally goes to bed at night, there isn't much guilt when his head hits the pillow.

If I had a dime for every time I've seen him walk past a throng of autograph seekers without so much as a nod, I'd have enough money to buy a dozen Pro V1s. No one can be more aloof, but I've seen Woods in a ton of hairy situations -- kids getting stepped on, barriers getting knocked over, security guards losing control -- and the guy never loses his cool. He's rarely grouchy, and for all the commotion around him, I can't recall a single instance where he behaved in a condescending or discourteous manner.

There was a funny scene this past spring in Charlotte. Hot shot Anthony Kim, the youngest player on the tour last year, arrived on the practice range wearing a giant belt buckle bearing his initials. He wanted to show Tiger his "AK," and as dumb as the idea might have seemed to anyone who has known Woods for longer than 20 minutes, the kid made a beeline for TW, who was hitting balls next to Charles Howell III.

Tiger paused and said hello, at which point the conversation quickly moved to Kim's big silver letters. Five seconds of silence can feel pretty awkward, and you could almost see Kim shrinking as Woods studied the buckle. Several onlookers began to giggle, but Tiger merely smiled without making even a half-snarky comment. He gave Kim another minute or two, then went back to work.

That might not have been the case six years ago, when Woods' antenna didn't work nearly as well and a 21-year-old rookie might have walked away disillusioned. A big part of Tiger's maturity has been the ability to grasp his massive influence. He won't leave a kid like Kim out to rot anymore, nor is he as critical of those who are most capable of challenging his supremacy.

It's no secret that Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Sergio Garcia have spent considerable time in Woods' penalty box for transgressions never made totally clear, the safest explanation being that if you incur Tiger's wrath for any extended period, you must be an excellent player. If nothing else, the guy is extremely territorial. Although the Woods camp has stabilized since the departure of swing coach Butch Harmon in 2002, agent Hughes Norton and caddie Mike (Fluff) Cowan were among those who lost their jobs for what was perceived as cashing in on the position.

The day after Mickelson and Harmon were seen working together on the range at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, I found Tiger grinding away in the short-game area. He had heard about Phil and Butch and wanted to know more, his reaction being one of amusement more than anger. It was obvious Woods thought the new partnership was a bit strange, especially since their first meeting had been on a crowded range at 11 a.m., or that Mickelson seemed so puzzled by the ensuing fuss.

Almost as conspicuous was how nicely Tiger and Phil coexisted at September's Presidents Cup. This was their team, and they responded not only by assuming leadership roles, but by making an overt attempt at something akin to a friendship. After the U.S. completed its thrashing of the Internationals, they even sat next to each other at the team press conference.

That doesn't make them pals, but when the session ended with a woman asking the two where they would be sending their charity money, Philly Mick grabbed the microphone and rattled off a flawless, 45-second synopsis of the Tiger Woods Foundation. Maybe you had to be there, but it was quite humorous. Again, nobody laughed harder than TW.

This was in stark contrast to a situation I experienced in 2002. I had arranged to meet with Woods while he ate lunch in the players lounge on Wednesday at Las Colinas, and we had just started the interview when Mickelson pulled up a chair and made himself comfortable. Tiger clearly wasn't however, and for the next 10 minutes, I watched golf's two biggest superstars socialize like a pair of rival high-school prom queens.

They made a bet on the upcoming NBA Finals. Woods took the Los Angeles Lakers after Mickelson, in what seemed like an attempt to buy Tiger's favor, initiated the wager by taking the New Jersey Nets. If there was anything else semi-interesting about their chat, you'd find it here, but it was plain to see these guys had everything, yet nothing, in common.

In a packed lounge where everyone seemed to be staring, I figured Sergio and Vijay would join us too. "That was weird," Woods sighed after Mickelson bid us farewell. Things have gotten better in the 5½ years since, but the two have such different personalities that it's difficult for me to envision them ever getting close.

Without question, three-plus years of marriage have changed Tiger more than the effects of fame and fortune. He could be pretty judgmental pre-Elin, and if reaching conclusions on the specifics of his wife's positive influence is pure guesswork, one senses the maturation process has led to a higher level of compassion toward his prime antagonists. Mickelson's foot-in-mouth tendencies, Garcia's untoward exuberance, Singh's surly demeanor -- things that might have bothered Woods in the past don't gnaw at him anymore.

Elin is said to have a healthy competitive spirit and a distinct preference for privacy, and as tour spouses go, she couldn't be more discreet or understated. Maybe Woods took the Ireland trip off his calendar in 2003 because it wasn't very exciting, or maybe his relationship with a Swedish nanny had progressed to the point where he didn't want to spend five days hanging out with the guys and casting for brown trout.

In July '02 my own journey to the Emerald Isle included a couple of days at the K Club, the posh resort at which Tiger, Mark O'Meara and the gang spent most of their time. I walked into the dining room for an early breakfast and found Woods sitting alone with what appeared to be a huge stack of media clips. Three poached eggs later, I approached his table to say hello.

He was friendly and funny, if not very forthright, so we kept it light. Just how Tiger likes it.