Can Tiger Get over Himself?
Feinstein, John, Newsweek
Byline: John Feinstein
We'll learn at the Masters whether Woods is really back.
On the evening of March 25, there was, at least in a figurative sense, dancing in the streets of golf world.
Tiger was back.
That afternoon Tiger Woods had won the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill--the 72nd victory in his career on the PGA Tour but only his first since his life veered out of control when he plowed his car into a fire hydrant outside his Florida home in 2009. The accident led to stunning revelations about Woods's multiple infidelities during his marriage to Elin Nordegren, and to a remarkable nosedive in what had been the greatest career in golf history. Since then, he has had reconstructive surgery on his knee. He has been divorced, and has fired his swing coach and his caddie. He has changed his swing and he has struggled to putt well--the thing he once did better than any player in history. He went from holding the No. 1 ranking in the world to as low as No. 58, and from being the world's most marketable athlete to an athlete trying to become marketable again.
But trying to become Tiger Woods again without really being Tiger Woods has been a major challenge. As recently as February, even after finishing his second round at the Honda Classic with back-to-back birdies, he was still not in a talkative mood. As Woods came off the 18th green, Glenn Greenspan, his ever-present publicity man, muttered to the tour's on-site P.R. person, "Scrum only." That meant Woods would not do any of the one-on-one interviews with outlets like the Golf Channel or ESPN that normally get access first. Everyone would have the same shot to get their microphones as close to Woods as possible. No one argued at Woods's cranky post-round demeanor: Tiger Woods still plays by his own set of rules.
Other appearances have been easier. But even now, coming off a big win and going into this week's Masters as the favorite to win for the first time in almost four years, he is still fighting to try to find a place where a new Tiger Woods can play golf the way the old Tiger Woods once did.
"I've seen a difference in him off the golf course since the accident," said Davis Love III, who will captain the U.S. Ryder Cup team this fall. "I think he's happier with his life. If he can feel that way and be the old Tiger on the golf course that would be the ideal."
Can that happen? The answer, as of this moment, is very clear: maybe.
Woods had been groomed to climb the heights by his father, Earl, who decided early on to make his son into a prodigy. He boasted about the hours he spent drilling his son--both on how to play and how to deal with pressure--and rode him constantly whenever he spotted imperfections in his game. He booked his golf-playing son on The Mike Douglas Show shortly before the boy turned 3. By the time Woods was in college, his father was telling people his son would not only be the greatest golfer of all time but that he would be as important to the world as Gandhi.
For a time, Woods seemed unstoppable. He not only played the game better than anyone, he thought the game better than anyone. Players readily admitted that playing alongside him was intimidating--not speaking to someone you were playing against became known as giving them the "Tiger treatment." "Being inside the ropes with Tiger is a different experience than anything you'll ever go through in golf," Mike Weir, the 2003 Masters champion, told me some time ago. "It isn't something you can prepare for, it's something you have to experience, and even then there's no guarantee you can handle it." When Woods won his 14th major at the 2008 U.S. Open, he was 32-years-old. At that moment the question wasn't if he would break Nicklaus's record of winning 18 majors; the question was when.
And then came the crash. And the former lovers. And the prostitutes. When Woods finally appeared in public, eight weeks after the accident, he held a press conference in front of a now-famous "blue curtain," making certain he was surrounded only by friends and family (and a few hangers-on) and one TV camera, no questions allowed. …