PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Here, in a nutshell, is what it is to be Tiger Woods: All week people keep asking him about why TPC Sawgrass has caused him so much agony through the years.
What is it about this course and this tournament that gives you heartburn, Tiger? Do you ever wish you could sneak on the course on the middle of the night and build a mall on top of it, Tiger? If you had a choice between playing TPC Sawgrass or wrestling two alligators at the same time, which would you choose, Tiger?
This has been the constant drumbeat, all week, how TPC Sawgrass has kicked Tiger Woods around like some crunched up Diet Coke can on the side of the road … and how Tiger Woods feels about being the crunched-up Diet Coke can.
So it was almost jolting when Woods – after shooting his second 67 in two days – casually reminded everyone that, you know, he has actually won here.
No, check that, he’s won here twice.
And he’s also had a few other great moments here too.
“I know how to get around this golf course,” Woods says with a smile on his face.
Well, of course he’s won here. He’s won everywhere, man, he’s won everywhere.
Here, at this course that hates him, he launched himself into the national consciousness. Here, at 18, he won his first U.S. Amateur – coming back from five shots down in the final 12 holes to beat Trip Kuehne in one of the most gripping and mesmerizing performances in that tournament’s history.
Here at this course, in 2000, he shot 9 under as a 24 year old and reached a playoff in The Players Championship. He was already so dominant a player that it was considered huge and shocking news when he lost to former PGA champion and PGA Tour Player of the Year Hal Sutton in that playoff.
Here at this course, the very next year, he won The Players Championship and hit one of the most famous shots in golf history, the impossible 60-foot putt on the 17th hole that NBC’s Gary Koch called “better than most” as it rolled toward and then into the cup.
Remember: Tiger Woods has been answering questions all week about how much he HATES this place.
But this is the splendor of Tiger Woods’ golf career. It is true that, compared with most other courses, TPC Sawgrass has given Woods a rough time. Twice in the last three years he has withdrawn from The Players Championship. He only has one top-10 finish here since winning The Players in 2001. But in Tiger Woods’ world, even the bad places are good. Even the unhappy courses have beautiful memories. That’s how incredible his career has been.
Which leads to the most fascinating question about Tiger Woods at age 37: What keeps him so engaged? He’s rich beyond the very limits of the word. He could not be more famous. He has played golf better than anyone before him. What is it that makes him stalk every putt and grind out every shot? What is it that sends him to the range for hour after hour after hour to completely reshape and reinvent his game? This is no joke by the way, this part of reinventing his game. We all know how Woods has entirely changed his swing. But Woods says his chipping style is now entirely different from a decade ago.
“You don’t chip like you did 10 years ago?” a reporter asked Woods incredulously. Woods, 10 years ago, had one of the great short games in the history of golf. He really doesn’t chip the way he did then?
“Nope,” Woods said.
“You got rid of that?” the reporter asked.
“That’s quite an achievement.”
“Thank you,” Woods said, sly smile on his face.
What is it that keeps him coming into the press tent to answer the same questions that he wasn’t especially interested in answering the last 20 times?
Sure, it’s easy to say that no matter how much money you make you always want more and no matter how many titles you win, you always want to win another. It’s easy to say that Woods is hungrily chasing Nicklaus’ record for most major championships, and he remains four behind (18-14*) and that deeply motivates him – that mythical but indisputable title as the greatest golfer who ever lived.
*Some people would consider The Players Championship to be the fifth major … if you count those, Nicklaus would actually expand his lead over Woods to six, 21-15, because Nicklaus won three Players, Woods has won one.
On the other hand, some people think the Memorial – Nicklaus’ own tournament – should be the fifth major. Nicklaus won the tournament twice. Woods, however, has won it five times already. So, if that counted, Nicklaus would only be leading 20-19.
Of course, the whole thing is silly – four majors are plenty.
Yes, surely, Woods is motivated by history and his place in it. But there is something more. There must be something more. It seems to me there is something about Tiger Woods – something about the best athletes – that is unquenchable. My friend Mel Stewart, who won the gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly at the 1992 Olympics, says only half jokingly that he gave so much of his life to swimming that, in the process, he became part fish.
There’s something to that – some part of Tiger Woods that simply must be under the duress of competition and simply must succeed. No, this isn’t his favorite course. This isn’t a major, despite the PGA Tour’s efforts. The prize money will just dissolve into his riches. The title, if he wins it, will be tacked on to his 100-plus professional wins – ranking somewhere below the U.S. Opens and Masters and British Opens.
But he’s hungry anyway. Why? I don’t know if competing makes Tiger Woods “happy” as we generally understand the word, but I think it’s engrained in him. I think there’s just a part of Tiger Woods that only comes alive on weekends when his name is near the top of the leaderboard.