Tiger at 40: Who is Tiger Woods?

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LET'S TALK ABOUT Tiger Woods.

He turns 40 on Dec. 30; figure we should do something to mark the occasion. This isn’t much, but what he needs we can’t give him.

We asked Tiger if he wanted to talk about Tiger. Rather, we asked Tiger’s agent, Mark Steinberg, if Tiger wanted to talk about Tiger, and he declined. We even followed up. Still got the Heisman.

That wasn’t a surprise.

Tiger’s talked a lot over the last two decades. Did you know he has 1,364 transcripts on asapsports.com since 1996? That’s about 72 transcribed interviews a year during that span. Well more – over 200 more – than Phil Mickelson has given in a greater time frame. And that only counts when a stenographer was around.

Back in the day, the early professional days, Tiger regularly came into Golf Channel studios. He did interviews. He even viewed tape. We could peek into the window of the library screening room and watch him watch footage of past majors, gleaning knowledge on an unfamiliar venue. We were told not to bug him, and we always kept a respectful distance. Think he drove a Mercedes.

Tiger seemed relatable back then. Like, if you just introduced yourself that would lead to a chat. A chat would lead to more casual conversations. That would lead to some level of friendship, and maybe this superstar athlete would hang out with some regular folk throwing darts in a Winter Park pub and drinking bourbon two hours after close.

Probably too much of an ask, but we were kids. A bunch of young, single people, fresh out of college and beginning their professional careers, living in a fairly vibrant Orlando area. We saw the same in Tiger.

When you’re Tiger Woods, however, life is different. All your informal fun and indiscretions have to happen behind velvet ropes, security-guarded gates and key-carded doors.

Sacrifices. C'est la vie.

Tiger at 40

Dec. 16: Who is Tiger Woods?

Dec. 16: Why Tiger still matters

Dec. 17: Tiger's future in his 40s

Dec. 17: The Tiger effect on youth

 

That was 19 years ago. Just a brief history of time, but a lifetime ago. At that time, only Earl had a proper understanding of what his son would become. He likely nailed it with that 14 career major victory prediction. But he was a little off on that more-impactful-than-Gandhi-and-Buddha thing.

Earl, though, saw what was easily written off as fatherly adoration. He envisioned what we could not foresee. Remember that Curtis Strange interview in late ’96? When Tiger said “second sucks, and third is worse” and that he expected to win every time he competes. Strange dismissed him with a chuckle and a “you’ll learn.”

It’s astonishing to look back and recount what Tiger has accomplished since then. And after all these years, after all we’ve seen and all we’ve heard, after witnessing his preeminence and the proclivity that wrecked his personal life, we often wondered: Who is Tiger Woods?

Arguably no athlete has ever spoken more than Tiger and, comparatively, revealed less.

You can’t fully blame Charles P. Pierce. If he hadn’t put Tiger on a media defensive, someone else would have made him recoil.

Tiger never shared much about Tiger, because he never had to. For the majority of his career he had the upper hand with the media and the public. We – the game, included – needed him more than he believed he needed us. The narrative was his to write.

The times, as they always do, eventually changed. One night. One fire hydrant. Innumerable flings. The world as Tiger Woods and we knew it was altered.

Tom Watson once said Tiger was "something supernatural." He wasn't. Just human. An otherworldly player, but a flawed person, nonetheless.

But we’re not here to harp on scandal. Tiger screwed his personal life. That’s his doing. We all err. We all sin. Tiger just did so on a very grand, very (very) public scale. He has to live with the consequences, which include the effects that it has on his legacy and his family.

We’d just like to know a little more about the man who is turning 40. The man who has entertained and amazed us beyond – if not his father’s, at least our – expectations. This isn’t a trial; more of a discovery process.



SO WHO IS TIGER WOODS?

We finally got a measure of insight when Time magazine published a lengthy, revealing, one-on-one interview on Dec. 3. It was intriguing to read Tiger talking about his current relationship with his ex-wife, how he explained to his kids that “Daddy made some mistakes,” and how he only finds peace “between the ropes.”

There was more to it, though, than just a few nuggets of personal revelation. You could sense the sincerity and, even if some of it was misguided and questionable, it was a need-to-stop-and-sit-down-and-digest-this kind of read.

It’s likely as deep as Tiger’s willing to go.

Tiger’s staid, zero-entry-depth responses from the pre-tournament and post-round interviews are understood. You can’t talk that often, for that many years, get asked the same questions that many times, and not go on autopilot.

You expect that occasionally. Occasionally.

With Tiger’s interviews it’s a catch-22. You have to appreciate the quantity. It’s the quality you wish would improve. Every now and again you just want a little something honest. A little something unseen. Something that nullifies the shock value of tell-all books. A peek behind the steel curtain.

Prior to the Time piece, we had recently seen glimpses. The public appearances with Lindsey Vonn, his kids caddying for him at the Par 3 Contest, talk of soccer practice and a dedication to fatherhood. Lightheartedness and camaraderie during major practice rounds. These things have helped to humanize Woods, sand the edges and add that glamour-shot soft focus to his image.

And, by best judgment, it appears honest. There’s no reason to think Tiger is trying to win public support. That’s never really been his strong suit.

If you think that modern Tiger is not classic Tiger, the aforementioned work in your favor. Notah Begay, Tiger’s friend for 30 years and, aside from perhaps Steinberg, his closest confidant, explains:

“It's because the game has humbled him. The game humbles everybody. Father Time is undefeated, right? So we get to the latter stages of our career, we never know when we are quite done until it's too late, like myself. And he realizes and appreciates the relationships and friendships through golf. And I think what you are seeing in areas on the range and in the locker room and in practice rounds is that he is just trying to engage his friends.”

Tiger at 40 isn’t Tiger at 21 or Tiger at 32. We never really knew him then and don’t know much more now, even with one decent interview, but we talked to some people who have known Tiger over the years.

John Cook, whose family spent lots of time with Woods when they were Isleworth neighbors, said:

“Very personable. He’s a guy’s guy. He’s a buddy. He was somebody that you could have a serious conversation with or … joke around. I think that he’s misunderstood, for sure. People don’t think that he’s very personable. People don’t think that he’s got friends. It’s kind of the other way around. He’s a lot of fun in the locker room, a lot of fun to play golf with. I feel like he cares about you as a person more so than it’s led to believe.”

Said Davis Love III:

Greg Norman was like, 'I'm not going to talk to you because I'm trying to beat you. I think Tiger thought that was the way to do it for a while. Now he realizes, it doesn't have to be like that.

“I think he understands that, he's got friends that he can trust. There are people who don't care about his golf. I don't need anything from Tiger Woods. I don't want anything from Tiger Woods. I just want to be his friend."

And that seems to be a commonality among this inner-circle. “We don’t want anything from him,” said Cook.

Granted, these favorable reviews are from people who genuinely favor Woods. They aren’t going to call him a prick and tell tales. But take the above at face value. They’ve spent time with Tiger outside the ropes, in personal settings. They’ve dined with him. They’ve attended concerts with him. They’ve witnessed the unwound version.

Perhaps Tiger is a prick. There’s plenty of evidence to support that. But there is a different side. There is a persona of Tiger that some – not many – know, that some appreciate and behold.

"While I have had only a few experiences with Tiger in private, I have always enjoyed being with him," said commentator David Feherty. "‎Like many people at the top of their professions, he doesn't enjoy being around sycophants, which I believe shrinks his group of possible friends. He is funny, more than a liittle twisted, and when relaxed, easy to be around."



TIGER WOODS IS THE MOST polarizing player in golf history. Outside of Muhammad Ali, does another athlete, at this level, compare? It’s easy for the public to choose sides: Tiger is the embodiment of awesome; Tiger is the ass of an ass. But, you have to consider, and accept, both. The guy is a sports icon. But that doesn’t make him a good person.

Athletes – even golfers – represent our physical ideology. And we want our athletes to be good people. It makes it easier for us. It means we can ditch the burden of judgment and settle in comfortably with appreciation. We don’t have to weigh support against disdain, like if our favorite team wins a championship by shady methods.

We want things nice and simple, cut and dried. Thinking is so tiresome. Just pick a side: For him or against him. When it comes to Tiger, middle ground is vacant real estate.

Should it matter to us that Tiger made Steve Williams feel like a “slave” or that he didn’t offer Hank Haney a Popsicle? That he was a serial philanderer? That he didn’t sign autographs for hours at a time? That he spat and cursed and flung clubs?

Or should we just appreciate the entertainment he has provided and be grateful to have witnessed the most dominant presence the sport has ever known?

Why do we have a difficult time separating the player from the person? Why do we put so much internal investment into our athletes?

Here’s a question for you, you might exclaim: Who cares? I’m 1,900 words deep into this nonsense and it just doesn’t matter to me what makes this man tick.

First off, you should stop reading now because this goes on for a while. Secondly, it might not matter to all, but it does matter to many.

As Cook said, “I don’t think we’ve ever seen a player quite like this guy. This guy’s way different than anybody that’s ever played this game, as far as talent goes. He doesn’t have the best record, because Jack (Nicklaus) does, or won the most tournaments, because (Sam) Snead has. But we’ve never seen a figure like this.”

Undeniable.

Tiger may never be the greatest player of all-time, depending on your definition, but he’s unlike anyone in the history of this sport. He is, in the proper use of the word, unique. At his best it’s difficult to imagine anyone beating him on a consistent basis. And Tiger was at his best for the better part of a decade.

There aren’t five people who’ve meant more to the game than has he. Arguably no one. Someone of that import elicits great emotion from the public, beyond the boundaries of the game. Who he is, not just what he’s done, matters to a populous base.

Maybe some can separate the man from the sport, and say that they don’t care what this person does in his personal life as long as he entertains. But there are others who cannot differentiate between the two. Bleeding hearts that they are.

Dr. Richard Lapchick is an internationally recognized expert on the relationship between sports and society. He said, “We live in a sports obsessed culture. There are 24/7 sports networks. We are bombarded by sports. And, we apparently want this bombardment.

“[Athletes] are for so many people role models. We hope that our children and grandchildren will be able to look up to people of good character. And these are the people they admire.”

Dr. Lapchick, the director and chair of the DeVos Sports Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida, has dedicated his life to social justice and racial equality.

What if Tiger had been more like Ali or Bill Russell than Michael Jordan, he is asked. What if Tiger had been more outspoken on social and political issues? Could Tiger have been more influential than Gandhi or Buddha?

“Well, those are pretty high expectations,” Dr. Lapchick said. “I don’t think there is any question, though, that he would have been right there with Ali and Russell, and might have superseded them because he was current.

“Because he was so untouchable as a player, he would have been able to endure criticism. He would have had a very powerful voice.”

Maybe he could have been, but he chose not to be. That’s a part of who he is.

Dr. Lapchick recalled a time in the mid-'90s when he spoke to Stanford students and Woods was a respondent. “He showed that he had a very sharp mind. He was insightful. He cared about social issues,” Dr. Lapchick said.

So what changed, if anything? The Charles P. Pierce GQ article in ’97, in which Pierce transcribed Tiger’s liberal use of profanity and off-color jokes, didn’t help. Dr. Lapchick also points to an early Nike commercial in which Tiger is captioned as saying, “There are still courses in the U.S. that I am not allowed to play because of the color of my skin.”

“He was frontally assaulted by people in the media after that came out,” Dr. Lapchick said. And with that, he grew cautious.

Is that the case? We’d ask Tiger, but …

"I think he became reticent gradually, as the weight of his obvious greatness bore down on him, heavier and heavier," Feherty said. "Combined with the rise of social media and media microphones and cameras‎ everywhere, he may have felt hunted to the point where it became safer and more convenient to say as little as possible and then disappear."

Dr. Lapchick doesn’t see it as the responsibility of an athlete – particular one of noted fame, accomplishment or potential – to speak out on social issues. He views it as an opportunity.

Athletes have a powerful platform, he says, given our obsession with sports.



SO MAYBE TIGER HASN'T YET – there’s still time and still that platform – to change the world en masse. But it would be negligible to not mention the thousands of individual lives he’s impacted.

If he wanted to, he could boast. That’s what people like Begay and Love say. They talk about his charitable work and his Tiger Woods Foundation, marveling at the impact Tiger’s had.

From Love:

"What I've learned about Tiger is that he does so many things right that people don't pay that much attention to. He does so much for charity."

From Begay:

“He takes a very strong interest in the Earl Woods Scholarship program, in the work that the Tiger Woods Foundation is doing. And that's one thing that isn't all that publicized and he doesn't go out of his way to brag about, but you're talking about – for the Earl Woods Scholarship Fund to have a 100-percent graduation rate for first-generation college attendees is absolutely remarkable. You will not find a more highly performing non-profit that focuses on education in the country. He’s very well aware of what goes on in the scholarship program, of what goes on in the foundation, and plays a role in what goes on in all the key decisions that are dealt with through those two arms of his charity work.”

Woods, Begay said, is not a figurehead in his foundation. He’s active. He develops personal relationships with his staff and takes an interest in the lives of the scholars:

“He wants to know what the kids are like. He wants to know what they are being challenged with, what they are being burdened with. … He wants to know why they are winning or why they are losing.”

For his part, Tiger did speak glowingly of his foundation and its success when asked about it at the Hero World Challenge, which serves as a benefactor.

“We at the foundation, we care about kids and we care about their lives, and just because you’re born in an impoverished area doesn’t mean that you’re condemned to a life of failure,” he said. “We’re trying to achieve something greater than that, and I think we have. With our STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) program, I think that a lot of these kids are now off to universities and places that they never thought they could go to, and to have over 130 award scholars, and we’ve had a hundred-percent graduation rate, it’s just phenomenal.”

So, this is Tiger Woods? The philanthropist. Yes, it is. At least, it’s part of who he is. There are several pieces to this abstract puzzle and it’s difficult to make them all fit. You have to take into consideration his professional accomplishments. Take into consideration his personal failures. Consider the way he behaved then, the way he behaves now. Think about what he could have been and what he’s managed to do.

It’s not all clean lines and clear definition.

But remember: This Tiger Woods, the guy about to turn 40, he’s not the same guy you’ve been watching for decades.

He's still the guy who won 14 majors. No he's not. He's still the guy who won five times three years ago. No he's not.

He's a guy coming off a third back surgery in two years, on top of four knee surgeries and numerous head-to-toe injuries. He’s more Super Dave than Superman.

He’s Benjamin Braddock staring into an uncertain future.

He’s a guy whose priorities have shifted. A guy who has two children, daughter Sam, 8, and son Charlie, 6, who, rightfully so, mean more to him than golf.

He’s the guy who no longer spends his life primarily dedicated to being the greatest player in the world. He’s the guy who, according to Begay, takes his kids with him on a regular basis to the range. The guy who – when physically able to – balances being a professional golfer and a single father. The guy who goes to parent-teacher conferences and attends soccer and tee-ball games.

“There is no full-time nanny,” Begay said. “He eats regular meals with his kids. We'll sit at the dinner table with his kids and have funny, neat little conversations. They will make fun of him; they mock him like my kids mock me and it makes me laugh because to them he's just their dad. He's the center of their world. And he does everything he can to make sure that he's a good guardian.”

Begay, when asked if, years ago, he could have imagined Tiger taking to the role of fatherhood so well, said: “Man, I had no idea. There are people you expect to be good dads that aren't and then people that you wouldn't expect to be good dads that are. … I think that it's been a wonderful transition for Tiger and he has matured in so many ways and he has a much greater appreciation for those things that are outside of golf.”

If your perception of Tiger Woods is based upon the past, then this middle-aged man is not Tiger Woods.

He's a past-prime, injury prone player who wants to balance his personal and professional lives and somehow be good at both. Unlike in his 20s and 30s, he’s a lot like the rest of us approaching 40.

Said Adam Scott:

“It's the same as anyone else. You're 15 years older and his life's changed entirely from a 25‑year-old on a complete mission. And you think back to those times. I mean, it was like we had never seen a guy on a mission on a golf course like he was at that point in his prime. So much has changed and he's now a father and there are priorities that change as you get older. I think it's just normal, really. I mean, he can't be that 25‑year-old kid forever. We all kind of get older and evolve.”



REMEMBER THOSE TRANSCRIPTS? The 1,364 of them?

In his first posted interview to that website, Tiger, still an amateur, was asked if he had started to allow himself the thought of winning a major. His response:

“Put it this way, if I didn’t feel that I could win, I wouldn’t come to a tournament. It is that simple. I don’t go to a tournament to play for second or finish top 10 or make the cut or anything like that. I go to win. I give it my all to try and win. There is no point even going to a tournament if you don’t try to win. That is the way I have always been – that is the way my father has always taught me and that is something I believe in. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I could win.”

That was the Tuesday before the start of the 1996 U.S. Open. He was 20 then.

On another Tuesday, nearly 20 years later, Tiger spoke at the Hero World Challenge. He spoke because he was the tournament host, because his foundation benefited, because he has stake in the luxurious host site. And, like listening to your grandfather talk about his sciatica, it was quite depressing.

There was no discussion of winning, because he couldn’t physically play. His ability to move, he said, consisted of walking and, apparently, playing video games. Lots of video games.

That latter admission evoked images of Woods sitting at home, in the dark, controller in hand, being a virtual Navy SEAL, wasting away the waking hours. Alone.

“He can’t be a normal person,” Love said. It’s been that way for a long, long time. C'est la vie.

Tiger has Tour friends and regular Jupiter, Fla., friends, according to Begay. But hearing him discuss home-alone activities like he was still a teenager, maybe the majority of Tiger’s friends are more akin to acquaintances.

Haney, who coached Tiger for six years, wrote in his book, “The Big Miss,” that while he tried to bond with Woods, he came to realize, “Tiger really didn't let anyone in.”

Remember this year’s Masters? When Woods gave Mark O’Meara a huge hug on the range and the two played practice rounds together like old times? And then again at the Open Championship, when the two embraced at the Champions Challenge?

If ever Tiger was linked to another Tour player, in a friendly way, it was to O’Meara. He was Mark-O, his mentor, his neighbor and his buddy. He was an honest-to-goodness friend.

So here’s Tiger’s friend, the one with whom he’s reconnected, and he’s receiving the greatest honor of his career. He’s being inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, at St. Andrews, during Open week.

And where is Tiger? He’s down the street, practicing. At 8 p.m. on a Monday.

O’Meara spoke for 16 minutes and 20 seconds that night. He mentioned Tiger’s name one time, while telling a story of his 1998 Open victory, which had nothing to do with Woods.

Dedication, focus, it’s a major, you say? That’s one way to look at it.

And now here he sits before a modest crowd in the Bahamas. It’s his turn to speak again. People want to know how he’s feeling, what’s he doing, when’s he coming back.

The answers this time aren’t mundane, they’re more morose. He speaks of the frustration in not knowing when he will be able to compete again. Even more so, when he will be able to play soccer with his kids again. “Where is the light at the end of the tunnel?” he rhetorically asks. “I don’t know.”

It was a solemn occasion, unlike any other Tiger news conference. This wasn’t about dominance or contrition or explanation. This felt more like resignation. Not to the belief that his career was over, but to the possibility that it might be.

There was a moment, however. A moment near the beginning of the news conference, when it felt like Tiger might reflect a little and give a bit of himself.

A question was posed, asking him to compare himself at 21 with the man approaching 40.

“Yeah, I have a lot less hair,” he said. Classic Tiger go-to: flippant response as a deflection. You see that a lot in those transcripts.

But then he seemed to get serious. “It’s hard to believe I’ve been out here for 20 years, going on my 21st season. How fast it’s gone by.”

[Leaning in intently] Yes, go on …

“To have had the amount of success I’ve had in such a short period of time, it’s been really cool.”

Oh, well.

Who is Tiger Woods? As he hits 40, we may know about as much as we’re going to know.

We still have our memories. We know what we’ve seen, read and heard over the years. We know what he’s said and what others have said about him. We add it all up, using individual preference as to what matters most, and come to a conclusion. Who he is, is who we envision him to be.

But standing there, watching Tiger sweat in the tropical sun. Stretching out his back and smiling broadly for photo-ops. Answering questions for which he didn’t have an answer. His eyes darting off into the distance, beyond the gathering, you wonder a more profound question:

When Tiger looks into the mirror, who does he see?