AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tiger Woods isn’t sure what’s next.
After tying for fourth in his return to golf Sunday at the Masters, he left Augusta National leaving no clue where his next step will lead.
Will we see him at Quail Hollow in three weeks? The Players Championship in a month? The Memorial in two months? Or is he going to limit himself to major championships in his newly crafted competitive life? Is it possible we might not see him again until the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 10 weeks?
And when we do see him again, who are we going to get? The humbled champ who at week’s start seemed so eager to redeem himself and win back the respect and affection of golf? Or the frustrated champ who at week’s end seemed annoyed when questioned on national TV about how the changes he’s making to his temperament might adversely affect his game?
After signing his scorecard Sunday, Woods was asked if he has any idea when he’ll play again.
“No,” he said. “I’m going to take a little time off and kind of re-evaluate things.”
Who can blame him?
Woods’ seven days in the public eye at the Masters must have felt like a lifetime.
For a guy who so rigorously guards his privacy, the intensifying scrutiny must be grating as he makes his way back from the public disgrace of his sex scandal. This, after all, is a guy who hated the excessive analysis of his golf swing. Imagine what the probing analysis of his character, integrity and very soul must be doing to him.
The compelling question Woods’ return to tournament golf raised at the Masters this week wasn’t over how he’ll meet new challenges inside the ropes. His tie for fourth, his ability to contend with rust on his game after five months away, bodes well for a speedy return to his best form. The compelling question is how he’ll meet the new challenges between his ears. It’s how he’ll keep the relentless new scrutiny from penetrating the fortress of personal space he so fiercely guards. It’s whether his desire and motivation will wane with the assault.
That’s what made Woods’ interview with CBS-TV’s Peter Kostis so revealing at the end of the tournament. We got a glimpse of how the scrutiny might ultimately wear on Woods when he bristled over a reasonable question. Kostis asked Woods how managing his temperament might have adversely affected his game in his poor Sunday start.
“I think people are making way too much of a big deal of this thing,” Woods said. “I was not feeling good. I hit a big snipe off the first hole, and I don’t know how people can think I should be happy about that.
“I hit a wedge [at the second hole] from 45 yards and basically bladed it over the green. These are not things I normally do. So I’m not going to be happy. And I hit one of the worst, low kind of quack hooks on five. So I hadn’t hit a good shot yet. I’m not going to walk around there with a lot of pep in my step.”
It was a reasonable question piled onto a grueling week for Woods.
On Monday, Woods stepped in front of the public for the first time at Augusta National looking like a radically different man in his return to golf. He looked nervous about re-appearing in the wake of his marital woes, uncomfortable in his attempt to connect with a public he’s practically stiff-armed in the past. The certainty of purpose he always carried himself with was missing in that first practice round.
Watching him, you couldn’t help wondering: Who is this guy?
In his news conference Monday, his first since the scandal broke, he was humble and contrite and more open than anyone has ever seen him. He spoke about showing more respect for the game and about toning down his emotional outbursts, both the exuberance and the anger.
On Wednesday, Woods endured being publicly chastised by Augusta National chairman Billy Payne in a State of the Masters address.
“He forgot in the process to remember that with fame and fortune come responsibility, not invisibility,” Payne said of Woods. “It is not simply the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here; it is the fact that he disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids and our grand kids. Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we saw for our children.”
After hitting the ceremonial first tee shot Thursday, Arnold Palmer said he supported Payne’s stance.
The scrutiny on matters beyond Woods’ game continued in Saturday’s third round when an angry Woods let loose a profanity on national TV after a wayward shot. There was another later in the round. It made an issue of Woods’ pledge to show more respect for the game.
Come Sunday, at the end of this long, grueling week for Woods, Kostis’ asked his reasonable question about how Woods was going to manage his cool without losing his fire. It was the perfect question linking Woods’ competitiveness with his larger life and its challenges. Maybe that’s why it irritated Woods.
For Woods, every week’s likely to be a grueling week with too many reasonable questions.
Woods’ response wasn’t unreasonable, but his tone reflects the challenges that lie ahead.
In his Monday news conference, Woods was asked what temperament he’ll be striving to achieve in his return to the game.
“I think how I was earlier in my career, I was at peace,” Woods said. “I would be more centered, more balanced, and that's where I'm headed towards. That's what I'm working towards.”
Peace? The work promises to be hard in the meditation Woods says he’s taking up again in his return to his Buddhist roots.
Bobby Jones retired from golf back in the ‘30s because of the pressures the game brought. He played before the National Enquirer, the Internet and paparazzi existed.
Woods quest to break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 professional majors has resumed. Sunday night, at Masters’ end, Woods’ game appeared near enough to believe he’ll meet the challenge, but you can’t help wondering how long his heart will be up for it.
The challenges won’t relent for Woods. That’s not the problem. It’s that the questions that won’t relent.