PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Thrust and parry.
Bob and weave.
Tiger Woods’ news conference Wednesday at the Honda Classic turned, at times, into a sparring match.
“You’re a beauty,” Woods told an inquisitor during one uncomfortable exchange.
Woods wasn’t being complimentary. If his ensuing glare were any more intense, Woods might have burned a hole in his target.
The tension level was up in the media center with Woods being asked about excerpts released a day earlier from Hank Haney’s new book, “The Big Miss,” the story of Haney’s time coaching Woods. Mark Steinberg, Woods’ manager, issued a strong rebuke of the excerpts on Tuesday, calling Haney’s insight “armchair psychology” and “self-promotion.”
The intensity of the response from the Woods’ camp, naturally, brought follow-up questions Wednesday from a room packed full of reporters.
“I’ve already talked about it,” Woods said.
With reporters pressing with more follow-ups, Woods kept deflecting.
The book’s excerpts dealt with Haney’s contention that the pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record took an increasing toll on Woods over their time together, and how Haney believed Woods seriously considered becoming a Navy SEAL while Haney coached him.
The nature of Wednesday’s news conference made you wonder if Woods wished he were a Navy SEAL. It made you wonder how the intensity of the scrutiny of everything Woods does and says affects him. The scrutiny is unrelenting. If it’s not the book, or his knee, or his swing, or his putting, it’s something. It’s always something.
The book excerpts come hard on the heels of growing questions about missed putts that cost Woods a chance at the AT&T National Pebble Beach Pro-Am and at the Accenture Match Play Championship in his last two starts.
How heavily does the cumulative nature of the scrutiny weigh on Woods? How much more heavily does it weigh two-and-a-half years removed from his last PGA Tour victory?
“It is part now, I guess, of who I am and what I've accomplished,” Woods said. “I think it would have been, probably, similar if Jack was in my generation. They didn’t quite have the media scrutiny that they do now. It’s just a different deal, and I know that a lot of players don't get the same analysis with their games that I do. But it's been like that since I turned pro.”
Back at the height of his power, before the personal scandal, Woods thrived amid the chaos. In fact, his comfort within it seemed to work to his advantage. Those final-round pairings, with the giant galleries, the horde of reporters and photographers inside the ropes, worked like a two-stroke advantage for Woods up against opponents typically unaccustomed to the mayhem.
With Woods rebuilding his game, we’re all not quite sure if the chaos now works as a two-shot disadvantage at the first tee. Ultimately, it might add to Woods’ fuel, to his motivation to prevail.
“When you are sitting up at the top of the pedestal, everyone else is throwing rocks at you,” said Greg Norman, a former world No. 1. “Some are softballs and some are hardballs. It's just how you react to them. I think it's a great place to be, and you're obviously where you try to get yourself to be, in the beginning.
“I think Tiger has done a great job of handling it, to tell you the truth. I'm only seeing what I read. His intensity is there. He wants to be back to the position he used to be. Will he get there? I don't know.”
The scrutiny on Woods is a real entity, a real factor in how careers turn out. History shows us that.
Bobby Jones retired at 28, weary of competition’s demands on him.
“I was writing in the room where he was waiting to know if he had won,” the great golf writer Bernard Darwin wrote after Jones’ final round in the 1930 British Open. “He was utterly exhausted and had to hold his glass in two hands lest the good liquor be spilt. All he could say was that he would never, never do it again. He could doubtless have won more and more championships, but at too high a price.”
And this was before TV and the Internet.
It was noteworthy Tuesday night, when Nicklaus came into the Honda Classic media center and was asked about Tiger Woods’ putting. Nicklaus was asked if he ever lost his putting stroke. Nicklaus said he never did, and he chose a fascinating word to explain his success.
“I’m still as quiet over a putt today as I was when I was 25,” Nicklaus said.
Quiet? If there was a secret to Nicklaus’ great putting, maybe that was it, a quiet mind.
In this day and age, quiet is harder to come by. Woods knows that.