Woods returns to Royal Melbourne a far different man


MELBOURNE, Australia – On Tuesday Tiger Woods marveled at how much differently Royal Melbourne played since the last time he stalked the Alister MacKenzie masterpiece for Cup and country.

“I hit the ball a lot (farther) now than I did in ’98. That's just the technology,” Woods said when asked to compare where he was in1998 to the current model.

But then juiced-up golf balls and oversized drivers seem trivial when compared to everything else that has transpired over the last baker’s dozen for that one-time rookie.

In no particular order, the former world No. 1 has slipped to 50th in the world rankings; embraced and largely emerged from 3 ½ swing changes; won 64 PGA Tour titles and 13 majors; hit a tree, a fire hydrant and eventually the competitive skids; and endured a sex scandal and divorce.

The 22-year-old Woods was the youngest on Jack Nicklaus’ team “by far,” Woods recalls, and he went 2-3 in his rookie Presidents Cup.

At the time “Hello, world,” had not come fully into bloom; 13 years later everything seems to have come full circle – a curious mix of limitless potential tempered by the capriciousness of life.

He was skinny in ’98 with a swagger that masked his inexperience. Some would say that swagger has, if not fully returned, then at least is within view as evidenced by last week’s third-place finish at the Australian Open and a swing that is looking less like a work in progress with each round.

In ’98 Woods stalked the property like he knew an answer to a question others had not even thought of. Within weeks he would begin piecing together one of the greatest runs ever, winning eight times in 1999 and laying the groundwork for an even more historic 2000 – nine wins and the front end of the “Tiger Slam.”

If Woods is reluctant to embrace the “then and now,” John Cook, who, after Mark O’Meara, has had as close to an unobstructed view of Woods’ ascent and plummet as anyone offers his take.

“Well, there’s a lot of stages of that we all know,” said Cook when asked to dissect the difference between the current version and the ’98 model. “When we first got to playing and hanging around each Other quite a bit you could see a young kid that was so incredibly talented but didn’t quite know what to do with it maturity-wise.”

Like most observers, Cook uses Woods’ ever-evolving swing as signposts. “Through the Butch 1, Butch 2 to Hank as far as golf goes and to Sean,” the American assistant captain said. “Just to see the progression of the swings and also asking him if he really believes in what he was doing and he’s always been quite honest.”

Both Butch Harmon swing changes produced history and, despite revisionist claims to the contrary, Hank Haney’s model netted a 50 percent winning clip.

So far, Woods is O-fer on Sean Foley’s watch, although in the affable swing coach’s defense Woods has only played an injury-riddled 12 official events since he began working with the Canadian.

What’s changed since ’98? “I have way more shots than I did in '98 and a much better understanding of how to map out a golf course and how to play myself around a golf course,” Woods, who turns 36 December 30, figured, unwilling or unable to concede that nearly everything has changed.

Since the last time an American dozen ventured to Oz, Woods redefined greatness and pulled golf from its niche status. He made history and defied conventional wisdom and lulled the golf world into believing that there was nothing he couldn’t do.

Similarly, he tumbled dramatically and publically from the top of the dais and forced the golf world to reexamine the complexities of hero worship.

“Those are just parts of life,” said Cook of Woods’ competitive and personal evolution. “He’s come out of them pretty well. He’s more relaxed and confident and healthy. Confident Tiger Woods is very good.”

The evidence of that truth can be found on the twisting fairways of Royal Melbourne. In ’98 the wunderkind set out in Sunday’s second-to-last group against Greg Norman, the International side’s anchor and an Australian icon.

When the two began their round the matches were virtually over thanks to a 14 ½-5 ½ International advantage through four team sessions. The Australian galleries sensed a quick end and wildly cheered the “Shark’s” every step. Undaunted, Woods grinded out a 1-up victory to quiet the crowds, however briefly.

“Like any road team, you try to make the gallery quiet,” Woods said on Tuesday. “We have done that in other Cups before in the past and it's fun when that happens.”

Of everything that has changed for Woods since ’98, perhaps the only remaining constant is his drive to win, his desire to quiet the gallery.

Watch wall-to-wall coverage of the Presidents Cup live on Golf Channel beginning Monday at 6PM. Tournament air times: Golf Channel Wednesday 9PM-2AM, Thursday 7:30PM-2AM, Friday 3PM-2AM and Saturday 6:30PM-12:30AM. NBC coverage Saturday at 8AM and Sunday at noon. (Note: all times are ET)