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At 37, Woods remains a fascinating mystery

Tiger Woods
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(FILE PHOTO) The family of golfing legend Seve Ballesteros have announced on May 6, 2011 that his health is worsening, following his battle with a brain tumour in 2008.  - 

Everything about Tiger Woods has grown familiar over the years. Here he is, once again, up on the leaderboard at the British Open heading into the weekend, and is there any move of his that we haven’t seen before? Think about it: How many times have we seen him let go of his club on the backswing after he hit a poor shot? How many times have seen him erupt with joy just an instant before the ball dropped into the cup? How many times have we seen him make that hand motion – that ball was supposed to ROLL RIGHT! – after a putt slides by the hole?

How many times have we seen that placid look on his face as he watches a shot he knows is good, one he knows will bounce and dance around the flagstick and induce those massive and slightly astonished cheers that are reserved for home run hitters and goal scorers and golfers who it close?

He’s utterly familiar. And, at the same time, he’s thoroughly unknown. It’s probable that no athlete in American sports history has answered so many questions while saying quite as little as Woods. He’s something of a genius that way. He might be the most famous athlete in the world*, and yet, what do we know about him?

*Based on my unscientific survey, the five most famous athletes in the world are: Tiger Woods, Lionel Messi, LeBron James, Usain Bolt and David Beckham with Cristiano Ronaldo, Roger Federer, and Kobe Bryant close behind.

I can think of seven things we know for sure:

1. He’s 37 years old.

2. He’s generally pleased with his game but would like to make more putts.

3. He still intends to break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships.

4. He’s generally pleased with his putting but has to give himself more chances.

5. He’s dating Lindsey Vonn and they are happy.

6. Yes, he feels in position to win.

7. He’s feeling fine. At least as far as you need to know.

In a sense, almost every answer he gives in the many, many news conferences through the years touches one of those seven themes. Woods has always fascinated everyone: He was fascinating as a golfing prodigy hitting shots on “That’s Incredible”; fascinating as a teenager winning three consecutive U.S. Amateurs; fascinating when he ran away with the Masters at age 21; fascinating when he won those four major championships in a row for the greatest run of golf in the history of the game; fascinating when he won the U.S. Open on one leg; and yes, sadly, fascinating when his private life spilled into the tabloids as he was exposed for all to see.

142nd Open Championship: Articles, videos and photos

But, this might be the most fascinating he has ever been. He is 37 years old, closing in on 38. He’s still the best player in the world – back in golden position at another British Open – but he has not won a major championship in five years. He is a father, his body is susceptible to injury, his swing finally seems locked in, his putting fluctuates from brilliant to shaky and back again. He is playing for history, as always, but for the first time in his amazing career the odds seem against him. He seems to be trying to be more accommodating and less emotional, and his efforts are very much a work in progress.

And he answers question after question after question without really revealing how he feels about any of it.

Only maybe now and again, in his words, he does reveal a little something. You just have to look a bit closer at his answers.

TIGER WOODS is growing a bit more nostalgic as he gets older.

It used to be that Woods never looked back, at least publicly. Efforts to get him to relive a great shot or a great victory were often met with curt responses or, just as often, no responses at all. The point was obvious: Woods looked forward not backward. He was not interested in remembering his first Masters win or the way he lapped the field at the U.S. Open – he was focused on winning the NEXT Masters and the NEXT U.S. Open.

But Woods is now an older golfer. He may not be close to the end, but golfers at 37 are on the downhill portion of their careers. And so, it is OK for Woods to admit that, yes, he will think about the past – like he did in January when he was asked about his last major championship, that amazing U.S. Open victory when his knee was torn up so much that that he grimaced on almost every shot.

Photos: Woods' major-championship finishes

“I do look at that week often,” he said. “I remember several things. No. 1 that comes to my mind every time I look at it or see highlights of it is just pure pain that I was in. I don’t ever want to experience that again. … There are amazing things but, man, here I am just talking about it and my hands are sweating just thinking about the feeling I had to get through each and every day.”

This seems something new for Woods. He never seemed willing to journey back to those moments. He never seemed to publicly enjoy or relish the extraordinary things he did. He was so good, so ridiculously good, and he always played it cool, like it was all expected, like nothing he did could surprise or impress him. His U.S. Open victory on one leg is one of the greatest performances in golf history, not far behind Ben Hogan’s unparalleled U.S. Open victory barely more than a year after a near-fatal car accident. It seems Woods, now, can look back and, while grimacing, admire it.

TIGER WOODS is as determined as ever not to show weakness.

Woods’ quote: “You never want to let any of the guys know you’re hurt in any sport, doesn’t matter, ever.”

Golf is different from most other sports in that you are not really battling a competitor. You are battling a golf course. In other sports, it makes sense not to show weakness because opponents can take advantage. In football, a limping cornerback will inspire a quarterback to throw deep. In basketball, an injured player will usually be isolated on the defensive end. In tennis, a player with a pulled hamstring will probably face a bunch of drop shots and be moved side to side.

But why worry about such things in golf? If Woods is injured, so what? It’s not like any of the golfers can adjust their games to do anything about it.

Photos: Woods through the years

And Woods admits now he has been injured – the last few years, he has dealt with many injuries, some more serious than others, all of them preventing him from being the player he had been. He says he finally feels good now. But, of course, he said he felt good then too … this is the point. It’s a mystery. He wants it to be a mystery. It’s a big part of who he is as an athlete.

See, part of Woods’ invincible aura has been, yes, his invincible aura. Sure, sometimes, he was just much better than anyone in the field – he won half his 14 majors by three strokes or more. On those weekends, it didn’t matter what anyone else did. He was going to win.

But just as often he won close tournaments, and he won in large part because he placed this extraordinary pressure on other golfers by simply being himself. They knew he wasn’t going to beat himself. They knew he wasn’t going to miss a series of putts or double bogey his chances away. So they had to go get him. Woods made other golfers go out of character, made them try to hit shots a little too perfectly, made them aim a little too close to the flagstick.

He worked very hard to seem invulnerable. And he is still working hard at it. Invulnerability goes beyond just health. Think about how many times Woods, no matter where he stood on the leaderboard, has said: “Yes, I have a good chance to win.” Think about how positively he spins his game even on a day when he misses a lot of putts or snap-hooks every other drive.

“Do you feel like you’re out of it?” he was asked after shooting poorly the second day at the Memorial.

“No,” he said, and he talked about the possible storm coming in, the winds possibly picking up and so on.

“Are you disappointed?” he was asked after he lost the first round at the WGC-Accenture Match Play.

“I played well, I really did, I hit a lot of good shots out there,” he said.

“How do you feel about your ball-striking?” he was asked after a rough day.

“I’m not too disappointed with that … I’m not far off,” he said.

“What do you make of not winning a major for five years,” he was asked leading into this British Open.

“I’ve been there in a bunch of them where I’ve had chances,” he said. “I just need to keep putting myself there and eventually I’ll get some.”

Always positive … always certain … always on the brink of a breakthrough. There’s a great story about Woods playing in an American Express corporate event years ago at Oakmont, this before the U.S. Open there. Some of the guests asked him if he would hit a golf ball out of the famous Church Pews bunker. He refused. They asked him again. He refused again. Then, they asked him if he would have a photo taken in the bunker, and he finally agreed, but he refused to bring his golf club with him.

“Why bring negativity into your thoughts,” he said.

TIGER WOODS is trying to use the doubts of others to fuel him.

Woods did not have to deal much with doubters as a young man. From the time he was a child, his father, Earl, had made it clear to him that he was destined to do remarkable things. That faith seemed to be the thing that drove him more than anything else. The long putts, the remarkable chips, the absurdly long drives … all of it just seemed part of an elaborate plan that had been in place for a long time. He wore red on Sundays because his mother, Kultida, believed it was his power color. And, wearing red, he won all the time.

After the knee injury, though, and after the scandal, the tenor changed. The plan had veered off course. In 2008, it seemed a virtual guarantee that he would break Nicklaus’ major championship record of 18 – would, in fact, soar by it, maybe win 25 of them or even 30. Only two or three years later, there were all sorts of questions about Woods’ health, his many swing changes, his erratic putting, his mindset, his coaches, his equipment. Perhaps the most interesting question was this: How would Woods deal with this kind of adversity for the first time in his life?

Now, every now and again, he lets loose a small sense of how he is dealing with it:

“Was there ever a time you questioned yourself?” he was asked before the Masters.

“No,” he said. “There wasn’t.”

“Are you surprised how well you are playing?” he was asked at The Players Championship.

“Am I surprised?” he asked back. “No. I know a lot of people in this room thought I was done. But I’m not.”

“Do you think you will be as good as you once were?” he was asked at the Arnold Palmer Invitational?

“I don’t want to become as good as I once was,” he said. “No I don’t. I want to become better.”

TIGER WOODS is feeling his age.

He is not feeling it the way some people might expect … he clearly does not believe age has diminished his game or puts any limits on how well he can play for the next five to 10 years. But every so often, he will say something that makes it clear: He understands the times are changing.

For instance, he was asked if he can understand what Rory McIlroy is going through with all the pressure on him to perform and be a superstar and with every word of his being analyzed to absurdity (sort of like Woods’ words in this article).

He said that in some ways he can relate. But in other ways … no, it’s different.

“This is a slightly different era as well,” he said. “It’s even faster than it was when I came out. Things are instantaneous around the world. We were still in fax machines, things were a little bit slower. … You’ve got to be more, just got to think about it a little bit more before you say something or do something. It can get out of hand.”

And when asked about how much golf has changed since he arrived on the scene, he said “It gets harder and harder with each generation. The talent pool gets better. The kids are getting more athletic. They’re going earlier. They’ll be turning pro earlier than even I did. When I first came out here at 20 that was like, whoa, you’re coming out here pretty early. Now we gets kids turning pro at 15, 16. It’s different.”

This is an experienced Woods. He has lived quite a bit of life. He has achieved the greatest heights in his sports history. He has also endured some spectacular lows. The fan bases have congealed – there are those people who love him and those who cannot stand him, and few of them are going to change sides now. Woods understands he’s not a kid anymore. He doesn’t run 30 miles a week now; his body can’t take that kind of stress. He allows himself an occasional break to think about what he’s done. He will sometimes even talk a little bit about fatherhood.

“It’s a beautiful juggling act,” he said when talking about fatherhood and being the world’s most famous golfer. “I think people who are all parents in here will certainly attest to that. That’s the joy in life and to be able to be part of their life and watch them grow and help them grow.”

And, like most of us older people, he believes that what he’s lost in youthful exuberance and energy, he’s more than made up with life experience.

He was asked at The Players Championship: “If you could play your 18-year-old self in match play …”

“I would win now,” he said.

“Would you win 9 and 8?” he was asked.

“I don’t care. As long as I won.”

THE OTHER DAY, on Nelson Mandela’s birthday, Woods was asked about the great man. A younger Woods might have answered with a series of platitudes about how much he admired Mandela, how much he enjoyed meeting him … but instead, Woods told a deeply personal and touching story.

“The first time I ever met President Mandela was in ’98,” he said. “I went down there to play Sun City, and he invited me to his home. And my father and I went to lunch with him. It still gives me chills to this day, thinking about it. A gentleman asked us to go into this side room over here and said, ‘President Mandela will join you in a little bit.’

“We walked in them room and my dad and I were just kind of looking around. And I said, ‘Dad, do you feel that?’ And he says, ‘Yeah, it feels different in this room.’ And it was just like a different energy in the room. We just looked at each other and just shrugged our shoulders and whatever.

“I’m guessing probably 30 seconds later, I heard some movement behind me. And it was President Mandela folding up the paper. And it was pretty amazing. The energy that he has, that he exudes, is unlike any person I’ve ever met. … That’s an experience I will never, ever forget.”

Of course, we can’t know Tiger Woods. Not really. He’s too famous, too driven, too insular to ever really be known. We don’t know how many major championship victories he has left in him. But I love this little story of a young Woods, with his father and best friend, feeling the presence of Nelson Mandela. It says something about him. No, of course, it doesn’t tell us anything about how he will play on Saturday or Sunday. If it did, he wouldn’t have told the story in the first place.