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Promise Not Kept

A year ago this week, Tiger Woods returned to public view in the form of a hastily arranged confessional before a room full of close friends and millions of television viewers. His dirty laundry had been hung for all to see, so Woods put on a blazer, looked us in the eye and vowed to change his ways.

On the golf course, things have remained very much the same. Woods’ victory total hasn’t budged, and as he reminded us again last Sunday in Dubai, his competitive deportment leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many. To be fair, Tiger faces a much higher level of scrutiny than other Tour pros. No player is given nearly the same amount of attention during a final-round telecast when he is out of contention, nor does anyone do a poorer job of hiding his displeasure when things aren’t going well. Call it a flammable mix.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods promises to be better behaved on the course during his Feb. 19, 2010 statement. (Getty Images)
No one but Woods would warrant several seconds of camera time while squatting on a green, then turning his head and spitting onto the putting surface, a defiant act by a man whose nature is not wholly compatible with the simplest laws of compliance. Still, it boggles my mind that the incident was picked up by so many media agencies beyond the golf community. Front-page news: Sir Eldrick hocks a loogie.

Having known Woods for the better part of 15 years, having spent considerable time with him on practice ranges and putting greens in addition to a few occasions away from the course, I got to know the guy who wasn’t built for mass consumption. Petulant, definitely a bit sophomoric, but not in a harmful way. Overly sarcastic, exceptionally quick-witted -- Tiger always struck me as the caricature of a man’s man, and if he wasn’t the greatest golfer who ever lived, you might politely describe him as an acquired taste.

I’ve often told those who ask that the Tiger Woods they’ve seen in television ads is a 180-degree departure from the real dude in the red shirt, and for more than a decade, there really weren’t many conflicts. Woods was so good at playing golf and smiling on cue that marketing him as a wholesome, warm-blooded assassin was basically a no-brainer. He sold Buicks, fished off a pier with some unwitting codger and built a foundation that helped hundreds of kids from an educational standpoint.

He did a lot of good, won a lot of trophies, and when he did something bad, there weren’t any cameras around. Meanwhile, I spent a lot of time thinking. If you want to win 19 major titles and stuff every all-time record in your pocket, you have to turn up all the alpha-male dials and leave 'em there. As Springsteen said, 'no retreat, no surrender.' That’s not a gameface, partner. That’s just who I am.

People aren’t ganging up on Woods now because he’s winless since whenever. He got beat up for cussing and tossing clubs when he was hauling in six victories a season, but from the viewpoint of a wide-angle lens, he was a champion without peer, chained to exceedingly high standards, ferocious in his pursuit of excellence and atrocious when it came to controlling his temper. Way back when, Tiger’s conduct was easier to rationalize – you could always point to that great big pile of Ws.

Ain’t no pile anymore. When Woods stepped to that podium on Feb. 19, 2010, I think he really intended to change. I also think he thought he could salvage his marriage, but when that didn’t happen and the victory drought got larger, he realized, perhaps subconsciously, that trying to be Mr. Nice Guy wasn’t working. Better to win golf tournaments and be yourself than to not and not.

So here we are, one year later. Tiger tried to cover up the saliva with his putter, but that didn’t work, either.