AUGUSTA, GEORGIA | If Tiger Woods is truly on his way to becoming a changed man, as he is bearing witness, it’s going to be up to us to decide whether we approve of the subsequent transformation, if such an alteration happens at all. It’s never easy for a Tiger to change his stripes, and a Tiger always has to be a Tiger. He can’t become something he’s not.
The Tiger we thought we knew was a trained assassin, a cold-blooded killer who would cut the heart out of each of his competitors and stomp on it without a moment’s compassion. The Tiger we have now come to know is a liar and a cheat. Or not anymore, according to him.
The Tiger we’re supposed to get to know will neither swear and throw clubs nor be unkind to little children. He is going to acknowledge the crowd, sign autographs, smile more, and if he happens to win a tournament along the way, it’s not all that important, now, is it? In the bargain, the new Tiger will also no longer fist pump and scream when he makes a putt to win a tournament.
“I’m going to try not to get as hot when I play,” Woods said at his press conference last Monday at Augusta National. “But then again, when I’m not as hot, I’m not going to be as exuberant, either. I can’t play one way without the other, and so I made a conscious decision to try and tone down my negative outbursts and, consequently, I’m sure my positive outbursts will be calmed down, as well.”
We can’t have one part of the old Tiger without the other, neither can we have a portion of the new Tiger without taking the whole package. How is that going to sit? Really, can you imagine Woods making that impossible chip-in at the 16th with just a wry smile on his face? Can you picture him making the putt that put him into a playoff with Rocco Mediate with a mere wave of his hand?
We love Woods for his exuberance and we forgive him for dropping the occasional f-bomb on television in front of the kiddies. What sets him apart is that he’s so much more mentally tough than anyone else who has ever played the game. If he were to lose that hard edge on the course, does that diminish his power over other players? Can he win major championships with grade-C mental faculties? While it’s clear that people don’t love Tiger as they once did – and might never again – are they going to tune in to watch a softer, fluffier house cat?
Woods dropped this observation as one of many answers to questions he was asked during his first full-scale press conference since the events of Nov. 27 of last year. The interview room at Augusta National was filled to capacity and a hush fell over the assemblage when the doors swung open and Woods walked into the room. It was as if a defendant had entered a crowded courtroom.
He stopped to hug Augusta National member Ron Townsend and wore the nervous smile of a man about to face a jury for the first time. When he spoke, he was soft and calm, and for the first time in memory, Tiger Woods actually looked humble. There was a complete lack of arrogance or hubris as he took one question at a time and answered them – completely enough for some, insufficiently for others.
He was at his most revealing when he shared a family story while he was in rehab for a still undisclosed addiction. “I missed my son’s first birthday,” he said. “And that hurts. That hurts a lot. I vowed I would never miss another one after that.”
He was asked twice about his relationship with the indicted physician, Dr. Anthony Galea, who is charged with selling performance-enhancing drugs. Woods denied ever taking HGH or any other illegal drug. He was asked about his use of Ambien and Vicodin and said he never abused either drug and has not been in rehab because of an addiction to those drugs.
He apologized to his fellow players for being responsible for extra, unwanted media attention in the form of others having to answer questions about Woods. And he admitted to being nervous on the first tee in his first practice round in front of people in more than five months.
“That first tee, I didn’t know what to expect, I really didn’t,” Woods said. “To be out there in front of the people where I’ve done some things that are just horrible and for the fans to want to see me play golf again, I mean that felt great, it really did.”
Whether the new model is a scrubbed-up version of the old or a new breed of cat altogether will largely depend on time, which has proven to heal all. In the meantime, be careful what you wish for.