Tiger Woods, Act II

ORLANDO | Tiger Woods is no longer the Fresh Prince of Bay Hill. But it’s becoming increasingly apparent that, at 37, he is discovering a second act in life and in golf. Today he is heavily favored to continue that trip as he takes a three-shot lead over four players into the weather-delayed final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational with 16 holes to play. In this latest “process,” Tiger The Intimidator has morphed into a combination of Tiger The Healthy, Tiger The Efficient and, yes, Tiger The Less Guarded. To be sure, there are still potholes. When Woods bogeyed his last three holes late Friday afternoon under intermittent rain and darkening skies, a kind of embarrassed silence fell over the property. It ruined an otherwise prototypical Woods charge and left him four back of the 36-hole lead, four pairings adrift of the final Saturday grouping. It was as if the special guest at an exclusive dinner party had suddenly, inexplicably and clumsily spilled an expensive glass of red wine all over a fine linen table cloth. The first tip-off that something had changed, though, was the notable lack of club slamming and swearing. In its place was a kind of quieter resolve. By the time Woods posted a sizzling Saturday 66 he had gained a two-shot lead over three players and growing recognition that he was, at least a little bit, kinder and gentler. To be sure, Arnold Palmer is the king of this annual gathering in Central Florida that caps the Florida Swing while serving as the last best dress rehearsal before The Masters. But Woods has long been the royal star of the show inside the ropes, having won seven times previously. He arrived this year one victory short of regaining his spot atop the Official World Golf Ranking. He talked openly and comfortably about his budding relationship with skier Lindsey Vonn. And, he said, he couldn’t be happier about his return to full health and the “efficiency” in his game he had finally attained after almost three years with instructor Sean Foley. Woods did everything but admit that he was ready to start dominating the game again the way he had in his mid-20s, a period during which he coldly intimidated everybody and everything in his path. That was before a bunch of things happened. In late 2009 the intimidation disappeared quicker than you can say “hydrant.” And the guys he had beaten down for so long suddenly weren’t scared anymore. Most of them knew he likely would find his way back to the top. But they weren’t frightened about the prospect. Golf’s an interesting sport when it comes to intimidation, said Graeme McDowell. “Your playing partner can’t tackle you. “Being intimidated by a golfer is not like staring down a linebacker or someone who is carrying a rugby ball coming after you, 250 pounds. That’s intimidating. Standing on the tee box alongside a guy playing the game of golf is not really intimidating.” Out of respect, McDowell added, “Tiger Woods is a phenomenal golfer and maybe the best player that’s ever lived. It’s fun to play with him.” But not terrifying. Arch-enemy Phil Mickelson said much the same after his winning final-round 64 blew away Woods’ 75 at Pebble Beach in 2012. “Playing with him inspires me,” Mickelson said. “But I do need to premise that although I feel like he brings out the best in me, it’s only been the past five years. Before, I got spanked pretty good.” Hunter Mahan was one of the first to sigh with relief on this subject. In 2010, when the world was still waiting for Woods to climb out from the crater that was his personal life, Mahan said the best players had “stopped being intimidated by him. No one is scared by him. I think people have figured out he is just a human being.” Clearly Justin Rose, who also works with Foley, wasn’t hearing any footsteps but his own the first two days at Bay Hill. Playing in a group with Woods, Rose burst out of the blocks with a Thursday 65 and shared the halfway lead at 9 under. “I think when you play with Tiger, you’re sharp mentally,” Rose said. “He brings the crowd, he brings an atmosphere with him, and I think that helps in a sense.” Intimidation? Not a whiff. All of this sea change speaks not so much to the player Woods “isn’t” now, but to the player he “was” in his 20s. One thing hasn’t changed. You won’t catch Woods going anywhere near the word “prime.” Asked Wednesday at Bay Hill if he thought he could become as good as he once was, Woods didn’t miss a beat. “I don’t want to become as good as I once was,” Woods said. “I want to become better.” That has always been his stated goal. But the day is coming – five, 10, 20 or 30 years from now – when even Woods will realize his improvement curve has turned downward permanently – that he is, after all, just a human being. That realization, personal scandals notwithstanding, may be the hardest thing he will ever have to acknowledge publicly. Or maybe it won’t.


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