SOUTHAMPTON, NY – “It’s a process.”
If the old Tiger Woods said it once, he said it a thousand times. It became a joke in the media center. I thought it was merely a combination of platitude and mantra; something to he chanted to himself as he worked the range that had the added benefit of saying everything and nothing at the same time during interviews.
Then I suddenly decided I needed to get better at golf and learned that Woods was exactly right. You improve only a little at a time. Sort of like life, we spend our whole lives trying to get less dumb at what we do.
“Golf is always frustrating. There’s always something that isn’t quite right, and that’s where we as players, have to make adjustments,” Woods said Tuesday, referring to his close brushes with PGA Tour victories this season. He didn’t need to say the words.
It’s also a process for Woods re-acclimate to life on Tour. This third incarnation of his career – Tiger 3.0 as it were – has, over the course of his life endured enough medical procedures to rebuild the Bionic Man and enough scandals and heartache to write a No. 1 country album.
That's the funny thing about fate. It always comes as a surprise
And so it was that the Tiger Woods that sat before a standing-room-only crowd of media came off, once again, as more mature, more grateful and milder. He may have been just as guarded, but gone were the flashes of arrogance and subtle signals of assertive dominance that we saw in years past.
Time and stress will do that to anyone, even the once invincible-seeming Woods.
“There’s really no expectation to have thought that I could actually be here again. It was about just having my standard of life. Forget golf. Can I actually participate in my kids’ lives again?” he admitted candidly.
The answer has been a solid yes. Woods has not only played, but contended, even shown flashes of brilliance at time. He finished second at Valspar, T-5 at Bay Hill (and that after splashing a drive into the lake on the 70th hole), 11th at the Players, and he had a brief tie for the lead on Saturday at the Memorial before a late fade dropped him into a tie for 23rd. He hasn’t won yet, but he’s been trending upwards steadily - it’s a process, remember – and if he hangs around enough leaderboards, he might.
Now 42, Woods is still also one of the smartest golfers on Tour, and he always tries to be the most prepared. Woods has always been good with answering questions about Xs and Os. His golf IQ is stratospheric, and he genuinely enjoys discussing the finer details of the game, and yesterday was no exception. His razor-sharp analysis broke down Shinnecock like a fraction.
“Bill [Coore] and Ben [Crenshaw] do a fantastic job of trying to open up a golf course, trying top make it more natural looking, but also provide more shot options... When I played here in ’95 and ’04, you know, we had 4-6 inch rough right off of the greens. This is very different,” he explained, particularly noting that balls will scurry every which way off these greens, but also that many different types of recovery shots were available.
“It doesn’t just have to be a towering shot. We can utilize the ground and have that as an ally.”
Then of course Woods 3.0 turned into Woods 1.0 for a minute to zing Phil Mickelson -- now more friend than frienemy -- and because of that now a target for some harmless fun. When asked about Phil not winning the U.S. Open he noted, “You would think this would be the one that he would have the least chance to win because of the way he’s driven it most of his career.”
That elicited chuckles.
But then Woods gave with the right hand what he took with the left.
“But that short game of his is off the charts. And you know a U.S. Open is about wedging it. You’ve got to get it up and down from 100 yards. We’re all going to face it and he’s been one of the best of all time at doing that,” he said earnestly.
Then he became Urkel again when he started calling Brooks Koepka by the saccharin-sweet nickname “Brooksy.” He did it twice, actually. Woodsy and Brooksy, Brooksy and Woodsy: They sound like trust fund puppies from Choate.
Still, Woods was far more charming, more thankful, ever so slightly more open about life after injury and scandal. Sure he dodged a question about how his life has improved since then. “It’s gotten better,” he replied laconically. But overall, he won over the room; there were no snaps, snipes or sour notes. Is he truly reconciled and remorseful. We’ll see, but for now, he’s saying and doing everything right on and off the golf course, and that’s a start.
Warming to the new Tiger Woods? It’s a process.