Tiger Woods and the art of answering uncomfortable questions
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Tiger Woods and the art of answering uncomfortable questions



There are a lot of questions you, nor I, want to answer about ourselves.

Most of them have to do with our faults and failures, where we came up short. They're the ones that will damage our egos to respond honestly because the truth is a tacit acknowledgement of where we went wrong or of answers we don't have. Often times, we're too proud to admit the error of our ways to ourselves, much less to other people in broad daylight.

It's through that lens that it can be easy to sympathize -- at least to a degree -- with a public figure like Tiger Woods, who must feel at times that his every movement is under scrutiny. While for others, it's a self-denialist mirage that is a device to justify their actions and world view, that's closer to true than not for Woods.

However, part of the social contract of being a public figure is being subjected to those prying questions from time to time. Those questions almost always percolate in the low moments, when the prism through which someone views themselves is tainted.

It's in those low moments that a person's instinct kicks in. It's not quite fight or flight, but it's close. And for Woods, he has surmised the best way to handle difficult questions is not to answer them -- at least in earnest.

Over the years, Woods has taken on the difficult questions that an often-collegial media feels required -- and is required -- to ask in moments of personal crisis, and he's deflected, demurred and obfuscated in response in hopes that the questions just go away. Woods has long known that the tough questions are only whispered when he's winning and that the next triumph probably wasn't that far off in the horizon. Now, though, Woods faces an uncertain future as he is still discovering what his future life will look like nine months removed from a single-car accident outside of Los Angeles that could have killed him and unsuspecting others driving on the other side of the divided highway over which Woods and his car ramped at 87 mph without braking last February.

It was evident at the Hero World Challenge on Tuesday that Woods didn't want to get into his recollections, if any, of the accident or his condition before it. In response to a media question, he said he's already covered that topic in statements to the police regarding his accident. He hasn't. Tactic 1: give an answer with a half-truth, project is as the full truth and move on.

Woods did offer information, however, about the state of his right foot and leg, which bore the brunt of the wreck. He said he was immobilized for three months and that the amputation of his right foot was discussed as a potential option. He didn't expound at particular depth about those facts, but he put them out there as headlines that, unto themselves, are meaty. Tactic 2: serve red meat for the press and public, albeit in microscopic portions.

The 15-time major winner -- who said he "got that last major" in a line that will be parsed as either waving the white flag in his chase of Nicklaus or a reference to a strained belief he could still add to his tally -- prefers to make familiar remarks, a coping mechanism familiar to anyone. He joked about his tan. He referenced his children, and rightly so, in talking about his future. He said he missed the camaraderie with his fellow pros. Those are all things Woods has done before. Tactic 3: rehash the familiar.

The most fascinating thing Woods tactic, however, is Tactic 4: cling to hope. Woods has built his life around achieving goals that seem insurmountable to most every average human being. He's achieved many of them. He's won 82 times on the PGA Tour -- T-1, albeit with a golfer whose official win tally is somewhat murky. He's won 15 majors, including the most dominant stretch of major championship golf ever played and placing on the list of the greatest comeback victory in the game's history. It's those past achievements that carry him forward -- not the real consequences of that mindset, including self-destructive behavior that very well could have killed someone in three different automobile incidents in the last dozen years.

In this moment of doubt and very real pain, Woods is still faintly able to cling to this idea that he could, and he might, play and win again. At nearly 46, Woods sounded perhaps the most realistic about his comeback chances at any stage of his career. Througout the darkest days of his trio of back surgeries a half-decade ago, Woods was realistic but equally defiant in assessing his chances, often referencing Tom Watson's close call in the 2009 Open as a beacon of hope. Turned out, that comparison wasn't ill-conceived.

Now, though, Woods, for all of his knowledge of golf history, holds tight to the example of Ben Hogan. Hogan made an inconceivable comeback to the absolute pinnacle of the game after a near-fatal car wreck that wasn't his fault. The Texan concocted a schedule laser-focused on the majors, and he regimented his work around preparing his game and convalescing his body ahead of those tournaments. Incredibly, Hogan won six majors after getting railroaded by a truck in 1949, including three majors in 1953. Unlike Watson, whose 72nd-hole approach landed an unfortunate yard long of golf's greatest triumph at Turnberry, Hogan did the dang thing.

Woods is weary and wary, however, after a lifetime in the spotlight. He made it clear that he has achieved more than enough in the game -- and he has, beyond anyone's loftiest real expectations -- and that there's nothing left to prove. He doesn't know if it's worth it to limp out in public again, literally and figuratively, on a quest that might prove quixotic. Whatever fire he has left is flickering, and that perhaps was the most revealing thing in his news conference. This was no deflection tactic.

And yet, at his core, Woods has been singularly focused his entire life on answering a single question: Can he do it?

The "it" has changed -- from winning on the PGA Tour, to winning a major, to winning all the majors in a row, to breaking it down and doing it better, to chasing down Nicklaus and Snead, to getting back up off the mat after he nearly KO'd himself while  shadowboxing -- but that is the only question Woods has truly wanted to answer. If he has no desire to answer that question now, then what?

It's not clear Woods is prepared to answer that follow-up.

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Ryan Ballengee

Ryan Ballengee is founder and editor of Golf News Net. He has been writing and broadcasting about golf for over a decade, working for NBC Sports, Golf Channel, Yahoo Sports and SB Nation. Ballengee lives in the Washington, D.C. area with his family. He used to be a good golfer.

Ballengee can be reached by email at ryan[at]thegolfnewsnet.com

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