Despite the sideshow surrounding him, it was good to see Tiger Woods again

Saturday February 20th, 2010
Tiger Woods said he does not know when he will return to golf.
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Let's forget all the sideshow stuff for a change and concentrate on what actually matters: It was good to see Tiger Woods on live TV again, at TPC Sawgrass, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

Surely, it was nothing like the first time we all saw him on live TV at TPC Sawgrass, on the course itself. That was in the summer of '94, when the kid was winning the U.S. Amateur at age 18, with his stick legs and loose shorts, wearing a straw hat in the hot wind. That's when he became the youngest person to win a U.S. Amateur, the son of black father and a Thai mother, almost smart enough to get in Stanford without his golf, an elite child golfer without even the annoying whiff of the country club in him. We couldn't get enough of Eldrick. He was the brand new day.

And then today, 16 years later, he was back at TPC Sawgrass, this time in its fortress of a clubhouse, emerging from behind a blue curtain that kept us from ... who knows exactly what and who cares? The beauty of tournament golf — for the players, for the fans, for the TV cameras, for the writers — is that there's nowhere to hide. We see it all. More and more in modern life, we want to see it all off the course, too. Woods is not built for that, and I'm sympathetic. He wants his own life behind the curtain.

When he finally did emerge from behind that blue curtain, after three months out of the public eye, my first thought was, "It's good to see him." Tiger Woods has been an important part of my life for 16 years now. If your feelings about golf are more than casual, you might feel the same thing.

He looked different. Pale and burdened and smaller than normal. Unsure where to look. He sounded different, too. Tiger is almost hyper-articulate. You can put his on-the-fly quotes straight in the paper, and the verb and the subject always agree. But now he was reading, racing through some parts, looking up and pausing dramatically at others. Sure, part of it was acting. A lot of life is acting.

But only the most viciously cynical person would not take what he said at face value. He said he's never taken performance-enhancing drugs. I choose to believe him. He said he'll return to golf eventually. Of course he will. He said his highest priorities were his wife and his children and reclaiming the values with which he was raised. That, of course, is the heart of whole thing.

Those photos on the clubhouse walls at TPC Sawgrass, showing Eldrick in '94 making golf history without a dime on the line, you can imagine what seeing them must evoke for Woods. All that promise. He overdelivered and underdelivered. Well, that's life, right? You take one path and the door closes behind you, forever. Every single one of us will make wrong choices. Oops, can I go back? No. All you can do is accept, make amends, improve and go forward. That to me is what Tiger did today, with much of the world watching. He's a public figure, no matter how much that may pain him to admit. Public figures have to do weird things. He's been doing this in private for a while, I'm sure. Anyway, he took the step forward.

It can't be easy. Think how weird and awkward this must be for Woods, shy to begin with, to have to apologize for having affairs with millions watching and his mother sitting in the first row. I mean, it's not like he's a politician or a religious leader, is it? And then the straight-on camera goes on the fritz so now we have this odd over-the-shoulder angle that gives us Tiger in profile and his mother looking right at him. It's almost pathetic that it's come to this.

Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge in '68 on Martha's Vineyard and a woman died, and he went on TV to reclaim his public life. Now, four decades later, an athlete has affairs and has to do the same. It makes my skin crawl. I like my reality TV with play-by-play from Johnny Miller.

Now that '94 U.S. Amateur, Johnny going ga-ga over Eldrick, that was real and live TV. This whole thing today was staged TV, a sad spectacle, really. ESPN was talking about devoting hours of coverage to Woods's 15 minutes of Friday-morning fame.

But Woods, to his credit, accepted where he is. He did it. Golfers are maybe better equipped to handle reality than other athletes. The roots of the game, at every level, are to accept where your ball is and use whatever intelligence and skill you have and make the best of your situation. That's what Woods did today. He took his beloved baby steps — one baby step, really — into the next chapter of his life. He took responsibility. He's going to try to make things right at home. He sounded like a man, a man who was sorry.

He also talked about cleaning up his behavior on the golf course. That's the part that made me nervous. His fierce golfing intensity — almost frightening, really — when he made his first public stand at Sawgrass is what sucked us in in the first place. But today was not a day for golfing intensity. It was the first step in the long walk from the clubhouse to the practice tee.

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