We learned a few things at the 89th PGA Championship at Southern Hills, among them that the older Woody Austin gets the better he used to be; Ernie Els is not over the hill; the ball flies farther in 100-degree temperatures that feel like 110; and the Cherokee Casino ought to open up a golf school.
But we did not learn much more about Tiger Woods, who of course ended up winning the thing.
It wasn't for a lack of trying. What crystallized more than anything was how desperate we are to learn something even the least bit revealing about the golfer who is the beginning and the end of the story almost every time he plays. He's won 13 majors, but we still know next to nothing about the man who named his yacht "Privacy."
How is this possible? Excellence is interesting to watch, but it gets less so with the passage of time. After a while you want some context, a telling detail to reveal the human side, without which excellence can become increasingly hard to grasp and almost impossible to articulate in a way that doesn't read like the back of a baseball card.
Alas, such context, such detail, is not forthcoming from Woods. He is not about to emerge from his cone of silence, his well-polished campaign message. He is an Everest of cliches, and the increasingly desperate media are a climbing party without a map, a Sherpa or even half a chance of getting anywhere. Herewith, the gruesome wreckage of the latest expedition gone horribly wrong at last Saturday's press conferences, with Woods's answers mercifully paraphrased in accordance with the Geneva Conventions:
Q. Some players were talking about how the trouble they usually get into is trying to protect a lead, maybe trying not to back up to other people and being a little too conservative. But you don't seem to do that. Even though you might not play as aggressively, why is it you don't seem to fall under the same trap that other guys tend to do?
Woods talked about how he's played tournament golf for so long he simply understands how to win. He has a feel for what the winning score will be, what his peers can do, how a course is playing, which way the wind is blowing, when to gamble, when to play safe. This was news to exactly no one in the press pavilion or anyone who's watched five minutes of golf on TV. We get it. Tiger's very good, he's been that way for a long time, winning is a habit, losing is a habit for the other guys, Woods intuits how to win better than maybe anyone ever has. Nothing new here.
Q. Can you explain just how dominant you've been in the 12 majors you've won where you had the 54-hole lead and always closed it out?
This is an old journalism trick called rephrasing the question, although the next time it works on Woods will be the first. He droned on about how he's experienced at winning, he's built on success since his junior golf days, and, well, you get the idea. He should have just held up a flashcard with the old Louis Armstrong quote: "If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know."
Q. Beyond the 12 for 12, you're over 90% in your career as a closer with the third-round lead. I know you're asked always to try to explain why that is. Maybe a new way to ask it, Ernie was in here earlier and he said not as a competitor, but if he's a guy on the couch, it's over. The creation of that mystique, what that does to the field, how do you characterize that advantage?
This is an old journalism trick called letting Ernie Els ask the question. It doesn't work on Woods, either. He has been asked to explain his dominance for so long he's had the engineers at Buick implant the answer in his tonsils using OnStar technology. He simply presses an unseen button, moves his mouth and out comes a prerecorded answer about how he's been fortunate to win a few tournaments (love the false modesty), how winning breeds winning, winning never gets old, Stevie gave him a great read, all those miles (running) really pay off on days like this, and on and on, an unnavigable avalanche of Woodspeak.
Q. How would you describe the effect? I know I'm asking you to go outside yourself here, on the field, why a great golfer, repeat major champion like Ernie, would say that?
Desperate to bring this line of questioning to a close, Woods got succinct. "Maybe it's because I've won 12 majors," he said, and everybody laughed. It's all so simple! He's won 12 majors! Ha, ha! We learned equally little when another golfer invoked the old line about Jack Nicklaus: Standing on the first tee he knows that he's better than you, you know he's better than you, and you know that he knows that you know that he knows he's better than you. (Or something like that. This isn't Shakespeare.) Woods had won this round as he does almost every round in the media scrum, ever since a GQ writer caught him telling barely offensive jokes many years ago. The golf writers ended with a couple of clunkers, sad, desperate questions that encapsulated our latest hapless trek into the void:
Q. That towel you're wearing looks kind of like a cape except it's not red. Is there any message for that?
"No," Woods said. "I don't want to freeze and get a cold."
Q. Would you be interested in a friendly wager with Ames tomorrow?
"I think we all understand we have a major championship on the line," Woods said. "I think that's enough, isn't it?"
You win, Tiger.