Tiger Woods lost to Graeme McDowell in a playoff at the Chevron World Challenge.
Gus Ruelas/AP
By Michael Bamberger
Thursday, December 09, 2010

So much for the idea that the golf season ends with the PGA Championship. Or, in even-numbered years, the Ryder Cup. The single most mesmerizing event since Tiger's return and Phil's win at the Masters in April was last week's tournament, the Chevron World Challenge. I promise never again to call it the Tiger & Friends Silly Season Cash Grab. Because it's not, or wasn't on Sunday. You never know what a day is going to bring.

\nIt was refreshing to hear the winner, Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland, refer to the host as "a great guy." By which he meant, and I'm doing some mind-reading here, he's fun to play with, he's good for the game, his sex life didn't impact me. He was talking about Tiger Woods the professional golfer. I believe that's common among Europeans, to separate public and private lives.

\nI realize that millions see it differently. Many people are still angry and disappointed in Woods and are actively rooting against him. If you want to enjoy the new golf season, you might consider following G-Mac's lead. Because it looks like we're going to see a whole lot of Woods in the new year, and hate just takes so much out of you. The pleasure of the Chevron was that it was pure golf, contested by two of the most engaging figures in the game. One is on top of the golf world, winner of the U.S. Open at Pebble, star of the victorious European Ryder Cup team in Wales. Every time you see McDowell, he's on another continent. As for Woods, he's almost starting over. Between Woods and McDowell, whose future in the game do you think is more promising? I wouldn't want to guess.

\nYou must be prepared for surprises in this game, like when you make a bomb for bogey and it winds up halving a hole. That also goes for the golfers we watch, for the shots they play, for the tournaments they play in. The networks and the golf magazines can try to build up this event or that one, but all that only goes so far. I like watching the annual spring tournament on the Stadium Course (though it was better in March than May), but do you know anybody who gets Players Fever?

\nSurprise, like we had Sunday at the Chevron, is the true fan's stock-in-trade.

\nMaybe you had this experience. You were clicking through the channels one Sunday afternoon last month and came upon In-Kyung Kim, a sleek LPGA player, going crazy-low on a Sunday to overtake the way-telegenic Suzann Pettersen on a beautiful golf course in Guadalajara. Elegant Lorena Ochoa, tournament host, was on hand to pass out the hardware. It was already good. And then what does the winner do? She pledges her entire first-place check, $220,000, to charity. I nominated Billy Wagner for Sportsman of the Year, and Drew Brees was certainly an admirable choice, but with one dramatic, selfless act Kim separated herself from the crowd and into that conversation. There was no way you could know it was coming, could you?

\nThen last week, on a dank Sunday in December, there were two new characters to watch. Graeme McDowell is not the same man he was in mid-June, before he won the Open at Pebble. Tiger is not the same man he was before Y.E. Yang beat him in the 2009 PGA Championship. He is not the same man he was before we knew the details of his private texts. He is not the same man he was before he started seeing Sean Foley as his swing coach. Maybe your view is that people don't change. I don't know about that.

\nHave you ever heard of the French actor Vincent Cassel? He was in "Ocean's Twelve" and has a new movie called "Black Swan," and the other day he was on NPR. The interviewer, Terry Gross, was talking to him about putting on weight for a role, and then taking it off.

\nGross asked, "Were you afraid that you would never be yourself again physically?"

\n"Well, I have a tendency to think that you always change, really," Cassel said. "So you never really are the one you were yesterday."

\nWhat do you think about that? I had never thought about day-to-day life that way before, but I can see his point. You can apply it anywhere. The golf question of the moment is, "Is Tiger back?" My belief is that Tiger will win again, win major championships again, maybe get to 18. But if he dominates again it won't be a repeat of his 2000 domination. He'll never be that person again. He'll never elicit the same feelings in us again. I'm not saying they'll be better or worse, just different. We'll be different, too. You are not the one today who you were yesterday. Cue French accent.

\nThere was some serious role reversal at Sherwood Country Club last week. GMac, making those two 20-footers on Woods on 18 — first in regulation, then in a playoff — did to Woods what Woods used to do to others. The script's gone, out with the recycling. Woods hit a spectacular high fade approach shot to 18, showing faith in what is wrongly being called his new swing. (It's just a continuing evolution of his old one. The thing I see is that his left toe is out more, and it lets him get his hands higher and slash at it, great for a cut, really more like Big Jack did in his fading prime.) Woods used to be the only guy in golf who could play defense. He could make you miss your putt. How, I don't know, but he did. He can't do that anymore. He's no longer the one he was yesterday.

\nOf course, it would be naïve to say people don't have habits. They do. We all have habits, patterns, comfort zones. Woods will almost never say something intimate in interviews, but he can talk about technical stuff all day long. That was true before the scandal, during it and after it. When the golf was done on Sunday, he said this about his putting and his new putter: "With the [new] groove technology, there's less loft. I was unfortunately trying to get my face to look like it normally does and address the same amount of face I normally see, and my hands were getting back, and I kept scooping it to the left or I would hold onto it because it was going to come. But then I figured, you know what, just put your hands and body right where you used to have it and just go putt and see what happens." I could listen to this stuff all day, but is there anything there where the therapist could ask, "And how did that make you feel?"

\nWhen he returned to golf after his brief self-imposed exile, Woods said he would be more respectful of the game. At the Masters, I noticed he was doing a lot less on-course spitting. But at the Chevron, it was back to his old phlegmy ways. I don't care what kind of allergies he might have, spitting on a golf course is horrible manners and not respectful. I never saw Jack Nicklaus or Annika Sorenstam or Bing Crosby or even Judge Elihu Smails spit on a course.

\nI'm not going to get Tiger to stop spitting, and he's not going to be able to stop people from holing putts on him. Maybe he'll develop that aura again where people are afraid to make putts on him. I don't want to make any predictions. There's way too much of that these days, and at year-end it's practically an epidemic. I'm more eager to see who he'll be tomorrow. Ditto for myself.

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