Woods opens up and reaches out at Augusta

Tiger Woods, 2010 Masters, Monday
Harry How/Getty Images
Tiger Woods signed autographs for patrons after his practice round.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The Tiger Woods Charm Offensive took off Monday afternoon at Augusta National Golf Club. Call it what you want — Operation Believe in Me Again might fit — but don't scoff at or underestimate this performance. Tiger Woods is back. He's a competitor, and if you look at his public image issues as a game, he's treating them just like he said he's treating this week's Masters: "I'm going out there to try to win this thing."

Woods was masterly, pun intended, as he fielded tough questions that members of the media have been saving up for five months. This was Tiger Slam, Part Two. He was warm, genuine, thoughtful, at ease. He was conversational. This was a small window into the real Tiger Woods. When all was said and done, there was a sense of relief, certainly a small sense of closure. I can't speak for all the other media types in the room, but my thought was: Great, now let's get back to golf. Which, of course, would be just what Tiger Woods would've wanted.

This in no way smacked of the contrived mea culpa speech he gave in February, or even the two TV interviews he gave on March 22. This was a look at Tiger Woods as a normal human being with feelings. There's a sentence you've probably never read before. Woods has always been controlling and reserved, and while he still dodged a couple of key questions — what's he in rehab for, what happened that caused the car crash, and who else in his entourage knew about his scandalous behavior? — he mostly seemed forthcoming.

For instance, he admitted he was surprised and pretty much thrilled by his practice round Monday with Fred Couples. (They were later joined by Jim Furyk.) He didn't just get applause at the tees and greens; he got full-blown ovations. For a guy who's been thrown to the wolves by tabloid headlines and sleazy entertainment news outlets the last few months, that had to feel sweet.

"The galleries couldn't be nicer," he said. "The encouragement that I got, it blew me away to be honest with you, it really did. ... Today was just something that really touched my heart pretty good."

Tiger didn't have to admit that. He didn't have to tell us he was apprehensive and nervous about how he'd be received, and he didn't have to tell us how much the fans' reaction meant. But he did. Give the man a gold star.

It was also a good move on Tiger's part to apologize to his fellow players, who have been forced to answer incessant Tiger questions ever since the new golf season began. Perhaps Tiger's smartest move, and maybe his most effective move, was to talk about how he realized he hasn't treated golf fans as well as he should have. Tiger is taking his case right to the people. Again, this is the stuff of Charm Offensive 101. Give the people what they want, just a little love in return for their years of cheering, and they'll return the favor.

Woods said he's going to try to improve his on-course behavior and cut down on the thrown clubs, flipped clubs and F-bombs. By trying to be more even-keeled, he added, his celebrations may also be less exuberant. Well, we'll believe that when we believe that, as the great Yogi Berra once supposedly said. Woods went on to say that he's going to try to acknowledge the fans more, as he did Monday during his practice round.

"It was an incredible reception for all 18 holes," Woods said. "I haven't done that all these years (wave back, interact), and that was wrong of me. I just want to say thank you to them. It really put things into perspective for me how much I've underappreciated the fans of golf."

It is totally predictable that golf fans will lap that up. That's why they're fans. And that's why it was genius on Tiger's part to do it and say it. Can he keep it up? He's always been a tight-lipped, head-down, don't-look-at-the-crowd type of player, like Ben Hogan. He has not been a smiling, crowd-pleasing performer like Arnold Palmer or Phil Mickelson.

Tiger personalized his troubles for us. How can you not feel sympathy for a guy who feels he's a bad father? He talked about how he decided to enter rehab just before Christmas, and how spending the holiday with his family was "incredible." Going into rehab, he said, was a difficult time.

"I missed my son's first birthday and that hurts, that hurts a lot," Woods said. "I vowed I'd never miss another one after that. I want to be a part of my son's and daughter's lives going forward. That was a very hard day. That's something I regret and will probably regret the rest of my life."

Surprisingly, perhaps, Woods actually talked very little about golf during his 35-minute conversation. That's part of why he was so convincing. He talked about gaining perspective on life when his father, Earl, passed away in 2006, and then again when his children were born. It has made him realize what's important, and it's not necessarily golf.

"It's not about the championships, it's about how you live your life," Woods said. "I haven't done that the right way for a while. I needed to change that. Going forward, I need to be a better man than I was before. I'm trying as hard as I possibly can every day."

Tiger Woods talked the talk on Monday, and it was quite a talk. If he can walk the walk, it'll be quite a walk. Don't bet against him. He plays to win, and on a beautiful spring day at Augusta National, he won over a lot of people.

It might have been the most important day of his golfing career, and maybe even the most successful.

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