Woods still searching for pre-scandal form

Tiger Woods
Fred Vuich/SI
Tiger Woods failed to break par in any of his four rounds at the AT&T National.

Jack Nicklaus used to say that nobody could have more fun being who he is than Arnold Palmer has being Arnold Palmer. Arnold flying his plane. Arnold throwing his winning ball to the gallery. Arnold telling Bob Drum stories in the grillroom at Bay Hill. Good times.

And then there was Tiger Woods last week at the AT&T National, a man who for years had life by the tail. There he was, at stately ­Aronimink, outside Philadelphia, trying to reclaim his place in the world with every swing he took, with every question he answered, with every autograph he signed. And all the while, back on the blogosphere, there were newsy bits about his alleged divorce settlement and his recent sealed testimony in the federal PED investigation of the Canadian doctor who treated him. Tiger's life these days looks like all work and no play.

Not that I really know. With Tiger, you never really know. In an interview in Golf Digest Tiger's former teacher, Hank Haney, said, "I always felt like I knew Tiger from observing him. I did not feel like I knew him from knowing him." That's what we all do. We observe him and reach our own conclusions.

The poor bastard. (Yes, he brought this on himself. Still ...) Woods hates scrutiny, and he's never had more of it than he's had in the past 3 1/2 months, since his return to the game at the Masters after his brief leave of absence following the revelation of his serial infidelities.

But something amazing has happened since Billy Payne, the Augusta National chairman, gave Woods his morals lecture/ public pep talk on April 7. Woods is winning back real golf fans, the kind who pay good money, board crowded shuttle buses and contort their bodies behind large perspiring men for the chance to see golfing gods at play. At the U.S. Open last month at Pebble Beach, when Woods shot a third-round 66 and clawed his way into contention, there was a massive energy surge in his direction. At Aronimink last Saturday, at nine in the morning, with Woods making the AT&T cut on the number, there were thousands of people ringing the 1st tee and green, wanting to see a glimpse of the man, clapping for him lustily. Some of them, I suspect, feel what I feel. That his sex life is his business. That his recklessness and arrogance are astounding. That watching him play golf is a thrill.

What we saw on that 430-yard, par-4 1st hole on Saturday was this: an on-a-string drive that went 330 yards, a smashed sand wedge that finished about four paces short of the green, a lousy chip with the putter, a missed nine-footer, an opening bogey.

I was surprised by the third shot. The flag was only about 10 feet from the front of the green, but the fairway was damp with dew, and the first 12 feet of the shot were straight up a hill. Woods pitches and chips as well as anybody who has ever played. I was expecting him to play the ball, to some degree, in the air.

After the round I asked him about that third shot with the putter. He said the pin was too close for him to play the shot with any other club. I appreciate the insight into his thinking, but I believe Woods in his prime would have used any other club there: three-wood, eight-iron, sand wedge.

With Woods, there's what he does and what he says. There's what he says and, as Haney noted, what you observe. In a pre-tournament interview last week Woods was asked about the state of his relationship with his longtime caddie, Steve Williams. Some people thought that Woods, in his Sunday night remarks at Pebble, was blaming Williams for various mental mistakes Woods had made. "There's no tension there," Woods said. "Not at all. You guys are reading way too much into it."

I don't know. Watching Woods and Williams last week was almost painful. On Thursday, on the par-5 16th, Woods hit the single worst shot I've ever seen him hit. For his third, Woods had about 85 yards, slightly uphill, into a whisper of a breeze, to a wide-open pin with a backstop behind it. Just a regular, everyday sand wedge shot. Woods hit it 20 yards right and 20 yards short, into a greenside bunker. He gave the club a hard backhand flip, and the wedge went skimming along the beautiful bentgrass fairway and came to a sudden stop right at Stevie's bright white Nike shoes. Woods was understandably disgusted —you and I would be too. Still, no caddie wants to pick up that heaved club. It's humiliating. But Williams did. What's he going to do, quit like Haney? Williams's face was grim.

Of course there's caddie-player tension. Woods had been leading a double life, and one of the people he is closest to maintains he knew nothing about it. The whole thing is ... creepy. There was caddie-player tension before Pebble and during Pebble. There was caddie-player tension at Aronimink. As for next week, at the British Open at St. Andrews, who knows? In golf, as in life, there are always fresh starts. Woods won the last two Opens at St. Andrews, in 2000 and '05, with Williams on the bag. Good times.

The fact is, no matter how much you ­respect Woods's right to privacy, you have to acknowledge that he is in the middle of a reality show the likes of which nobody has seen. Look at what he achieved in his first 14 years as a professional. The 14 majors. The massive wealth. The beautiful wife. The two lovely kids. And since November, a total free fall. Woods had to wait about two or three minutes before he played that 85-yard fanned wedge shot on Thursday. Do you think it's possible that during that time his mind drifted to Elin, to Sam and Charlie, to Dr. Anthony Galea in Toronto, to Rachel Uchitel, to the National Enquirer, to a certain fire hydrant in Winder­mere, Fla.?

Really, when you think about it, what was Woods doing at the AT&T National last week? A year ago, when he won the event, AT&T was one of Woods's major sponsors and Woods was the host of the event. As the son of a Green Beret he paid tribute to war veterans on various green-to-tee walks. He was the ultimate athlete-corporate­ icon. Then came his incident with the fire hydrant. The girlfriend parade. The stint in rehab. And our realization that Tiger is not who we thought he was. Naturally, AT&T dropped him like another iPhone call. Woods wasn't the host last week at the AT&T National, but the Tiger Woods Foundation was still the tournament's main charitable beneficiary. The chase for money always gets messy.

On Saturday, Woods played with Scott McCarron, not a close friend but a good Tour buddy. They ­talked, they joked around a little, even though Woods's play was uneven. (He hit another flat-out fatty duff, his second shot into number 6. He was trying to play a spinning bump-and-run to a tight pin, a shot he'll need at St. Andrews.) When the round was over, McCarron introduced Woods to his wife and two teenage daughters, who were spending the July 4 weekend in the place where it all began. Tiger gave them all a handshake and flashed his big, toothy smile and went off to face the microphones, as he did after every round. (He shot a four-over 284 to finish 46th, 14 strokes behind winner Justin Rose.) Do you think that if McCarron thought Woods was some sort of ogre he would have made the introductions?

"His private life is none of my business," ­McCarron told me later. "He's great to play with, a lot of fun and probably the greatest golfer ever. Golf needs him."

I asked McCarron about Woods's third shot on number 1, the chip shot he played with the putter.

"Oh, he's got to putt that," McCar­ron said. "The lie's so tight, you can't get a club under it. Most guys are going to putt that."

I'm sure he's right. Still, I believe that Woods, at the height of his powers, would have played that shot in the air and not on the ground. I say that because I've seen him play thousands of shots and hundreds of chips. When it comes to Tiger, you and Hank Haney and I are all in the same boat. What we know is what we've seen.

My take is that Tiger's had two major stages in his life, the Earl Years (1975-95) and the Corporate Years (1996-2009). Now comes something else: Tiger alone, in uncharted waters — with the whole world watching.

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