MIAMI — A rare and wonderful sight in golf is to see Tiger Woods by himself, working on his craft without a bunch of people around him, or around you, the intrepid spectator. Wednesday morning, before the first round of the Doral tournament — the CA Championship, if you must — Tiger did his customary thing. He went out for a practice round in the day’s first light. The gates hadn’t opened yet and there might have been 20 or 30 people around, hotel guests, off-duty workers and various others who somehow slipped in. No playing partners, no instructor, no rules official, no Shotlink lady, no kid carrying a walking scoreboard, no photographers — just Steve Williams, the caddie, and Tiger, working it out.
This is where you see how shy he is, and how intensely focused. Virtually any other player — your Vijays, your Phils, your Ernies — coming off the green, they’re going to pose for snapshots, sign a few autographs, chit-chat a little, engage. Tiger just doesn’t. Maybe someday that will change. Maybe it’s why he’s so respected, but not beloved. But it’s who he is. He walked from one green to tee carrying a ball on the face of a wedge. Not bouncing it, just balancing it. It looked like he was walking a dog, one that would disobey if he looked away for a moment. It’s a neat trick, and convenient if you’re trying to avoid making eye contact with anybody. You can’t fault Tiger. He does what works for him, and it’s made him — along with maybe Roger Federer and Barry Bonds and almost nobody else — a singular and dominating athlete.
Seven a.m., in the semi-dark, is an early hour to start a round of golf, and Tiger didn’t look like he does on those Sunday afternoons when he’s winning golf tournaments, when he’s all fiery and angry and dead-still over his putts. On one hole he made a swing with a 3-wood you almost never see him make, a little-old-lady swing, nice and easy, and the ball went dead straight and low and maybe 240 yards. You almost never see him make that swing when he’s playing for real, and maybe you’ve wondered why he doesn’t. If his only goal is to hit something in play, he’ll take out the 2-iron and smash it. Most all of his full shots are smashed, even the stinger. But this was something different, a softie. Later, in a press conference, he explained it, a shot he’s been working on for the past few years, one that he’s “starting to feel more comfortable utilizing” in a game situation. But early-morning Wednesday, there wasn’t a word, just a headcover returned to a fairway wood and a quiet march after a shot down the middle.
At about 7:40 in the morning, with the rising sun peaking through the silvery tropical clouds for the first time, the Doral gates opened to paying spectators and a couple dozen people ran, full-bore, out to the fourth tee, trying to catch up with Tiger. By the time Tiger made the turn, the gallery had swelled in size, and it included another member of the troika, R. Federer, in Miami for a tournament. (B. Bonds was playing Grapefruit League baseball in dusty Arizona.) Woods invited his friend inside the ropes to walk with him, violating a Tour policy but protecting the tennis player from the demands of spectators. “I’m sure I’ll get fined for it,” Tiger said, but he was only teasing. He was protecting a fellow celebrity-athlete from getting “hassled.” It was an understandable move. But the spell was broken.