Masters 2015: Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and What We Expect at Augusta National

April 7, 2015

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Rory McIlroy is looking to complete the career Grand Slam here, and win his third straight major, but to so many people, the bigger story this week is Tiger Woods. It usually is. Woods’ press conference here Tuesday was standing-room-only. A half hour later, McIlroy sat in the same spot and looked out at plenty of empty chairs. Tiger was asked two questions about Rory. McIlroy was asked six about Woods.

It’s not just the questions that are different. The two men are graded on a completely different scale. McIlroy is on his way up, and people want to see how much he will win. Woods has not won a major in nearly seven years, and people want to see if he will keep losing.

Am I generalizing? Absolutely. But ask yourself: what would the reaction have been if Tiger had thrown a club in the water at Doral, as McIlroy did last month? Or if he had walked off the course at the Honda Classic citing tooth pain, as McIlroy did two years ago? Or if he had overslept for the final round of a major, as McIlroy did in 2012, then slept through his alarm a month later at the Ryder Cup? (McIlroy won that major and his Ryder Cup match, by the way.)

And I shudder to think about the reaction if Woods had broken off an engagement with one of the world’s best tennis players via a 10-minute phone call, then declared it “mutual and amicable” when it clearly was neither.

If this all seems like I’m ripping McIlroy, understand: I am not. He is a thrill to watch, a joy to write about, charming and likeable in almost every setting, and his personal life is his. I’m not saying we should treat Rory like we treat Tiger. I’m saying we should treat Tiger more like we treat Rory.

It’s like he set expectations so high that we haven’t forgiven him for struggling. Maybe we should just accept that it would be really cool if Woods can contend again – and if he can’t, well, he won 14 majors, and he’s Tiger Woods. It’s good to have him around. And these days, it’s fun to have him around.

The roots of the double standard run deep, back to when Woods was the most dominant player in history. He did not have to answer to anybody in the media then, and so he didn’t. There were a lot of tense moments, and those were in good times. He would bristle at specific questions about his game, offer information on a need-to-know basis, and keep the media two club lengths away. Then, of course, his personal life blew up. I’m not condoning or defending any of his infidelities. But it sure was strange how Woods was vilified while other famous athletes get caught cheating on their wives and nobody seems to care.

Well, Woods’ game may or may not have come around, but he certainly has. There was some speculation that his appearance here would be a circus, since he was injured last year and appeared to have the chipping yips when he withdrew from competition this winter. But his Monday practice round was impressive (though only a practice round, obviously) and his first press conference certainly wasn’t a circus. Woods wouldn’t let it happen. He was funny: “I’m feeling older, there’s no doubt about that. Try chasing around 6- and 7-year-olds all day. But the good news is my soccer game has gotten a lot better.”

He went into detail (for him) about his struggles, and he admitted, “I would get in these modes where it would come for 10 minutes and I would just have it, just dialed in, and then I would lose it for an hour, and then I would get it back.”

This press conference should not have surprised anybody. Woods has been far more relaxed and engaged in public settings in the last four years than he was at his peak. He has replaced some of his old lines (like “I broke 80” after a practice round) with genuine self-deprecation. When McIlroy said Woods and Phil Mickelson were on the “back nine” of their careers, Woods did not take offense. He publicly agreed.

He still has his prickly moments. Last year he wrote a column for Derek Jeter’s website responding to a Dan Jenkins story that was clearly satirical. He should have ignored it. He just looked thin-skinned, and it was also a miscalculation, since Jenkins is an octogenarian and pretty much every sportswriter’s hero.

But that was the exception. For the most part, Woods is much more comfortable in the spotlight now than he used to be. He plans to play the all-for-fun Par-3 Contest here Wednesday, which he never used to do, and he said it’s because he wants his kids to join him. Whatever you say about Woods, every indication is that he is a committed father. If he is trying to balance his career ambitions with his parental duties, shouldn’t we applaud him for it?

Can he win four more majors? Can he win one more major? Who knows? Maybe Woods will surprise people this week, and maybe he’ll miss the cut. Whatever happens, Tiger Woods is one of the most interesting and important American athletes of the last 50 years. Let’s just be glad he is here. He certainly is.

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