In testy exchange, Tiger Woods gave us a refreshing glimpse of his unscripted self

In testy exchange, Tiger Woods gave us a refreshing glimpse of his unscripted self

Tiger Woods shot a one-over 71 on Thursday.
Lynne Sladky/AP

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — We’ve been waiting a while now for a new one from Tiger, and now we have it. “It is what it is?” So 2010. “It’s a process?” So 2011.

And then came Wednesday afternoon, Tiger Woods to Alex Miceli, a Golfweek and Golf Channel reporter who wouldn’t let go of a question Woods didn’t want to answer: “You’re a beauty, you know that?” Winner, winner, chicken dinner!

And right on its heels, this follow-up gem from Woods: “Have a good day.” Tiger was angry. Tiger was annoyed. Tiger ditched the script. It was great!

Actually, it wasn’t great. Great was Thursday afternoon, getting near sunset, and only three or four golfers on the practice putting green at the Honda Classic, and two of them were legends searching for something: Ernie Els and Tiger Woods. What were they working on? What was driving them? Where do they want to go? Are they happy with where they are? You could write that story for the rest of your life.

Conflict is the root of all storytelling, including the stories that come out of golf. But the game is too great to take its cues from the tawdry world of reality TV. Writers, real writers like John Updike and Dan Jenkins, have been drawn to writing about golf because the conflicts in golf are so complex and interesting. The golfer against the course, against the weather, against himself. The golfer against other golfers. On TV, the producer Frank Chirkinian did the same thing. Golf stories seldom feature a knockout punch. They’re not obvious. It’s no wonder there’s never been a great golf movie.

But we live in rude times. Hank Haney wrote a book. He has every right to do so. Tiger, understandably, doesn’t want to help Haney sell his book. Reporters want to hear Tiger’s take on what’s in the book. And the way it played out Wednesday afternoon, it was all over Golf Channel, ESPN, The New York Times, and the twitterverse in no time.

It didn’t have to play out that way, but the minor Wednesday dust-up was a longtime coming, and I’m worried that the next one will be worse. Worried because I don’t want to see golf become further sullied and degraded and TMZ-asized.

Tiger’s manager, Mark Steinberg, is an aggressive personality, and I guess he has served Woods well, if you measure life by how much money you make. He came out swinging against Haney’s book just about as soon as it was announced. He came out swinging this week as well, saying the book was "armchair psychology" and accusing Haney of only being interested in self-promotion.

If Tiger’s goal is to try to stop Haney from selling books, he should just take over and tell his own stories in his own words.

Question: Tiger, there’s a thing in Haney’s book about you wanting to become a Navy SEAL. Is it true?

Tiger: Well, I don’t know about the book, but let me tell you about how I feel about the work the Navy SEALS do.

In this world, you have to control your own narrative.

Of course, I’m giving you this from the writer’s perspective, but the fact is Woods has brought most of this on himself by being so closed. Jones was not like that; Palmer was not like that; Nicklaus was not like that. Tiger was like that even before his private life became public fodder. Now he’s more like that, and it's hard to blame him.

There’s no easy fix here. More than ever before, people want to be entertained by other people’s problems. That’s not good for Tiger, and that’s not good for golf’s gentlemanly tradition.

Tiger signed dozens of autographs after his round on Thursday. It was a joyless, mechanical exchange, and why somebody would want an autograph under those conditions — big crowd, rushed golfer unhappy with his play that day — is beyond me.

The Tiger makeover is not going to come from that sort of thing. He’s a man trying to figure out life, as we all are. The fix, if there is one, is probably rooted in what we saw Wednesday: Tiger going off the script and letting us see what he’s really like. I’ve been covering him since he was a teenager, and I can barely tell you a thing about him.

But I can make some guesses. He’s interesting. He’s smart. He’s sarcastic. He’s devoted to his kids. He really cares about his foundation work. And once, over a cocktail one night after shooting 73, he had a fantasy about ditching it all and doing something important, like becoming a Navy SEAL.