TUCSON, Ariz — Fans are packed three deep on each side of the barriers leading to the driving range. “Here he comes,” yells a young boy. People start screaming his name and applauding. “He” of course is Tiger Woods. “He” is still the man. He walks 80 yards from the clubhouse towards this 30-yard tunnel of mayhem. It feels like the entrance to the Coliseum. Tiger walks halfway down the tunnel and stops to sign autographs to the left side only. The right side screams in vain. Fans surge, eyes bulge, arms stretch to touch him while thrusting caps, flags, photographs and scraps of paper, begging for his signature. Tiger signs dozens of autographs as TV crews film his every move.
Yet there is no interaction, not one smile, not one word. The mute button on both his expression and emotion has been pressed. This is not a joy; this is work to be endured. No fun for Tiger. No love given back to his people. He gives them nothing but an inky scrawl of his name. And they adore him for it. “God bless you, Tiger,” comes a shout from the crowd. And then he was gone — released to the sanctuary of the range away from screaming strangers. He high-fives Jim Furyk, “Hi Jimbo” — and smiles. It’s the first time he has smiled in 10 minutes. “Oh man, that was intense,” says a young boy. He meant it was great but for Tiger it really was intense. Woods is no longer the World No. 1 but he is still the only player afforded rock star status. And he’s not comfortable with it.
Twelve months ago the top 64 players assembled in Tucson to do match play battle while a crestfallen Woods stood behind a lectern in Florida and said he was sorry for, well, everything, and promised to open up and be a better person. Now he’s back in Arizona as cocooned by security guards as ever, incapable of fully engaging with ordinary people, and recently fined by the European Tour for spitting on the 12th green at the Dubai Desert Classic. So the rehabilitation plan has, ahem, been going well, then. But his fans don’t care, and at least he made the effort to stop and sign. Twelve months ago, that would not have happened. Credit to him for taking the first steps towards redemption.
Redemption on the golf course is proving just as painful. It has been 15 months since the once invincible Woods tasted victory. In the meantime, he has become golf’s yoyo man. One day he’s up, the next he’s down. Perhaps match play’s mano-a-mano, 18-hole shootout format will be the perfect antidote for his scratchy game. “Match play goes back to how we grew up,” Woods said. “It’s fun to go head-to-head. I know what it takes to get it done. And my game is getting there.”
His aura no longer strikes fear into the generation of 20-somethings that grew up watching Woods on TV. He is now 35 years old, disgraced and divorced. But, perhaps luckily for Woods, his first-round opponent is not Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler or Ryo Ishikawa. Instead it is Thomas Bjorn, who turned 40 last Friday. They meet at 11:45 a.m. The affable, deep thinking, brilliant-but-sometimes-brittle Dane is from the generation of players that had their careers and confidence battered by Woods at his bullying best. Like the spectators worshipping at the Temple of Tiger behind the driving range, Bjorn still appears to be awestruck by the former World No.1 — the habits of a lifetime proving hard to kick. McIlroy has deemed Tiger “just one of the guys” and an “ordinary golfer”. Bjorn’s view of Woods, however, was fashioned in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“I can’t speak for anybody but myself. I played with him on the Saturday at Pebble Beach in 2000 (Woods won that U.S. Open by 15 shots) and I have lost no respect for him because I know what’s in there,” Bjorn said. “When you watch him now, you can still see there are things about him that are special. You should never lose that respect. I think he will prove everyone wrong and will get to the number of majors he is looking for (Jack Nicklaus’ 18) and will get back to No. 1 in the world. If he comes out all guns blazing, I’ve got to play my absolute best just to keep up with him.”
There speaks a man preparing for failure. His tone and body language suggested that Woods need only turn up armed with a water pistol.
Yet Bjorn should be the one full of confidence. Last month he won the 10th tournament of his career at the Qatar Masters on the European Tour. It should be the perfect time to play Woods, who is stuttering to grasp the nuances of his latest swing overhaul. But again Bjorn sounded like a defeated man. “I don’t want to stand here and say ‘This is a great time to be playing him.’ I’ve played with him when he was absolutely at his best and he’s still got that inside of him. Lee Westwood is World No. 1, and deservedly so, but Tiger is the player you don’t want to play. You’ve got to have your day to beat him. But most times, he’ll beat you.”
Bjorn would be well advised to take confidence from bookmakers in the UK, who don’t quite share Bjorn’s adoring view of Woods. They have priced Woods at 14-1 to win the tournament — his longest odds since the 1997 Masters, which is more than 250 tournaments ago. Mind you, everyone knows only too well what happened that year at Augusta. Woods destroyed his rivals by 12 shots. “But he is human at times,” Bjorn said. “He does hit bad shots, he does do wrong things on a golf course.” So it’s not all doom and gloom from the Dane.
Of course all this self-flagellation could merely be mind games. Bjorn reminded everyone that he and Woods have gone head-to-head in the desert before. It was in Dubai in 2001, when Woods was at the peak of his powers. Bjorn won.