ORLANDO — There are various myths that cling to Tiger Woods, one of which is about his torturous relationship with the golf reporters who cover him. To overly simplify it, for nearly 22 years now, Woods, before almost every tournament and after almost every round, has dutifully answered a series of questions, most typically about his round, his swing and more recently about his health. The questions, for nearly 22 years now, are seldom personal in any meaningful way and the answers are typically a study in just-the-facts-ma’am economy. But Woods stands there and does his job.
He did it again after his Thursday 68 in the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He answered questions about playing in the early-morning cold, about his expectations for the remaining three rounds, about the bomb putt he made on 7 (he played the back nine first), about playing in front of so many supportive fans, about preparing himself for Augusta.
In that setting, it’s not possible — for inquisitor or inquisitee — to go deep on any subject. Just the act of getting your question out and heard is a challenge for which no class at the Missouri School of Journalism can prepare you. Thursday afternoon, I got as far as, “Ti—“ But then a better and more authoritative voice got to his ears first.
What I wanted to ask was this: “Tiger, what’s it like for you to play without a swing coach?”
I’d like to know more about that because, in a manner of speaking, he’s playing naked these days, for the first time in his life. His first golf teacher, his father, died in 2006. Woods famously parted ways years ago with the instructors Butch Harmon and Hank Haney and, more recently and with less fanfare, with Sean Foley and Chris Como. This year, Woods has talked a little — though not in any real detail — about going back to some of the principles he learned from his father. (He talked in Tampa about “putting to the picture” on long putts.) I’d be curious to know what those principles are. I’m wondering if Tiger can actually hear Earl’s distinct baritone as he channels his father.
Arnold Palmer, you may know, spent his whole 60-year golf career channeling his father, Deacon Palmer. During an interview last month, Jack Nicklaus spoke about Arnold’s father as Arnold’s golf teacher. “I tried to help [Arnold] with his golf game a hundred times,” Nicklaus told me. “He got so far away from the ball there was no way he could hit it from where he was standing. Gary [Player] and I would say, ‘We’re trying to help you, Arnold. We’re not trying to hurt you. Let’s go to the range for 10 minutes.’ Never. He was going to play the way his dad taught him.” And here’s Tiger, trying to win Arnold’s tournament for the ninth time, with the principles he first picked up from his own father.
Nicklaus is a smart man who isn’t afraid to show you how much he knows, on any subject. Woods isn’t built like that. He’s more cryptic. The most telling thing he said on Thursday afternoon — with two dozen reporters fanned out in front of him, between 3 o’clock on his left and 6 o’clock on his right — were these two sentences directed to Karen Crouse of The New York Times. He said, “I enjoy just playing again, after what I’ve been through. Playing feels good.”
He didn’t use a qualifier — pretty good — as he often does. As for the phrase what I’ve been through, there’s surely a whole world in that. The chip yips he endured with the whole golf world watching. His spinal-fusion back surgery in April. His Memorial Day arrest. His stint last year in a rehab facility for drug abuse. Nike going out of the club-manufacturing business. The brief posting of hacked, intimate photographs showing Woods and his former girlfriend, Lindsey Vonn. Plus, the challenges of fatherhood and life as a single parent.
If Tiger wants to elaborate on his private life — and he has a long history of not doing so — that’s up to him. I’ve said this a hundred times but for whatever it’s worth, it’s my view that spying and publishing information on the lives of famous actors and athletes is not what Congress had in mind when it ratified the First Amendment to the Constitution, which protects a free press. But I would like to know why Woods now has a putter grip where you can see the white Ping logo and the familiar white outlines of the squat gent known throughout Karsten Manufacturing as Mr. Ping.
My feeling, regardless of whom is being interviewed, is that a reporter should ask the question he or she would like to ask and the subject can decide whether to answer or not.
With that in mind, if I had with Woods even one-tenth of the three hours I had with Nicklaus last month, here are a few things I’d hope to ask Woods, after the important no-coach and Ping grip questions.
* You have played golf with Barack Obama and Donald Trump in the past half-year. How do their personalities come through in their golf?
* What time did you have to get your day started, and what do you have to do, to get your 42-year-old fused back ready to play on a cold morning with an 8:23 a.m. tee time?
* You have had an incredibly rich life, with many ups and some significant downs. Which do you learn more from?
* What kind of interest are your kids showing in golf?
* Where did you get the beaded Buddha bracelet you wear after finishing your rounds and what does it mean to you?
* If this phrase is at all meaningful, who do you play for?
I have others — and you should feel free to send me your own — but that’s a start. If I get anywhere with this list, you’ll be the first to know.
In a manner of speaking, Woods may feel he has addressed all those questions when he offered this comment in the bright afternoon sunshine on Thursday. He said, “I was struggling there for a number of years there. And it was a very difficult life to live. And now, on this side, I’m just very thankful to be here.”
Every touring professional — every last one in the world — is happier after shooting 68 than 78. That’s understandable. Holding on to gratitude, that’s a different challenge altogether, for any of us.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]