Tiger Woods has never been a hero of mine. I was 26 when he first won the Masters, an age when sports stars had lost their lustre a little bit, and, even then, I was more disappointed by Colin Montgomerie not sustaining his charge rather than the fact that we might be watching the beginning of the best player ever.
I like my heroes to be more than a bit vulnerable; Sandy Lyle, David Gower, Mark Viduka, Jimmy White, Jocky Wilson, Leeds United, Wales rugby. It’s an odd bunch and that’s what I love about them. Often they would be mediocre, occasionally shambolic but, when the magic happened, it was out of this world. There was none of the ice-cool, relentless brilliance of, say, a Nick Faldo or a Steve Davis, doing it month after month, year after year. More like snatches of something great and that was more than enough to keep me going.
What would then happen was that, years later, the likes of a Faldo and Davis actually turned out to be all right and I would kick myself that I had been either too stubborn or too stupid not to get behind them in the glory years. The blinkered excellence and detachment were gone and, in its place, we were left with characters who were just that – characters.
Davis, away from the clutches of Barry Hearn, turned out to be more than ‘interesting’, likewise I now find Faldo both fascinating and entertaining and a brilliant reader of the game. Now they were losers, in the non-winning sense, I quite liked them.
Which is where I am with Tiger these days. The aloof, characterless Tiger seems to be a thing of the past, the fear factor has gone – for now – and he’s more one of the boys if he ever can be one of the boys. These days his peers are all hyping him up. Rickie Fowler said he’s hitting it “way by” him, Jason Day let slip that he’s fitter than he’s been for three years.
For well over a decade his closest rivals couldn’t wait to see the back of him, their career and major victories taking a violent assault by Woods’ supremacy. These days everyone can’t wait to welcome him back.
And that includes me.
I find it almost impossible not to get excited by the prospect of a Third Coming or the Final Chapter. Whether he is chipping in a muscle top or hitting balls alongside Kevin Chappell in an exhibition we’re all sucked back in making assumptions based on a 10-second video.
Can you imagine any of us ever getting this excited by anyone, Rory, DJ, Spieth, Thomas et al, doing likewise?
For years at the Open the most exciting part of Woods’ pre-championship press conference was the sound of the cameras clicking in unison when he looked up. Occasionally there would be a forced smile which brought even more snapping away.
Otherwise it was a back-and-forth of the same old answers to the same old questions. Stray from the norm and ask something a bit different and you would receive a well-scripted and terse reply and then the eyes would quickly move to the next paddle in the air.
By the end of which everyone in the room was as bored as each other.
These days we sometimes get ‘funny Tiger’, remember this ‘Mac Daddy Santa’ tweet?
Xmas tradition that my kids love. Mac Daddy Santa is back! -TW pic.twitter.com/pCWZNNKPRG
— Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) December 22, 2016
What were the chances of that happening at the height of his powers?
He’s more outspoken. He recently entered the golf ball debate, he’s more self-deprecating and, although much of it is still so stage managed, he seems so much more normal. Maybe even relieved to be able to drop his guard a bit.
Three years ago I met him, sort of anyway, when he and Rory McIlroy were the stars of a Nike (remember them?) product launch in New York.
It was almost like a passing of the baton. McIlroy had, two days earlier, just won his fourth major and Tiger was on another injury break. Rory hit some shots with the new clubs while Tiger provided a bit of chat.
The following morning there was a sit-down with Nike’s master model maker Mike Taylor – a man who has built clubs for Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger and Rory – and just six journalists. A few minutes into the chat, a voice from the back of the room said casually: “What’s happening?” and took a seat at the front.
There, sitting in a pair of Nike shorts and Nike T-shirt, was Tiger. Less than five feet from me.
To complete the surreal nature of the whole thing his agent Mark Steinberg then sat next to me.
“How you doing?” he asked.
For the next 34 minutes Tiger talked, we all listened, and I rocked in my seat with my stomach doing somersaults. And for more than half an hour Tiger talked solely about his genuine love of the game. Not some sickly sweet charade to please the sponsors, but more on how he is a traditionalist at heart and how what had got him started in the game was still playing a role all these years on.
“I’ve got a few old persimmons which I love hitting. God, they sound good, there is something about it, but I have cracked two of them too as our balls are so hard now. I have a whole closet and you go back in time and everything is labelled,” he explained. “I have basically played the same lofts since I was 14 or 15 years old. I’m not part of this wave where the pitching wedge is 45˚. That’s my 9-iron.”
He went on: “I like a pear-shaped driver, I grew up in a generation that played persimmon, that’s what I like to see. A lot of my successes I had a pear-shaped driver, when I have gone away from that I have struggled.
“I think the biggest transition I ever made was back in 2000 when we came out with a solid-construction ball. I tested it and felt great about it and what it did for me, how it performed around the greens and especially in the wind. I had a good showing at the US Open at Pebble [where I won by 15 shots] and then won the British [by eight at St Andrews] and the PGA [in a play-off over Bob May].
“It was a nice little run, and I basically won four straight majors with that ball. The rest is history because the wound-ball technology was gone. Everyone switched. Being a part of that innovative wave was pretty exciting for me.”
His fitter Rick Nichols chipped in with a story about a pair of 5-woods that came out of the same mould and Tiger said one was wider. It transpired that one was off by less than a coat of paint.
All this made me very happy. These were the things that got Tiger talking at length, these were the things that brought a smile to his face. In short Tiger genuinely loves the game of golf which, at the risk of trotting out the usual cod psychology spiel, might be the main reason why he’s back again.
So I can’t wait to see him have another go at it, in a week which bears little resemblance to the PGA Tour or the majors, and I’ll reserve judgment until next year and hopefully well beyond and even, for once, cheering him on.