New, more human Tiger tees it up


April 13, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

IT IS WRONG to say Tiger Woods was more likable than usual in winning the 2005 Masters. As one of the world's most popular athletes, he obviously was already immensely likable.

But before the most recent of his nine major tournament victories, he was popular primarily because of what he did, not who he was. He was a ruthless competitor, a once-in-a-lifetime athlete, and people loved him more for his talent and accomplishments than his personality.

In winning the 2005 Masters, however, Woods was more sympathetic, human and adult. His fans are going to remember that already-famous chip-in that saved the tournament, and so will I. But I'll also remember seeing a different side of Woods for the first time.

It didn't really surface until late Sunday, and you had to look closely, but it was there.

As Woods and his noble foil, Chris DiMarco, walked off the 72nd green, having tied for first after a long afternoon of brilliant, back-and-forth drama, Woods smiled at DiMarco, reached out and encouragingly slapped him on the hip, as if to say, "Hey, good job. That was fun."

The brief sporting gesture was imbued with symbolism.

Woods never would have recognized and supported a rival right on the course when he ruled golf before, winning seven of 11 majors from 1999 to 2002. He was merciless, unflappable and unfeeling, seemingly intent on destroying his rivals, not just beating them.

That focus and confidence were part of his appeal; it was hard to watch him and not come away inspired to test your own limits. But it also was off-putting in a way, barely human.

The Woods who reached out and tapped DiMarco on Sunday was more vulnerable and generous, more respectful of the game itself instead of just his place in it, almost more excited about simply competing at that level than winning.

It was refreshing to see.

Of course, golf has humbled Woods considerably since his peak in 2002, reducing him (for a time, at least) to just another guy near the front of the professional pack. He has had to learn to live with failure, just like everyone else who ever picked up a club.

Winning came so easily to him beforehand that he probably didn't appreciate it.

On Sunday, competing against a physically outmatched rival who outplayed him but lost, he clearly appreciated just being there, whatever the result.

"This is a thrill. This is why you compete and why you practice all those hours," he said.

He was talking about just being in the situation, not winning.

He might have felt differently if he had been competing against Vijay Singh or Phil Mickelson, his greatest rivals, with whom things are far more personal. Losing to the plucky, admirable DiMarco would not have hurt nearly as much. Woods could afford to be magnanimous.

But it was no act. His struggle with the game is ongoing, as anyone could see when he fell apart coming down the stretch Sunday, missing fairways and putts and bogeying the last two holes to wind up in a playoff. Robo-Tiger, he wasn't.

"I was really throwing up out there," he said, smiling as he used the golfers' term for succumbing to nerves.

Minutes later, when he was accepting the green jacket for winning the tournament, his mood suddenly darkened. He said his ailing father had been on his mind and dedicated the victory to his "Pops."

Then he broke down and wept and was unable to continue.

It was a startling scene. Suddenly, Woods wasn't the mega-star athlete seemingly cut from a different cloth from the rest of us. He was just another young man, recently married, allowing us to see him experiencing one of life's most tender and difficult emotions: deep love for an aging and unhealthy parent.

Who couldn't relate?

The best pro golfers are in the limelight for so long we end up essentially traveling with them through their lives. Jack Nicklaus burst onto the scene as a chunky college kid in the early 1960s. Then he got married and started having kids. Then he got thin. Then he grew his hair. Now he's a grandfather in his 60s.

As Woods wept Sunday evening, it hit me that we're going to make the same kind of journey with him.

He started out as a child prodigy from California. Then he was a college kid. Then he was the ruthless youngster for whom winning was everything. It was a phase, that's what that was. Now he's married, slightly humbled, becoming a grown-up. Soon enough, there probably will be little Tigers running around.

Riding the ups and downs any life holds, he is an extraordinary athlete getting more interesting all the time.

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