A human face behind the stripes

But this is 2019, a year in which Woods ended a decade-long wait to win his fifteenth major at the Masters; and this is after all the Hero World Challenge, where Woods plays host to an 18-man field with no cuts and guaranteed prize money.
Tiger Woods of the United States hits his tee shot on the 10th hole during the final round of the Hero World Challenge at Albany on December 07, 2019 in Nassau, Bahamas.(Getty Images)
Tiger Woods of the United States hits his tee shot on the 10th hole during the final round of the Hero World Challenge at Albany on December 07, 2019 in Nassau, Bahamas.(Getty Images)
Updated on Dec 09, 2019 06:40 PM IST
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“Wait here by the clubhouse. He’ll be with you shortly.”

The clubhouse is pretty and still, like a painting. Statuesque too, against the fluorescent green carpets that is the Albany Golf Course in the Bahamas. But today the picture-perfect clubhouse is merely a backdrop, just as acacia trees and lemon suns are when you’re out looking for lions.

Or, in this case, a tiger.

Some half hour of waiting in the pristine silence later, a clutch of journalists, TV reporters and clubhouse members notice Tiger Woods emerge up the stairs, walking besides Pawan Munjal, owner of Hero MotoCorp and the primary sponsor of the Hero World Challenge. Woods and Munjal are in the middle of a conversation and they share easy smiles.

In a sapphire blue tee, Woods doesn’t look as daunting as he does when he dons the blood-red shirt he has made famous world over. But a tiger doesn’t lose its stripes; when a journalist’s recording device is held a little too close to his face, Woods presses the man’s forearm down and glares at him. (“My heart missed a few beats,” the journalist said afterwards.)

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But this is 2019, a year in which Woods ended a decade-long wait to win his fifteenth major at the Masters; and this is after all the Hero World Challenge, where Woods plays host to an 18-man field with no cuts and guaranteed prize money. So, Woods is quick to turn the charm back on. He lifts the device back up to his chin, exactly where it once was. Then he bursts into a giggle and with a wink he says, “Gotcha.”

Then Woods begins to speak.

He is asked about everything that plagued him from that fateful Thanksgiving Day of 2009 all the way to the end of the previous calendar year – the scandal, the bad back, the bust knee, the sabbatical, the rumours—Tiger answers it all and importantly, answers it with eloquence.

“I don’t think he would have addressed any of that a year ago, to be honest. There’s more than a wee change in his personality,” says Martin Dempster, a veteran golf journalist with the Scotsman newspaper. Dempster knows what he is talking about, given he has seen him up close since Woods’ days of playing amateur tournaments in Edinburgh, back in 1995. “There have been several instances at The Open when there wouldn’t even be standing-room at Tiger’s press conferences. And we wouldn’t be able to get one decent quote out of him. He’s definitely more, for the lack of a better word, human now.”

Said humanness is on bright display under the awning of the clubhouse, two days before start of the tournament. Woods speaks about his children, Sam and Charlie, and the influence they’ve had on him this year. He also talks about his father Earl, who piqued his interest in the Olympics (which Woods will participate in for the first time next year) by taking him to the archery event in Los Angeles ’84.

There’s a sincerity to the answers, but the best ones are all on the fifth time he wore the Green Jacket recently at Augusta. “Man, it’s just... it’s just incredible. To have, you know, earnt my way into another Green Jacket. And I finally came back from behind (to win),” he says, shaking his head. “Who knows what the future holds, but now I know that I can do it in different ways. I’ve won different tournaments around the world in different ways: from way behind, from way ahead, playing great, not playing well and anything in between—I’ve figured out ways to do it. Now I’ve finally figured out a way how to come back and win a major championship. Which, well, is rewarding.”

Dempster makes the most of a talkative Tiger and asks him if he has finally moved on from the past and if he is now wholly focused on the future. Woods shrugs. “Nah, and that’s life,” he says. “Life is about what we have done in the past and what could be in the future. Foresight or tomorrow is never promised. So, (I’m) living in the present and enjoying this moment.”

Woods sticks by his promise of talking all day. He talks to the press and then he his whisked away to talk to the official broadcasters. And then he talks some more on TV with Munjal. Then, later that evening, he is miked up and he is talking to about 10,000 guests at the Baha Mar resort, located on the white sands of Nassau. Here, facing the turquoise-tinged water, he will participate in a variation of the closest-to-the-pin challenge.

Amid some sensational cheering, Woods knocks out Bryson DeChambeau in the first round, the eventual winner of the Hero World Challenge, Sweden’s Henrik Stenson in the second and Jordan Spieth in the final shoot-out. His winning stroke sails through a cordon of swaying palm trees and lands on the bull’s-eye that is marked in red just around the hole. “Sign of things to come,” says Spieth with a nod of his head. Woods laughs and theatrically holds the visor of his black cap. The crowd roars in approval.

Walking beside Tiger

Five minutes before his tee-off time, Woods approaches the base of the first tee. Today, the first day of the tournament, he has paired himself with Justin Thomas, the winner of the PGA Championship in 2017. “Hey, JT,” says Woods to Thomas, before taking up his waiting position—a fist tucked into his hip, right leg crossed behind his left—beside his caddie, Joe LaCava.

A day earlier, during the pro-am event, LaCava found himself surrounded by every television crew on the course. The Masters in April was his first Major while caddying for his employer and the broadcasters were all over the first man Woods embraced after his win.

One of the crews asked LaCava about the emotional text that Tiger sent him the day after the win and the caddie recalled the content, word for word. “He wrote, ‘We did it, appreciate you hanging in there with me, I love you like a brother’.” Once the interviews were over, an autograph hunter asked LaCava to sign his baseball cap and he obliged.

“I have one signed by Steve Williams too,” the fan said. Williams was of course Woods’ former caddie, who earned enough money doing what he did so that back home in New Zealand, the press often joked that he was the country’s richest ‘sportsperson.’

Today, at the base of the first tee, LaCava unsheaths Woods’ driver and hands it over to him. It’s time to tee-off and as soon as Woods does, the crowd begins to stream down the fringes of the fairway, not even waiting for Thomas’ tee-shot. The dust has to settle and the chaos must first end before Thomas can sigh and club away. Clink.

Woods saves an easy par on the first green and as he crosses over to the second tee, a spectator holds a fist out for the passing Tiger. Woods punches it and winks at the fan, making the 50-something man squeal with happiness. “I’m never washing that hand,” the fan says, holding the holy palm up for the other spectators to see and envy. Woods hears it too, and chuckles to himself.

Thomas has shanked his drive wide and into the rough on the third. When he tries to salvage it, a spectator rapidly clicks away on his camera during the downswing —clack-clack-clack-clack— and Thomas is upset even before he follows through. “Come on, man,” he says before walking off in a huff, but the watching Woods doesn’t move. He is giving the spectator a stare down and the spectator is visibly feeling the pinch. Soon enough, even Woods bogeys the hole.

On the sixth, Thomas and Woods are welcomed to the hard flutter of many flags. It’s a strong breeze, or, a 2-Club Wind in golf parlance. Woods adjusts his swing to the headwind and finds his first birdie. There’s a wash of applause from the sprinkle of hands around the green and Woods pinches the visor of his cap and purses his lips in appreciation.

Two holes later at the eighth, it’s Woods’ turn to shank his tee-shot into the rough. “No, man, not again,” he says as he hovers over the ball. When he miscues his hit towards the green he screams “Jackass!” on his follow-through. The crowd around him giggles, but Woods doesn’t see the funny side of it. “Get the f**k down,” he says, holding his pose and with his eyes following the trajectory of the wayward ball. Bogey.

Woods is two-over when he begins the course’s back-nine. On the 11th, he crouches typically on either side of the flag for his birdie putt, reading the lie with the putter as his staff. “Crouching Tiger,” whispers a spectator to the stranger beside him. Woods sinks the birdie in.

Even though the intention is to walk alongside Woods for all 18 holes, most spectators tend to lead him to his next shot so as to get to a vantage point before it fills up.

But if they hung back and actually strode along with Woods as he made his way down the fairway, they’d have noticed that he doesn’t really talk all that much to his caddie or his entourage. Today, Woods is walking mostly beside Thomas and not his caddie. And ‘JT’, as he’s known, likes to have a chat. “Pretty windy, eh,” he tells Woods. “Mm-hmm,” is the humming reply.

Thomas steps it up on the 15th—a par-5 hole. He reads the gradient of the green with precision and curves his putt in from about 15 feet away, all the way to the lip of the hole. The predominantly Tiger-watching crowd applauds, and so does Woods. Now it’s his turn with a chip from just outside the green. The ball climbs over the fringe of the fairway, bounces once and then twice on the lush carpet, smacks against the flagpole and obediently plonks into the hole for the first eagle on this course.

“Great one, Tiger,” says a man who pats Woods on the shoulder as he walks past. Woods does not appreciate the gesture—he scans his shoulder at the point of contact and then up again at the spectator and replies with a frosty “thank you.”

Three hours and a bit after he had teed off his day, Woods arrives at the mouth of the 18th with a score of -2. He cannot hear it from 470 yards away, but the clubhouse is buzzing to a chorus of clinking glasses and hissing beer cans. He lays up his tee-shot to avoid the water hazard, but he is made to wait a while before he can play his approach. The group ahead of his, consisting of the two Patricks— Reed and Cantlay—is still on the final green.

It breaks his rhythm. Twelve minutes after his tee-shot, Woods plays his approach, which lands softly on the front edge of the green. A wave of cheer goes up as he strides towards the finish-line. But that wave ebbs quickly once Woods double-bogeys the hole—ending the day to muted reactions.

Even par, then. Woods mutters under his breath and then vanishes into the media tent.

A couple of minutes pass before Thomas arrives at the tent. A reporter breaks away from the media-scrum interviewing Woods and asks Thomas if he could oblige a quick interview. Thomas laughs. “Whatever do you need me for?” he says, pointing a finger in Woods’ direction. “You’ve got Tiger Woods there.”

On the prowl

The entourage of Woods clambers up the slope of the 18th for his final approach shot of the tournament. When his traditional Day Four attire—red tee, black pants—is spotted in the middle of the walking group, all the spectators (most of them in red and black, too) on the roof-bar of the clubhouse roar with more delight than anticipation.

For they know that Woods is possibly scowling.

He is. After two incredible rounds of golf, on days two and three (where he shaved off 13 strokes from his score), Woods had put himself in contention to win the tournament for the first time since 2011.

Hell, he was even the tied-leader by the sixth, and the sole-leader by the eighth. But then, on the ninth, Woods’ approach shot landed in the bunker and his chip from the sand whistled well past the pin.

“F**k off,” Woods winced into his chest. And that was the beginning of his tumble down the table.

Woods parts from his entourage and stands over the pimpled ball on the edge of the fairway. But he has to wait for Thomas to rescue himself from a bunker first. So, the man in red-and-black whiles away the spare time by peeling his eyes on the leaderboard across the lake.

Back in April and on the course in Augusta (when he pulled off a comeback for the ages after having trailed the leader, Francesco Molinari, by two strokes on the 12th on the final day), the leaderboard was his second closest companion after LaCava.

“You can’t see the runs of other players ahead. So, I was looking at the boards whenever I possibly could. And of course, you hear roars ahead and you try and figure out how many holes ahead is that and who would be on that hole at that particular time,” he had told us, laughing. “And so, all these different scenarios were running through my head and running through Joe’s head—and we were trying to get a beat on the whole situation in real time.

“Now, it’s a lot easier on TV—you see it all right in front of you. It’s like calling a game on the sideline versus up in the booth. Up in the booth is much easier because you have more expanse, you have a better angle. Seeing it on TV is so much easier than seeing it in person because you can’t see what’s going on ahead.”

Today, however, the leaderboard would’ve possibly told Woods that there’s no coming back for him in this tournament—not while he is placed fourth on the final hole. So, Woods shifts his gaze back to the ball from the board and visualises his upcoming approach shot, one air-swing at a time.

It doesn’t help; when Woods strikes the real ball, it pings off the back-end of the putting green. Woods growls in frustration but the growl is drowned out by the noise of the waiting crowd.

There are chants of “Let’s go Tiger, let’s go” as he steps off the fairway and on to the putting area and the crowd hushes itself into a vacuum of uneasy silence. Two putts later, he purses his lips, expands them into a smile and points the putter at the clubhouse, which promptly explodes. When someone yells out their love for Tiger, he doffs his cap and curls into a bow. Woods has finished the tournament tied for third.

“What’s the one shot you want to have back today?” he is asked at the press-scrum. “Today?” he asks back. “All of ’em. It just wasn’t good enough.”

As he says that, Henrik Stenson sinks his final putt on the nearby TV and wins the Hero World Challenge, a final card of 18-under to Woods’ -14. It prompts a reporter to ask Woods about Stenson’s comeback-from-the-dead, what with him even having lost his golf swing at one point.

“Do you empathise more with stuff like that, now that your own career had its ups and downs?”

“My comeback was probably a little bit different than Henrik’s,” replies Woods, his forehead glistening with sweat and his hands on his hips. “Henrik had a knee issue. But for me, you guys all saw it, I just wasn’t very good physically and it led to a lot of bad rounds and bad shots. Luckily, I could fix it and give myself another chance.”

And then, staring into the middle distance, Woods sighs. “What he’s done, what he’s shown over his career is very impressive, especially now that he’s in his forties. He’s worked very, very hard to turn it around and get here.” If heard out of context, these words could well be said to describe Woods himself.

The media scrum is done but Woods isn’t. He steps off the stage and waits in one corner of the media tent, with his hands folded over his chest. When a reporter asks him what makes him stay back, Woods has a one word answer. “Henrik.” Stenson will soon arrive to turn in his card.

Other golfers too have streamed into the tent to congratulate Stenson. One of them is Justin Rose—US Open ’13 champion, gold medallist at the Rio Olympics and tied-fifth on the day. He gravitates towards Woods and says: “Thanks for hosting us, champ.” To which Woods throws a palm out for a clasp and replies: “Sure, dude. You take it easy now.”

Woods returns to his position in the corner of the tent—back leaning against the soft wall. He stands in silence, waiting in earnest for the man who denied him glory, so that he can wish him well.

“Just a few seconds,” Woods is told by a steward. “He’ll be here shortly.”

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Wednesday, December 08, 2021