Nobody can afford to fall for Tiger's smile
22:00 GMT, 3 April 2012
The problem with Tiger Woods, according to his friend Michael Jordan, is that he hears everything.
Jordan has never bought the notion that Woods stalked the golf course utterly desensitised to his surroundings. Tiger, he argued, genuinely cared what people thought of him when his private life unravelled in public.
'Reputation, reputation, reputation – O, I have lost my reputation,' wails Cassio, the disgraced lieutenant in Shakespeare's play, Othello. 'I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.'
On the prowl: Tiger Woods looked happy during his pre-Masters practice round at Augusta on Tuesday
Jordan's reaction to the crisis Tiger faced would have been to play a game of such extreme achievement he rewrote the headlines to his satisfaction. Consider basketball star Kobe Bryant, or for a British equivalent, former England captain John Terry. Neither man has ever been much daunted by infamy.
Tiger, instead, retreated behind a wall of rehabilitation and therapy and winced his way around parts of the countryside he once owned. He heard it all.
And when Woods is around, a lot of other people hear stuff, too. They hear the intimate details of his life and thinking from former employees in diss-and-tell books; they hear the wisdom of experts on sporting psychology; sometimes they hear his movements updated hour by hour through the night.
All smiles: Woods answers questions during a press conference following his practice round
'Tiger's in Bar West,' announced the young lady drinking on Augusta's Central Street on Monday evening. She read the news off a text on her phone. The establishment advertises itself as a Martini Bar & Lounge and its Facebook site promises dubstep music and HBO boxing. Lively for a weekday in Georgia, then.
Was Tiger in Bar West Who knows The type of parties he used to enjoy at the Masters did not take place in public view. There is a photograph of him on the wall at the local branch of Hooters, but it is young Tiger who is enjoying the hospitality, on one of his earliest visits.
He has been coming here 18 years, he told Luke Donald on the practice ground on Tuesday morning. When he emerged from purdah two years ago, he came out at Augusta, and at this tournament, where he felt protected.
The gallery awaits: Woods and his caddie Joe LaCava during their practice round
Asked about where he is now, compared to that day two years ago, raw and vulnerable, having had his psyche stripped in private counselling, Woods retreated to his safe haven, with platitudes about familiar surroundings, that had nothing to do with the question asked.
Woods may hear everything, but he often hears what he wants to hear, too. Required to consider his professional and emotional development, the question Woods chose to answer was: 'Isn't Augusta a pretty golf course'
Question: 'Can you talk about where you feel you are now compared to where you were in 2010'
Fist pump: Woods bonds with Masters legend Fred Couples on the fifth fairway
Woods (buying time): 'Say again'
Question: 'Where you are now to where you were two years ago'
Woods: 'Well, I wasn't hitting the ball very good. It was just having an understanding of how to play around this golf course, and that's certainly, as I was explaining earlier, is that coming to a golf course that we play each and every year certainly helps. And playing here for so many years now; this is, as I said, my 18th year, so understanding how to play this golf course has really helped me over the years.'
Question: 'Yes, but, what about personally, because obviously two years ago it seemed a very cathartic experience for you.'
Back in the swing: Woods hits from the fairway on the fifth hole during his practice round
Woods: 'Yeah, but it's also coming here to a golf course that I know. As I said, knowing how to play it, and just the history behind this tournament makes it so special.'
All the while, Mark Steinberg, Woods's agent, was trying to curtail interview time from the back of the room. His client had told the folksy anecdote involving Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, he had addressed the odd local golf writer by his first name. He had smiled, winningly. Tiger's work here was done.
What his rivals are probably tired of hearing is the expectation that the Tiger of old is back, following his victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill last month. His resurgence is reflected on betting sites, where he is the Masters favourite, and on the pages of Sports Illustrated, which declare that his duel with Rory McIlroy is the only story in golf.
Eye on the ball: Former world No 1 Woods is looking to win his fifth green jacket this week
Not an unexpected one either, according to Lee Westwood. 'I didn't see any reason why Tiger wouldn't be back,' said the Englishman. 'I've been through a similar period with a slip in form and eventually you figure it out. It's just a case of when. The difference is that once you have gone through it, there is scar tissue. You know you don't feel quite as bulletproof as you once did.'
Woods is recovering, though. In Abu Dhabi last January he invited McIlroy to play nine practice holes. A generous gesture. The great champion passing his knowledge to a young rival; a sign of personal change. Perhaps.
The more cynical take was that Woods, knowing he was playing well, wanted to show McIlroy first-hand what he would be up against this season. Tiger didn't win but he came a lot closer to doing so than McIlroy.
'I didn't know much about him,' Woods recalled. 'I had not played with him, so that was the first chance to really sit down and talk. It was fun for both of us. He can really move it out there. He has the makings of a great champion for a long period of time. I used to move it like that back in yesteryear.'
He smiled again, but nobody was falling for that one, certainly not McIlroy. Tiger isn't the only one with his ear to the ground.