Tiger Exceeds The Hype, Comes Back To Earth

Sometimes it’s funny, other times it’s strange, a celebration or even sad to follow an athlete’s career. In the 40 year’s I’ve been in sports journalism, I’ve experienced just about all of that. From watching Emmitt Smith and Chipper Jones in high school and seeing their careers take them to the Hall of Fame to knowing Brett Myers as a kid, seeing his pitching career take him to the majors as a World Series champion, and now a career as a singer. Even the biggest sports celebrities’ start somewhere, so knowing Tim Tebow, as a high school sophomore is how I remember him best. By the way, may people, including his dad, did think baseball was where he’d make his professional mark.

There’s always a lot of hype about the “best they’ve ever seen” when kids are young players. Marques Dupree, Marquette Smith and Robert Pollard are names that popped up when they were very young. Only two athletes in my career have exceeded the hype: LeBron James and Tiger Woods.

While I’ve seen LeBron play often on TV and occasionally in person while covering the Orlando Magic, I’d say the expectations of what he’d be coming out of high school underestimated not just the player he is but also the determination and will he has as a person.

Starting with his appearance at the LA Open in 1992, Eldrick “Tiger” Woods was a name that every sports journalist who covered golf knew. “Tiger” was a unique enough name; the story of how he got it was enough to make any profile pretty colorful. And his dad was omnipresent, telling anybody who would listen how his son was not only going to be the best golfer ever, but, well, here’s his quote: “Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity. … He is the Chosen One. He’ll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations.” That’s what Earl Woods was saying about his son the golfing prodigy.

In 1994 Tiger played in the US Amateur at the TPC Stadium course as a skinny kid with a big hat and a bigger game. “These one-on-one interviews,” was his answer when I asked the 18 year old if there was anything he didn’t like about how his life was going. I thought I’d get an answer about travel, or weather or something like that. I laughed it off to youthful exuberance, cockiness necessary to be great or whatever. But Woods was serious, and as his career blossomed, he stopped doing any “one on one” interviews outside of the networks and now only makes news on his own website.

There was an incident where Tiger told an off-color joke to a magazine reporter in New York who broke the “off the record” code, printed it, and Tiger felt betrayed. He clammed up after that.

I’ve been critical of Woods’ demeanor throughout his career, I’ve written how he was rude and blew reporters off, was unnecessarily short and curt. Sometimes even mean-spirited. My brother was working for the PGA Tour at the time when Woods was a rookie and a young player and saw Tiger’s public persona develop first-hand. Tiger’s nickname early in his career was “Erkel” after the sitcom character that had few social skills and was generally nerdy. My brother confirmed my thought about Tiger. I didn’t think much of him as a guy. He approached being the most famous person on the planet, something few people know about. But his actions didn’t come close to Ali, Palmer or others in that same situation.

But his play was something completely different.

When he left Stanford, like a lot of professional observers, I thought Tiger was fit into the game at the highest level but would find the competition pretty stiff. That was until I went to Orlando to watch him play at Disney. Wow was I impressed. When somebody hits a golf ball it’s supposed to be at a certain height, at a certain speed at a certain time when you watch it. Tiger’s was higher, faster and better than everybody’s the first time he teed it up. And it only got better.

He was a great athlete who chose golf and reshaped his body to fit the modern game. Instead of a skinny kid, Tiger looked like the middleweight champion and then the light heavyweight of the world. He hit it harder and farther than anybody. And he putted the lights out.

Changing his body and the violence of his swing took a toll on his body and he eventually broke down. His off course issue was well documented and publicized. And his bout with prescription drugs seemed to be the bottom.

I ran into him in early 2017 at a retirement party at his club in Jupiter. I was asked to kind of “save” him from being pestered by everybody there. We spent some time together and for the first time I felt sorry for the guy. He was as awkward as I’d ever seen him. Could barely hold a conversation. Small talk was a chore. Ok, maybe it was me, but I really felt bad for him.

Fast-forward about six months; Tiger’s gone through a rehab after being pulled over for DUI. His body is healing and his golf game is returning. I ran into him at the same club as I was hitting some putts on the practice green.

“Hey Sam, you know Tiger,” my host said as I walked to put away my putter with Woods pulling up in his cart. “Of course,” I said as we shook hands.”

“Jacksonville, right?” Tiger said as he sat back in his cart. I smiled and said, “Yep” anticipating a quick exit as usual.

Instead, the three of us sat there for about 15 minutes talking about everything guys talk about, sharing laughs and jabs, just like it’s supposed to happen.

When he left, I turned to my host and said, “What happened to him? He’s like a different person.”

And that’s the same person we’ve seen in his return to the limelight. He’s agreeable in interviews. He listens to the questions. He tells jokes and smiles. Remember Tiger saying the “second was the first loser” early in his career? Last week walking up 18, Woods smiled and was appreciative of the crowd’s response, despite hitting it OB on 16, bogeying 17 and knowing he wasn’t going to win. That’s a complete turnaround from his former self.

So whatever you attribute it to, being humbled, being a parent, being injured, what ever, I’m hoping Tiger keeps using that same personality. It’s normal, and natural. It’s actually warm.

There’s a steely determination necessary to win in sports at the highest level. Tiger has shown over and over that he has that. I suppose keeping it there, inside the ropes, will take an adjustment. But it’ll be worth it.

Tiger’s Back At Bay Hill

Winning Arnold Palmer’s tournament in March seemed like a rite of spring during Tiger Woods’ PGA Tour heyday. An 8-time champion, Tiger tied Sam Snead for the most wins at any tournament in Tour history. Snead won in Greensboro eight times as well.

But even with that kind of success and familiarity, Tiger spend part of the late morning surveying the Bay Hill course by golf cart before spending some time on the putting green gauging the speed of the greens on Tuesday.

“It should be a fun week,” Woods said anticipating good weather for the tournament starting Thursday. “I used to live here (he moved to Jupiter Island), my kids were born here in Orlando, I know a lot of people here and I’ve won here.”

In Tampa, Tiger’s appearance and surge up the leaderboard through the weekend drove the Valspar Championship to record levels in attendance and television ratings. With Tiger in the field and in contention there were four times the number of people in the gallery and watching on NBC as compared to last year.

Known as the “Tiger effect,” just Woods’ presence creates a buzz around any tournament he plays. Bay Hill is already electric. Masters tickets are a hot item. And although it’s not until May, The Players is anticipating a jump in attendance with Tiger in the field.

“A sellout is tough because we have so much space here,” said The Players Executive Director Jared Rice this week. “But this being the fifth anniversary of Tiger’s last win here and what he’s done for golf and the kind player he is, you can’t help but be excited at the possibility he’ll be back.”

On the PGA Tour players don’t have to commit to a tournament until the Friday before, and that’s typically been Tiger’s routine. But if he’s healthy, he’ll be at The Players.

“Hanging around on the range just isn’t possible anymore,” Woods said of his practice routine. “I get my work done and get out of there. Lingering for three or four hours I just don’t do. Some of that is just being an older athlete.”

Part of the misconception of his injury was that he couldn’t swing a club. Woods said that wasn’t it at all. It was more about bending over to hold the putter or a wedge that caused his back the most pain.

“I’ve finally at a point where I can let my hands tell me what to do. My back is healthy enough to trust it and let my hands play,” Tiger explained. “I’ve gone back to a lot of the things I did with my Dad.”

Finishing one shot back last week in Tampa, Woods said he could tell he’s getting sharper in competition, able to hit shots he sees in his mind. A fade or a draw, his “stinger” or a bombing driver, Tiger knows he’ll need all of those shots to win on the Tour with today’s level of competition.

“Paul (Casey, the winner) just laid it to us,” Tiger said of being in the mix on Sunday. “I knew I’d have to play well because these young guys can play. They’ve done well and it’s no surprise.”

You could tell that playing at Bay Hill, Arnold’s tournament is special to Tiger and he’ll miss seeing him on the golf course. He talked about the times he’d played here with Palmer as a kid and as a professional in “The Shootout” 9 (the daily noon game at Bay Hill) and the times they shared on the green when he won and in the locker room afterwards.

“I can’t make that thing he did with hitching his pants on the side look cool,” Woods said when asked if he’s tried to emulate Palmer in any way.

In a bit of a surprise, Woods was named the American captain of the 2019 Presidents Cup team. He’s been an assistant on both the Presidents Cup and the Ryder Cup but still only 42 years old; Woods expects to be a “playing captain” and not having to use one of his at-large picks to put himself on the team.

“Have you thought about being a ‘playing captain?” was the first question of the presser.

“I have,” Woods said immediately with a smile to raucous laughter among the media.

Jeff Klauk Back On The Course

It was cool and dreary. A light rain fell all morning during the annual charity shootout during Media Day at The Players.

And none of that mattered to former PGA Tour player and North Florida resident Jeff Klauk. He was back on the golf course, thinking about yardages, the wind and the shot he needed to hit under pressure.

“Normally that would be a nice, smooth, easy wedge but the wind picked up and the cool temperatures with the rain, that was 125 yards,” he explained after winning the shootout, hitting it to one foot. “It was just as soft a 9-iron as I can hit because I didn’t want to hit it a hard wedge. So, that turned out to be the best shot in a long time.”

Success on the golf course is familiar to Klauk. At this point, just being on the golf course is a win. Klauk’s golf career was derailed by epilepsy six years ago. He’s undergone several lengthy procedures, most recently a potential “fix” at Emory in Atlanta.

“It went well,” he explained. “I’m still in the process of healing up and getting used to things. I am getting used to the word time. I have heard that word an awful lot, time of healing, so I am just trying to be as patient as I can.”

It’s the third time he’s won the shootout, but his time on the course has been severely curtailed.

“I haven’t played much golf to say the least,” he said after accepting a check for $10,000 for his charity, Athletes vs. Epilepsy. “I have hit a few shots with my son and that’s really about it. So it is good to be back out here at the course.”

“Especially today being out here with people watching, hitting shots with everybody around, having my parents here and everything. That’s what you feel in tournaments, feeling a little bit of pressure representing your charity and showing people you can still hit some good shots. It was great, a lot of fun.”

His golf tournament raises money for epilepsy research and is coming up next month.

“April 9th, the Monday after The Masters is my tournament at Palencia,” Jeff explained. “I need people to come out and play so they can go register at athletesvsepilepsygolf.com. I would love to get everybody out there, it will be a lot of fun and we will have a good time.”

And as a competitor who’s been on the course and in the field with Tiger Woods, Klauk is as impressed as anybody with what Tiger has been able to do in his latest comeback.

“It is impressive. He is going to do it (win) soon. Obviously his short game is back, that’s the most impressive, and that putting, making all of those up and downs. I know he was saying he was between yardages yesterday but he will get those wedges dialed in. I wouldn’t be surprised if he shocks everybody at the Masters.”