News & Opinion

Woods initiates major reboot of image

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – The Earth didn’t tilt on its axis Sunday, but it might have stumbled, tripped or at least burped.

You surely felt it. Thank you, Tiger Woods.

The world feels different in the wake of Woods’ fifth Masters Tournament title (“Woods pads legend with ‘greatest victory’,” April 15). Once again, Woods seems like the only relevant topic of golf conversation. That was true starting in 1997 until just a few years ago.

Sure, golf’s footprint was far smaller in the past, but no one dominated every facet of golf news the way Woods can. Not Jack Nicklaus. Not Arnold Palmer. Not anyone.

It’s all Tiger, all the time, is a phrase we used for most of this century to describe the coverage given to Woods. The public demands it, while a part of the public decries it.

You can book it that TNT and CBS’ coverage of the PGA Championship next month will be an episode of “Tiger and Friends,” and I’ll be shocked if TV viewers don’t see every one of Woods’ shots for all 72 holes.

I pretty much called the media’s runaway reaction to Woods’ stunning victory with commentary in Sunday’s Morning Read (“What if Tiger wins today? Just imagine,” April 14). The reaction already is turning into the runaway freight train that I said it would resemble.

There are three main topics of Tiger Talk now:

1. When is he going to play next? The best guess is the Wells Fargo Championship, to be held May 2-5, held after next week’s Zurich Classic. If not, then, it’ll be the PGA Championship on May 16-19.

2. Which major is he going to win next? Media hysterics already are convinced it’ll be the PGA Championship because it will be held at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course, where Woods won the 2002 U.S. Open. That may not be such a good bet because the course will be set up in a completely different manner than it was then. The PGA of America has trended toward more-forgiving setups, in part because its August date meant the heat dictated how much water the greens got and therefore how soft they got, which aided scoring. The USGA’s setup in ’02 was criticized for being overly penal, including a shot off the 10th tee that had to clear 260 yards, which short-hitting Mike Weir figured that “50 percent of the field couldn’t reach that fairway.”

In the afterglow of any major-championship victory, and especially one as popular as this one, there is no consideration given that No. 15 will be Woods’ last major victory, an encore similar to how Jack Nicklaus magically pulled out one last major in 1986.

3. How many majors will Woods win overall?

His late father, Earl, had famously predicted that his son would win 14. It was eerily prescient when it appeared as if Woods was done competing, due to that spinal fusion. Now Woods has surpassed his father’s goal.

How deep does he take it? Sixteen? Eighteen, to tie Nicklaus? Nineteen? Twenty?

The speculation probably won’t end until Woods quits playing, whenever that might be. And such speculation is futile. It hinges on how long Woods’ back holds up and allows him to play. With luck, that’s another 30 years, but who knows?

The biggest change is that Woods’ image is transformed. It happened even before he won Sunday at Augusta National.

Woods received a king’s welcome at every green all weekend. Somehow, some way, he became a sentimental favorite in Augusta and, apparently, all of America. I guess we love a good comeback story. Everybody loves seeing a legend cut down, find humility, suffer and then regain his pedestal. Australians call it the tall poppy syndrome. I call it a formulaic Hollywood script.

Woods went from being a golfing legend to being a beloved golfing legend.

Tiger Woods, beloved? You just saw the evidence. He walked the grounds of Augusta National and got the heartfelt ovations (many of them standing) and cheers that Palmer and Nicklaus used to get. Before, galleries just wanted to see Woods. Last week, they wanted to see Woods win. They were pulling for him.

I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like that since the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, when the vocal New York galleries adopted Phil Mickelson and tried to root him home during an electrifying Sunday charge that ultimately came up just short against Retief Goosen.

Woods always was somewhat polarizing, like any dynasty. There are Tiger-lovers and Tiger-haters, but everyone remains interested.

Woods was so stand-offish with fans and media, sometimes playing loose with the truth when he answered questions, that I figured he’d be a Ben Hogan-like figure by the time he reached 50. He would be a recluse, tired of the 24/7 fame, dining alone at his club (as Hogan did at Shady Oaks in Fort Worth), maybe hitting some balls and honing his video-gaming skills in his Tiger-cave.

That’s all different now. He showed up at the Golf Writers Association of America banquet Wednesday night before the Masters, praised the media for fair reporting, thanked them for their coverage, and even thanked retired broadcaster Johnny Miller, who was in the audience, for his great work. Miller had been a Woods critic at times, which Woods didn’t appreciate, and this sounded a lot like an apology. Or at the very least, a mature man who finally “got it.”

I’ve never seen Woods hug so many people after he won. Outside of his caddie or his parents, it was rare to see Woods hug anyone in public.

Kobe Bryant proved that you can escape misdeeds if you win enough. Woods did more than that; he changed. He became a parent, a more-rounded person and more aware of other people’s needs (some would say for the first time in his life). He has smiled more in the past two years. He seems like a better person and a happier person.

Woods’ new image is courtesy of CBS. It’s his jubilant Masters triumph and how he shared with his two children and his mother behind the 18th green, a touching scene that CBS captured perfectly. That scene is how much of America now sees Woods. Never underestimate the power of television.

I played golf the day after the Masters at another course in Georgia. I won’t say where, because I don’t want to embarrass anyone. When I checked in at the counter, a college student working there wore a white T-shirt with a photo emblazoned on it. The photo was Woods’ half-awake mug shot after he was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence in 2017 near his home in Jupiter, Fla.

The student wore it as a joke, and I laughed. In fact, I asked him to pose while I snapped a photo with my iPhone. I never posted it, however, because even though I’m a cynic – known among my colleagues as Van Cynical, in fact – it seemed out of place the day after Woods’ finest hour. That T-shirt served as a reminder that Woods is human. We all are. Mistakes happen. The course’s head professional arrived a few moments later, saw the T-shirt, shook his head and said, “No.”

The student started to explain why he wore it, but the pro repeated, “No.” When I returned to the shop after my round, the kid was wearing a white polo shirt.

Our image of Tiger Woods was similarly rebooted last weekend. It’s a new day for Woods and for us. It’s a bright, new world, full of possibilities. Back-to-back titles at 43? Eighteen majors? A Grand Slam?

Simmer down, people. But be prepared to hang on to your planet, just in case this ride gets any wilder.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle