For Woods, It’s Finally About Golf Again
AUGUSTA, Ga. - On a sun-splashed Monday that kicked off the 74th Masters, Tiger Woods returned to professional golf after a five-month hiatus and hinted that the sex scandal that shattered his once-pristine image has made him a bit more open about his personal life - and more appreciative of his place as the game's top player.
The tournament at Augusta National Golf Club is one of the most controlled environments in sports - with sympathetic, polite crowds and limited access to players. If Woods, a four-time Masters champion, came here looking for a gentle re-entry to competitive golf, it was clear Monday that he had found it.
He was embraced warmly from the first tee to the 18th green as he was joined by Fred Couples at 8 a.m. for an 18-hole practice round. The normally distant, stoic Woods acknowledged fans repeatedly during the round, tipping his cap, signing autographs for kids and smiling as the cheers and crowds grew louder and larger as the day went on.
"Great day for golf, Tiger," one fan shouted near the second tee.
"Yes, it is," Woods said, with a big smile.
Six hours later, sitting in front of a packed interview room, Woods looked more comfortable and at ease than he did Feb. 19, when he appeared in public for the first time since his Thanksgiving night car crash led to revelations of a sordid private life full of extramarital affairs. Back then, he declined to take questions and instead gave a 14-minute statement.
On Monday, he seemed more like the world's No. 1 golfer than the tabloid figure he became after the crash. Woods, 34, answered news reporters' questions for 35 minutes.
Woods discussed his relationship with a doctor who is under investigation over performance-enhancing drugs, spoke candidly about how his secret lifestyle had taken much of the fun out of playing golf well and lamented the scandal's impact on his wife, Elin, his 2-year-old daughter, Sam, and his son, Charlie, 1.
He described the pain of having to miss Charlie's first birthday because Woods was in rehab (Woods still declines to specify what type of therapy he is receiving). Woods also described taking prescription drugs to help him deal with the pain from injuries - and to help him sleep at a time when his late father, Earl, was ill.
In total, Woods - long known as a ruthless, aggressive competitor on the course who occasionally curses and tosses a club when things don't go his way - came across as chastened, more humble.
"What I've done over the past years has been just terrible to my family," Woods said. "And the fact I won golf tournaments I think is irrelevant. It's the pain and the damage that I've caused my wife, my mom, my wife's family and my kids. Going forward, I am going to have to explain all this to them. That's my responsibility. I did it. And I take full responsibility for it.
"I meditate religiously again like I used to, going back to my roots with my Buddhism with my mom. I need to do these things the way I used to do it. And unfortunately, I got away from that, and I just lost that and unfortunately also lost my life in the process."
Opening up to a point
Although Woods was more open and had more life in his answers than he did March 21, when he gave two five-minute interviews to ESPN and the Golf Channel, he again declined to give details about the single-car crash in front of his suburban Orlando estate in November.
He also would not discuss the status of his marriage - except to note that Elin Woods would not be at The Masters. And he again declined to say what he is receiving treatment for.
Mike Paul, president of MGP&Associates PR in New York, said Woods was his usual controlling self and that the news conference was a missed opportunity - for Woods and for the news media.
Paul cited Woods' reluctance to discuss his treatment and a "cocky" reply to a question about the crash that triggered the scandal.
How can Woods really claim he has "changed," asked Paul, when he hasn't changed his agent, Mark Steinberg of IMG, caddie Steve Williams or any of his business associates or hangers-on?
"The worst thing for an addict is enablers," Paul said.
Though stating again that the facts of the accident were in the police report, Woods did say for the first time that he received five stitches for an injury to his lip on the night of the crash.
He also revealed that he had played last year with a torn Achilles tendon in his right foot. He apologized to fellow players on the PGA Tour for the attention they've received since the controversy erupted. And he promised to set a better example on the golf course by toning down his outbursts after poor shots.
"I need to be a better man going forward than I was before," Woods said. "And just because I've gone through treatment doesn't mean it stops. I'm trying as hard as I possibly can each and every day to get my life better and better and stronger, and if I win championships along the way, so be it. I can help more people going forward, infinitely more, than I did prior to all this."
Woods again was adamant that he has never taken human growth hormone, performance-enhancing drugs or "any illegal drug, ever, for that matter," after multiple knee surgeries. He disclosed that his agent, Steinberg, has been contacted by federal agents who are investigating physician Anthony Galea, who has been charged with four drug-related charges in Canada.
Galea's assistant was arrested crossing the border from Canada into the United States, allegedly carrying HGH.
"They contacted (Steinberg) and will get full cooperation whenever they need me, but right now they haven't asked for my time," Woods said. "He never gave me HGH or any PEDs. I've never taken that my entire life."
Woods said he received treatment for his surgically repaired left knee and his right Achilles tendon from Galea, who Woods said visited his Florida home on several occasions during the golfer's injury-rehab time.
Woods said he received platelet-rich plasma therapy for both injuries in 2009. The procedure involves taking blood from the patient, spinning it in a centrifuge to isolate platelets - which act as healing agents - and injecting about a teaspoon into the injured area. Woods also said he went into hyperbaric chambers to help speed recovery.
Woods blew out the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in 2008 and tore his Achilles later that year. He said he kept "re-tearing" his Achilles during 2009.
Woods said both injuries are healed heading into the first major championship of the golf season. His four championships here include his culture-shifting first win in 1997, when he became the first person of African or Asian descent to win a men's major tournament.
Woods also discussed his endorsement portfolio, which shrank as the reports of his infidelity increased. Three sponsors - Gatorade, AT&T and Accenture - dropped Woods.
"I made a lot of mistakes in my life. And I totally understand why they would do that," Woods said. "Hopefully, I can prove to other companies that I am a worthy investment."
Among the companies that have stood by Woods is EA Sports, which today launches Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online, a Web-based golf game.
Upper Deck, meanwhile, says it will sell hats and shirts personally autographed by Woods or driving-range golf balls hit by him. Prices range from $199 to $1,799.99.
If Woods wins The Masters, Upper Deck will sell five more products at prices ranging from $499.99 to $1,999.99.
"Tiger's comeback should spell good things for Upper Deck," spokesman Terry Melia said in a statement.
Some work to do
Woods' game, on the other hand, was a bit off Monday. The winner of 71 PGA Tour events, 82 tournaments worldwide and 14 major championships last played when he won the Australian Masters in November.
His first tee shot Monday went far to the left of the first fairway. Woods then drew a loud chuckle from the crowd when he asked to hit another tee shot. His second effort was perfect.
He spent considerable time on each putting surface working to perfect his short game, even more time acknowledging scores of well-wishers on every hole, and had his picture taken by thousands of amateur photographers (cameras are allowed on the grounds during practice rounds).
"I think his game is good. It's not great, but it's Monday," said 1992 Masters champion Couples, Woods' frequent partner for practice rounds at Augusta. "He was a little off. At the same time, he hit a lot of great shots. I'm sure he'll be ready for Thursday. He was happy to be out there.
"We had a good time. He picked on me when I outdrove him, he picked on me when I made a putt, he picked on me when I hit a bad shot, so it was no different. This tournament is better because Tiger is here.
"(Fans) are excited to see him play. I think when they see him hit a driver, they're not relating it to some mistake he made whenever it was. I don't think it matters that he shoots 68 or 75, they are going to love to see him."
Orlando retiree Alicia Sorhan certainly was.
"Tiger looks like a changed man to me," she said. "I've never seen him smile so much, never seen him look at the crowds so much, and I've seen him play a ton of times. I like the new Tiger."
Jack Leaden was skeptical after following Woods for every hole.
"I hope he keeps smiling, but I don't see that happening," said the 22-year-old student from Marietta, Ga. "I can't believe all the people out here. And I can't believe no one yelled at him or called him names. I guess they still love him."
CBS, which will televise the third and fourth rounds Saturday and Sunday, expects huge ratings if Woods is in contention for a fifth green jacket over the weekend.
ESPN will televise the first two rounds Thursday and Friday.
On every tee box, through every fairway and on every one of the perfectly manicured greens, Woods received applause. When he walked up the big hill toward the final hole, awaiting him was a standing ovation.
"I didn't know what to expect with regards to the reception, and I tell you what, the galleries couldn't be nicer. It was just incredible," he said. "The encouragement that I got, it just blew me away to be honest with you. And the people here over the years, I know they are extremely respectful, but today was just something that really touched my heart pretty good."
Woods said he'll practice Tuesday with Steve Stricker and Mark O'Meara. When Woods was asked whether he can win this week, the old Tiger emerged.
"Going to go out there," he said, "and try to win this thing."