Can Tiger Woods Get Over Himself?

It took Woods more than two years after his fateful crash to win a tournament. John Raoux / AP

On the evening of March 25, there was, at least in a figurative sense, dancing in the streets of golf world.

Tiger was back.

That afternoon, Tiger Woods had won The Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill—the 72nd victory in his career on the PGA Tour but only his first since his life veered out of control when he plowed his car into a fire hydrant outside his Florida home in the early hours on the morning after Thanksgiving 2009.

The accident led to stunning revelations about Woods’s multiple infidelities during his marriage to Elin Nordegren, and to a remarkable nosedive in what had been the greatest career in golf history. Since then, he has had reconstructive surgery on his knee and been out of the game on three other occasions—once to hide out after the accident. He has been divorced, moved from Orlando to Palm Beach, fired his swing coach and his caddie. He has changed his swing and he has struggled to putt well—the thing he once did better than any player in history. He went from holding the No. 1 ranking in the world for most of 13 years to as low as No. 58, and from being the world’s most marketable athlete to an athlete trying to become marketable again.

But trying to become Tiger Woods again without really being Tiger Woods has been a major challenge. As recently as February, even after finishing his second round at the Honda Classic with back-to-back birdies, he was still not in a talkative mood. As Woods came off the 18th green, Glenn Greenspan, his ever-present publicity man, muttered briefly to the tour’s on-site P.R. person, “Scrum only.” That meant Woods would not do any of the one-on-one interviews—PGA Tour radio, Golf Channel, or ESPN—with outlets that normally get access to players first. Everyone would have the same shot to get their microphones as close to Woods as possible. No one argued at Woods’s cranky postround demeanor: Tiger Woods still plays by his own set of rules.

Other appearances have been easier. But even now, coming off a big win and going into this week’s Masters as the favorite to win for the first time in almost four years, he is still fighting to try to find a place where a new Tiger Woods can play golf the way the old Tiger Woods once did.

“The best thing that can happen to golf is a Tiger Woods who is happy with his life and can play anywhere close to the way he used to play,” said Davis Love III, who will captain the U.S. Ryder Cup team this fall. “I’ve seen a difference in him off the golf course since the accident. I think he’s happier with his life. If he can feel that way and be the old Tiger on the golf course, that would be the ideal.”

Can that happen? The answer, as of this moment is very clear: maybe.

Woods had been groomed to stardom by his father, Earl, who decided early on to make his son into a prodigy. He booked his golf-playing son on The Mike Douglas Show shortly before the boy turned 3. He boasted the hours he spent drilling his son—both on how to play and how to deal with pressure—and rode him constantly whenever he spotted imperfections in his game. By the time Woods was in college, his father was telling people that his son would not only be the greatest golfer of all time but that he would be as important to the world as Gandhi.

With an African-American father and Thai mother, Woods was a potential superstar in a sport that was still trying to overcome a racist image even in the 1990s. (It wasn’t until 1961 that the “Caucasians only” clause was removed from the bylaws of the PGA of America). The unveiling of Tiger the professional, in August 1996, was accompanied by a Nike commercial in which the player looked into the camera and said, “Are you ready for me?” As in, “Are you ready for a black superstar?”

For a time, Woods seemed unstoppable. He not only played the game better than anyone, he thought the game better than anyone. Players readily admitted that playing alongside him was intimidating in part because of the shots he hit but also because of the long silences—not speaking to someone you were playing against became known as giving them the “Tiger treatment.” “Being inside the ropes with Tiger is a different experience than anything you’ll ever go through in golf,” Mike Weir, the 2003 Masters champion, told me some time ago. “It isn’t something you can prepare for, it’s something you have to experience and even then there’s no guarantee you can handle it.” When Woods won his 14th major at the 2008 U.S. Open, he was 32 years old. At that moment the question wasn’t if he would break Jack Nicklaus’s record of winning 18 majors; the question was when.

Woods’s astonishing presence on the PGA Tour turned golf from a niche sport into a sport nonsports fans paid attention to. TV ratings routinely doubled when he was on a Sunday leaderboard. Prize money on tour tripled during his first 12 years as a professional, and sponsors lined up for the chance to pay Woods millions of dollars.

Along the way, he succeeded Michael Jordan as the world’s wealthiest and most famous athlete; by the end of 2009, Forbes magazine reported that he was the first athlete in history to have earned more than $1 billion, with multimillion-dollar endorsement deals with Nike, Buick, American Express, Accenture, TAGheuer, Gatorade, Gillette, Golf Digest and Electronic Artists (which produced his videogames). When he played overseas, his appearance fee for playing in a tournament ranged from $2 million to $3 million. For many years, PGA commissioner Tim Finchem had a set piece he worked into just about every interview he did. “We’re so lucky in golf,” Finchem would say. “We have the most famous and most popular athlete in the world playing our sport right now.”

And then, early in the morning of Nov. 27, 2009, came the crash. And the former lovers. And the prostitutes. And, a bit later, the loss of corporate sponsors. When Woods finally appeared in public, eight weeks after the accident, he held a press conference in front of a famous “blue curtain,” making certain he was surrounded only by friends and family (and a few hangers-on) and one TV camera, no questions allowed. It was a speech that was riddled with contradictions: Woods seemed both penitent and defiant, uncharacteristically nervous and combative. It was obvious that something had to change, but even Woods seemed to be not entirely sure what.

In the ensuing two and a half years, Woods has tried to come across as a different person—nicer, more accessible, less vain. He doesn’t storm off after a bad round and refuse to speak to the media, although he may give desultory answers or refuse the one-on-one interviews that are routine in the sport. He signs occasional autographs, which he almost never did before. But it doesn’t seem to come naturally. As remarkable as his golf had been, Woods had never been the kind of athlete the public could connect to personally. (He was so obsessed with keeping the world at arm’s length that he once named a yacht he owned Privacy.) Woods, his friend John Cook points out, “has always felt his one job was to win golf tournaments. When he’s out there, it’s not easy for him to focus on anything other than that. Even stuff that may look easy. For him, it’s not that easy.”

The first attempt to trot out a “new Tiger” came four months after the accident, when Woods opened himself up to questions from the media in advance of the April 2010 Masters tournament. At the press conference, Woods tried very hard to shed his normal coldness with the media. He made a point of addressing reporters by name—even ones he didn’t like. He didn’t snap at questions the way he often had in the past. Though he refused to answer any questions he felt were “personal,” he said over and over that he had made mistakes and was going to try to be a different person going forward.

Woods has also tried—with mixed success—to tone down his club-throwing and profanities on the golf course.

Even now, almost everyone connected to golf chooses their words carefully when talking about Woods. When you ask, you get two reactions. The first one is, “On the record or off?” The second one is, “I haven’t spent that much time with him, so that’s a tough question to answer.” Still, there are those who are willing to talk about the Tiger revival. “I think he is softer, a bit less hard-edged than he was before the accident,” said Love.

“Honestly,” said Cook, one of the two players Woods was closest to in his early years, “I think Tiger is in a better place in his life now than he was then. I think he understands how close he came to losing his children [now almost 5 and 3] ... I think at this point in his life being a good father is more important to Tiger than being a great golfer.”

That doesn’t mean Woods isn’t driven toward—even obsessed with—regaining his stature as the world’s No. 1 player. He’s worked relentlessly on his swing and late in 2011 the reps began to pay off. Still, Butch Harmon, who was his swing coach for nine years and worked with him during his dominant period, thinks that Woods’s attempts to change as a person may hamper his comeback as a golfer. “I think his nerves are shot,” he said shortly after Woods was outscored at Pebble Beach in February by 11 shots by Phil Mickelson, the closest thing he’s had to an archrival. “I’m not saying he won’t come back—he’s too good to ever write off. But when you’re trying to be something that you’re not, it wears on you. I know [Woods’s agent Mark] Steinberg and those other guys are trying to change his image and he’s trying to do it too, but that’s not who he is. Getting angry, being self-centered, thinking only about how to get better [in his game] is what made him great. When he controls his temper, it may be good for his image, but I don’t think it’s good for his golf.”

Woods, through Steinberg, refused to be interviewed for this story. So did Steinberg. Instead, he issued a statement in which he described Woods as a happy and devoted father who spends much of his life raising money for his charitable foundation and tirelessly works to improve his golf. Steinberg’s statement was followed by a fact sheet from P.R. man Greenspan detailing chapter and verse Woods’s acts of kindness and charity.

Far more important, at least to golf people, was Woods’s performance in the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where, for the first time in two-and-a-half years, he had won an official PGA Tour event. When his last putt went into the hole on the 18th green, the old Tiger was very much on display: he pumped his fist several times, his entire body shaking with momentary excitement. The incandescent smile that had once been so familiar was back again. Asked what he felt, he responded, “Pure joy”—albeit in the same tone someone might use when asked the time of day. A few minutes later he added, “All I’m trying to do is get better.”

In many ways, it was pure Tiger. He reveled in victory for about five minutes. Then it was time to get back to work. Do the interviews, hit the road, and get ready for the Masters. Win and then prepare to win again. Just like his father taught him.

Has anything changed since the crash? Does he still believe the Teachings of Earl—you are better and more important than anyone—or does he understand how fortunate he’s been? Has he learned anything from his breathtaking fall from grace? Will winning another major championship make him genuinely happy—for perhaps the first time in his life—or will it simply make him wealthier? The answer to all those questions is really very simple: no one knows. Including, in all likelihood, Tiger Woods.

John Feinstein is the author of 28 books, most recently of One on One: Behind the Scenes With the Greats in the Game. He is also a contributor to The Washington Post, Golf World Magazine, and the Golf Channel.