Tiger Woods, returning to play the Masters, shows kinder, gentler side

Once-indomitable Tiger Woods lets reporters at Masters see some vulnerability, and it looks good on him

The Tiger snarl was there, but it came with a laugh.

Asked how he managed to navigate from a debilitating back injury into a major golf tournament in two short months, he smiled and said, "I worked my ass off."

The Tiger sarcasm was there, but the jab was gentle.

Told that he was acting uncommonly friendly, he looked at a reporter with eyes twinkling and said, "To you?"

Tiger Woods began the countdown toward a celebrated comeback Tuesday at a news conference for the Masters, a tournament that will mark his first competitive golf since Feb. 5.

During a lively, revealing and even endearing exchange with a room full of his critics, Woods briefly made the transition from Goliath to David, from enigmatic to embraceable, from robot to human.

He talked about the video that showed him wearing ear buds and sort of dancing — as only the nerdy Woods can dance — while working on his short game.

"I wanted to just rock out," he said, noting the music was hip-hop. "I grew up listening to — do you remember old cassette tapes? I used to make my own cassette tapes, and then they had the Discman. . . . Times have changed, but still practicing for hours on end, it's nice to have a little bit of tunes."

He talked about how being a father to daughter Sam, 7, and son Charlie, 6, has made him feel every bit of his 39 years. It was a refreshing change from all those years of listening to Woods revel in being the punk kid.

"I'm feeling older, there's no doubt about that," he said, chuckling. "Try chasing around 6- and 7-year-olds all day, you start feeling it. But the good news is, my soccer game has gotten a lot better."

He talked about his children accompanying him on his daily practice rounds, proudly noting that they would do anything but attempt to play golf.

"Pick flowers, play tag, run around, play Obstacle, play Distraction, we had a lot of games," he said. "Yes, they were there."

The intensely private Woods is even bringing his children to Augusta to serve as his caddies in Wednesday's light-hearted Par 3 Contest, an event he hasn't played in 11 years.

"My two little ones are going to be out there with me, it's special," he said, launching into a surprisingly introspective story about his late father, Earl.

"We all know what happened in '97 with my dad's health . . . he was dead at one point earlier that year, came back, then came here and I won the Masters," Woods said. "To now have come full circle and to have a chance to have my kids out there and be able to share that with them, it's special."

Woods showed up Tuesday wearing his Sunday red power shirt, but complemented it with the unfamiliar tones of vulnerability and appreciation. He has stumbled around for more than a year with a failing physique, and he clearly values his place here after missing the Masters last season for the first time in two decades. When he tees off Thursday afternoon, it will be only his 48th hole of competitive golf all season.

"I'm excited . . . to be back playing at this level," he said. "I feel like my game is finally ready to compete . . . at the highest level."

Is he really back at the highest level, or is he just trying to convince himself? He played a couple of rounds here last week, but it's tough to tell. The only thing that can be confirmed is that just a couple of months ago he was at the lowest level.

In his first tournament this year, at Phoenix in late January, he played painfully and horribly and missed the cut. In his next tournament the following week, recurring back problems caused him to drag himself off the course at Torrey Pines after just 11 holes. He then announced he was going to take time off to repair his body and his game.

Some folks wondered whether he would even try to come back this year. Many agreed that if he did, it would be for his beloved Masters, where he has won four times. But many also agreed that the attempt was likely futile, that his once-oversized body has deteriorated such that he will probably never win another major title, ending his career with 14, four short of the record held by Jack Nicklaus.

The only time Tiger bared his teeth Tuesday was when he was asked whether he would be playing if this weren't the Masters.

"Yes," he said sharply.

Then he was asked if he really would have skipped this tournament if he wasn't ready.

"Yes," he said, even sharper.

But soon enough he was smiling again.

"My greatest motivation? Winning. I like it," he said, and the room laughed with him.

Whatever happens this week, it will be great drama starring a new character, immortality now being chased by a mere mortal, history pursued by the unlikeliest of underdogs, the tale grabbing the Tiger.

Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter @billplaschke

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