AUGUSTA, Ga. — The most analyzed, dissected athlete of our time is passing the tests with greater ease these days. The people who administer the Rorschach would be proud of Tiger Woods.
It is Masters week, and during Woods’ career of golfing excellence, this tournament has also served as a professional description. He has been the master.
In 18 tries, he has won four times, with eight other top-10 finishes including two seconds, and missed the cut only once. The Masters alone has increased the Tiger Woods’ bank account by $6.853 million.
But his last victory here was in 2005, and more figurative water has crossed under his bridge since that year than exists in all of Rae’s Creek. He is 37 now, and his well-documented marital mess in 2009 began the analyzing and dissecting. As well as being one of the best athletes of our time, he became the most polarizing. His failures on the home front were seen as a precursor to his struggles on the golf course. Yes, he had injuries, and yes, he was revamping his swing.
But a public that had embraced him now felt betrayed, and no amount of discussion of injury and swing change could convince them that his sudden golfing woes were not merely deserved karma.
Supermarket tabloids, for example, never left him alone, and never will. One this week screamed a headline about his new relationship with Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn. “In Love With a Sex Addict” headlined a story next to a picture of Woods and Vonn.
But even if the tabloids haven’t, Woods and his more mainstream media dissectors have seemed to move on. At his news conference here Tuesday, he was asked a few questions, in a sort of gentle code, that were directed at those bad times. They were questions about whether he was happier, about his “new equilibrium in life.”
As he has for many such sessions in recent years, Woods knew where those questions could take him, and he wasn’t going there.
But now, instead of scowls, he turned these into a discussion of the joy of having children.
“It’s a beautiful juggling act,” he said. “I think people who are parents in here will certainly attest to that. That’s the joy in life. . . .”
The edges don’t seem as rough anymore. Age seems to have brought some grudging perspective to an athlete whose laser-like glare during competition seemed to allow no possibility of focus elsewhere. He admits that “winning heals everything,” but he also says things that leave the impression that, if the healing never comes again in a major tournament such as the Masters, he will refrain from jumping off a bridge.
The old Tiger Woods didn’t seem to have time to laugh at things, especially at himself. The 2013 version laughed a lot Tuesday.
He was asked about his goatee, and how he has never won a major while wearing one. He laughed about how long it has taken him to grow one.
He shook his head at the realization that this will be his 19th Masters, and laughed heartily when asked if he could see himself as an honorary starter, a role played by aging former greats such as Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.
“What’s the minimum age? " he asked. “Seventy-plus?. . . Let me just try to get to 40 first.”
He was asked about the 14-year-old Chinese amateur, Tianlang Guan, who qualified to play here, and with whom Woods had played a couple of practice holes. Woods said the teenager asked a lot of questions about golf strategy and Woods asked him about school.
"[I asked] books here or anything?” Woods said, laughing at his grandfather-sounding self image.
None of this means he will win this Masters, even though he is having one of his better years since his last major title at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in ’08. He has already won three times and pocketed $3.787 million.
The competitive drive hasn’t waned. He sent a dart to the heart of the rest of the field here when he said, “I feel comfortable with every aspect of my game.”
For many, this slightly warmer and fuzzier Tiger Woods will be too little, too late. It is what people were looking for in the immediate aftermath of the Thanksgiving weekend crash in his driveway that coincided with the crash in his game. Instead, they got focused glares, snarls over missed putts and clubs thrown in anger.
That may continue. One news conference does not establish a remade personality.
If he wins here, it will be the biggest story in golf in some time. If he doesn’t win, and still comports himself well, that will be a pretty good story, too.
Think of it as a beautiful inkblot.