Tiger Woods is more real and human than he ever has been

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Sports Pulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Steve DiMeglio discusses the upcoming tournament and why it will present many obstacles for the golfers.
USA TODAY

There was a time when Tiger Woods would have looked at a season such as the one he’s currently having and declared it unacceptable.

No victories, only one second-place finish, just two other top-5 finishes and two missed cuts in 12 tournaments stretching from December 2017 to where he stands today, at the doorstep of the third major tournament of the year, the British Open.

A decade ago, this would have brought nothing but displeasure to Woods. Now, it brings happiness and hope. It’s the strangest thing.

He still says he wants to win (who doesn’t?), but because he hasn’t won a major in more than 10 years, his expectations understandably have been lowered. The drive and impatience that made Tiger who he was for at least a dozen years have been replaced by age and perspective. Personal scandal, injuries, surgeries and the march of time have changed the golfer who for so many years looked untouchable.

He fought this development for several years, exuding a confidence that his play simply could not match. Now, he appears to have accepted it. And with acceptance comes the freedom to dream again, but in a different way.

“Each tournament I keep coming back to, I keep feeling a little bit better because I’m starting to play some golf again,” Woods said Tuesday when asked about his confidence level going into this major compared with the first two of the year. “I feel like I have a better understanding of my game and my body and my swing, much more so than I did at Augusta (for the Masters in April).

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“That’s just going to come with a little bit more experience, and I think that I’ve made a few adjustments. I’ve changed putters. I’ve tweaked my swing a little bit since the West Coast swing. And everything’s gotten just a little bit better. I’ve put myself up there in contention a couple times. Just need to play some cleaner golf, and who knows?”

The old Tiger never, ever would have finished a thought like that with, “who knows?” That’s because he knew. He always knew. Tiger used to insist that he was going to win every week. For quite some time, he often was right. Then, when he was coming back from injuries or fighting slumps, it sounded ridiculous, but he still said it.

To his great credit, he doesn’t do that anymore, at least not the way he used to.

When a reporter asked him if he feels the British Open gives him the best chance to win his next major, Tiger shot back, “Not to be smart, but it is the next major I’m playing.”

The old Tiger never would have prefaced his boastful retort with such mitigation: “Not to be smart, but…” Never. Ever.

He’s 42 and acting like it, which explains the smiles in his practice rounds and the time for autographs and his general willingness to be nicer to everyone. It’s still forced at times, but Tiger is more real and human than he has ever been, which makes him all the more interesting to watch.

We used to look at Tiger with awe. Now, it’s more of a longing for the old days, as if a statue in a museum has come to life and is walking the fairways in front of us.

Tiger has come and gone and now is back again. After four back surgeries and a very public DUI, he has returned to a sport in which he is no longer the lead actor. Brooks Koepka, 28, wins consecutive U.S. Opens; Patrick Reed, 27, wins the Masters; another half dozen or so young men are favored every week. Tiger knows this.

But, as he also knows, his iron shots will roll forever at Carnoustie, and if his driver stays in the bag and his putter gets hot, anything is possible.

Beating all the young guys becomes more difficult by the month, but perhaps there’s another major out there for him, sooner or later. His fans dream of the day. Older, wiser and more realistic, Tiger does too. 

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