AUGUSTA, Ga. >> The circus is largely gone and so, mostly, are the questions about his personal life. Tiger Woods returned to the Masters this week without feeling the urge to apologize for anything, even the poor state of his game.
A year ago, the chairman of Augusta National lectured him about his conduct and what it meant to the game of golf. Yesterday, he was welcomed back to his 17th Masters as a four-time champion who means so much to golf.
A lot has changed for Woods in the year since he emerged from self-imposed exile following his sex scandal. What hasn’t changed is that some of his play has been almost as embarrassing as the revelations about his personal life.
The man who once wowed fans with booming drives and precision irons now struggles to keep up with his playing partners. The player who never used to miss a 6-footer now can only shake his head as the putts don’t come near the hole.
Woods says it’s nothing more than finding his way through a new swing change. Others who know something about human failings believe it may go a lot deeper than fairways and greens.
“He’s got experience coming back from technical problems, but he doesn’t have experience coming back from shame,” said Sharon Chirban, a Harvard sports psychologist who coaches athletes in her private practice. “Until the shame is managed, he will never come back to the level of play he had before.”
Just what is going on in Woods’ private life is mostly a matter of conjecture, though some things are obviously different since he surprised many by finishing fourth at the Masters last year in his first tournament since the scandal. He’s divorced now with two young children and is preparing to move into a new mansion — complete with a short-game course — near where his ex-wife recently bought a new home herself.
What is going on in his golf game seems just as murky, though Woods insisted again yesterday that his only problems are refining his new swing and figuring out a way to make more putts. It’s been his stock answer since he came out of seclusion here last year amid a circus that included planes flying overhead carrying banners taunting him, tabloids stalking him, and so many reporters wanting to ask him questions that tickets had to be issued for his pretournament press conference.
Woods resisted efforts to link his personal life with his bad golf, deflecting questions with the ease he used to hit his driver.
Is he in a better place this year?
He said he felt “almost ready to tee it up Thursday.”
Has he grown personally even while struggling with family and golf issues?
He barely budged. “As far as being a better person, I try to do that each and every day,” Woods said. “That will and always will be the case.”
Famously controlling even before the scandal, Woods signaled early in his comeback he has no intention of answering anything that doesn’t have to do with golf or the state of his game.
That leaves others to speculate, and there’s no lack of theories about what is wrong. Amateur psychologists debating the issue in bars might think it’s as simple as a loss of confidence in his swing or the lack of a steady female companion, but the professionals have other ideas.
“This has nothing to with his swing,” Chirban said. “He’s an emotional work in progress and the strategies he’s used before are not going to fix his failings now. You fix it by continuing to work on understanding what led him to the behavior that caused shame and that’s an ongoing process.”
Woods spent weeks in a rehab center in Mississippi following the accident that exposed his life of sex with a string of mistresses, ostensibly to deal with issues of sex addiction. But experts say even intensive therapy can’t solve deep-rooted emotional issues immediately, and it isn’t known whether Woods continues to work with therapists as he continues to work on his game.
“It’s an underlying psychological issue and he’s trying to find ways to cope with it. It’s hard,” said Soroya Bacchus, a Los Angeles psychiatrist who specializes in addiction. “You have somebody who was a sex addict who is trying to stop that behavior and at the same time find ways to learn new behaviors. How do you focus and still try to play?”
Woods faces the added burden of having to do that while on public display, at least for the six hours or so a day he is on the golf course. Fans have for the most part been respectful, though at the U.S. Open last year one yelled at Woods that his private life was the public’s business because Woods himself had made it the public’s business.
But while Woods tries to rationalize things by focusing on his swing as the root of all his problems, there is no doubt his issues run deep in the game he once dominated.
No. 1 in the world for 90 percent of his career, he’s now seventh and fading fast. The Masters starts tomorrow and, while he’s still one of the betting favorites, those odds are based on memories from another time.
Fellow competitor Ian Poulter said Monday he doubted Woods would be able to finish in the top five this week, much less win, a comment that Woods didn’t take particularly well.
“Well, Poulter is always right, isn’t he?” Woods said sarcastically.
Still, players who once used to fear him now offer him consoling words as he finishes off another bad round. Fans who once screamed his name and roared at his shots now offer little but sympathetic applause.
He seems confused. He appears lost.
“He fell back to earth and not only do the other players see him as human now, but he sees himself subconsciously as human,” said Gregg Steinberg, a professor of sports psychology at Austin Peay State University who has worked with pro golfers. “Before he almost saw himself as superhuman but he’s had a lot of emotional distress in his life that has changed that. In a way, he’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in the way he can’t control his emotions — and he was a genius in controlling his emotions.”
Just how much that plays into a wayward drive into the trees or a three-putt at a critical moment only Woods knows — though most experts say he is probably in denial about it. But almost every top player has his own psychologist at tournaments trying to get him to clear his mind and concentrate on the moment, and for Woods that task is magnified by the issues he has faced.
And while there were recent reports — labeled as unfounded by those close to Woods — that he had a new girlfriend, having someone new may not be the path Woods wants to go down right now.
“Being a sex addict means you need to be sober from sex,” Bacchus said. “Having a relationship now may not be a good idea.”
What would be a good idea for Woods is winning again, and the Masters is a tournament he feels he can win every time he tees it up. He blew away the field, winning here by 12 strokes in 1997 for his first major title. Adding another green jacket this week would not only make a statement that he’s back but give a badly needed boost to one of the greatest players ever.
The same people who say he has a long recovery ahead also say not to sell him short. This is Tiger Woods, after all, who for years was probably the most mentally focused athlete around.
“Will he come back? Probably, but it takes time from this hugely traumatic situation,” Steinberg said. “My guess is that he is going to win some more tournaments, perhaps quite a few more.”
Woods himself said yesterday he believes he will still win at least five more majors to break the record of 18 held by Jack Nicklaus. The world, Woods insisted, has not seen the best of him yet.
Hard to believe, considering how great Woods once was. Then again, it’s hard to figure out what to believe about Woods anymore.