Talkative Tiger Has Tales to Tell

By Sally Jenkins
Wednesday, July 4, 2007

It was nice to finally meet Tiger Woods. Maybe it was sleep deprivation, or lingering euphoria from the birth of his first child, or the exposing act of putting his name on a golf tournament that made him so forthcoming. Usually, Woods in conversation is an exercise in verbal gridlock. But what he gave up yesterday, while not exactly a session on Oprah's couch, was, for him, almost confessional. He actually told us a few things about himself. He made a joke. He was someone we might like if we knew him better.

There is a perfectly natural curiosity about someone in Woods's position, namely, someone courting all-time greatness. What kind of person is an all-time great, anyway? People would like to know. But Woods has given us precious little information about himself and his inner workings. His opacity has been frustrating, if understandable: He was first pitched into the spotlight on "The Mike Douglas Show" at the age of 2. He has been media-trained and corporatized within an inch of his 31-year-old life, and whatever voluntary inclination he might have had to share his inner thoughts was quenched early on by managers and by our own mania, a pursuit by hordes of reporters and fans so intense that at times he has seen kids "getting run over and pinched up against fences and stuff like that," as he describes it.

The fact is, after watching him win 12 major championships over a decade as a pro, we haven't been very well acquainted with Woods. It was therefore all the more surprising, and even moving, when Woods chose to open up a little yesterday during his news conference at the AT&T National, the PGA Tour event he is hosting this week at Congressional Country Club. It was his first public appearance since the arrival of his daughter, Sam Alexis, and when questions turned to that subject, Woods revealed the startling fact that he played the entire U.S. Open two weeks ago despite knowing his wife, Elin, was hospitalized with complications as she awaited the birth of their first child.

As he answered questions, Woods came across as a proud, wonderstruck new father. He related a conversation he had with his wife on their first night together with their new baby. "How can you love something so much that didn't exist the day before?" he said.

He joked when he was asked at what age he would put a golf club in his daughter's hands. "Well, it's already happened," he said, as the room erupted in laughter. "She couldn't quite hold it, but it was there," he added, grinning.

He described a sleepless routine of round-the-clock feedings and hands-on diaper changing, and his guilt at leaving his family to play in the tournament. "Last night was kind of interesting, my first night away from home," he said ruefully. He discovered that his sleep pattern has adapted to the baby's feeding schedule. He awoke hourly. He would drop off for a while, and then awaken. At one point he looked at his watch -- he had been asleep for six minutes.

He talked uncertainly about how to balance the new responsibilities of a family with his golf.

"Well, you just do," he said. "It's just time management, and understanding where your priorities are, and our priorities are Sam. That's the number one priority. And you work it out from there."

There was a flash of a friendlier Woods, who was grateful to his rival Phil Mickelson for sending a baby gift and who reminisced with affection about his old Stanford teammate and fraternity big brother Notah Begay III, who is also entered in this week's event. He dropped the fact that as a freshman he was mildly hazed by Begay, who forced him to carry the team luggage. "Ohhh, I carried a lot of bags, and they always weighed them down, too," he said.

He offered up a small little known fact about his relationship with the father he adored, Earl Woods, a former Green Beret who died a year ago last May from cancer. He explained that his daughter is named for an old nickname his father gave him as a boy. "My father had always called me Sam since the day I was born. He rarely ever called me Tiger."

He asked his father, "Why don't you ever call me Tiger?"

"Well, you look more like a Sam," Earl said.

It was the most approachable and unguarded Woods has ever been in public. For a few brief minutes you saw the delineation of a more regular guy, one sharing the common experience of new fatherhood. As opposed to the phenom who shot 48 for nine holes at the age of 3, or the titan who already seems cast in bronze, or the standoffish mogul who named his yacht "Privacy."

But ultimately, of course, Woods is nothing close to a regular guy. If there was a major revelation in the news conference, it was the striking and inescapable fact that Woods had the icy sangfroid to play four days of championship golf with his pregnant wife in a hospital. The weekend duffer might be incapable of hitting a shot under those circumstances. But once Woods's wife and her doctor assured him she wasn't in danger -- "Get the W," she urged him -- Woods maintained his concentration, and he came within a stroke of winning, tying for second.

If Woods showed a new warmth and openness in that eventful news conference, he also reinforced the impression that he can be a driven cipher, a player with the impassive thousand-yard stare, broken occasionally by a petulant stab of a club in the dirt when things don't go his way. Other telling details gleaned over the years come to mind. That he is so controlling he has to drive every car he's in. That he is so compulsive he makes his own bed every morning, even in hotel rooms. That he's a type-A career insomniac, who only averages about four hours a night.

At one point, a reporter asked Woods in a kindly tone what his expectations were in the tournament, given the fact that he has a new baby.

"Same," Woods said curtly. "That hasn't changed."

Yes, it was nice to get to know Tiger Woods better. The more he lets us see of his ordinary life, the more extraordinary all-time greatness seems to be.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company