When Tiger Woods arrived in Washington this week, he was grim, serious, not at all the smiling host of his initial years as the face of the AT&T National. Much has happened since ’07. Right now, and until some future date, yet to be determined, Woods is a man defined by task. Little else really seems to matter much to him. He is a fallen champion fiercely focused on rehabilitating his athletic identity in the public’s mind.
When Woods tapped in to beat Bo Van Pelt by two shots and capture this weather-shredded, inferno-facsimile of a golf tournament at Congressional Country Club on Sunday, he raised his putter toward the sky, then his other arm, too, in what might be mistaken for a joyous moment of victory. But it wasn’t — not quite — though he’d won for the third time in his last seven events on the PGA Tour, a run reminiscent of the old Tiger tears.
Every gesture was under control, almost in slow motion compared to normal jubilant winners. His face showed little expression as he took off his hat. Perhaps four days of insane heat had simply drained him. But, afterward, as he spoke, it became clear that this win was just a stepping stone, part of a long desperately desired march toward the place he once stood — the top of the golf heap.
“What’s working?” he was asked.
“Pretty much everything,” said Woods, who shot 72-68-67-69 — an 8-under-par 276 on a Congressional layout that played tougher than it did for the ’11 U.S. Open. “There was a time when people were saying I could never win again. What, six months ago? Here we are.”
Four months, someone said. “Four months ago, okay,” he said, with a little smile.
He’s not happy yet. But he thinks he’s going to be. “I had a year away. I was hurt. This is what I can do,” said Woods, explaining why it has taken him so long to incorporate the teaching methods of new coach Sean Foley. “We see what’s coming. It’s just a matter of time. Stay the course. . . . My ball striking is getting better and better.”
Does this year remind him of ’09 when he won the same three tournaments — Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus’s invitationals, then his own AT&T in the first half of the year? “In ’09, I won six times,” he said. “It would be great to have that same total with a couple of majors.”
This is Tiger the Great speaking. It is also Tiger the Overbearing, or Tiger the Center of All Attention Since Birth, depending on your view.
Defiance is seldom becoming, but often impressive. And Tiger’s shoulder chip is growing with each Tour win. To a relatively minor question on an unrelated subject, Woods answered: “I won a U.S. Open on a broken leg. I can handle it.” The questioner said something ameliorating, like, “we didn’t know it was broken.”
“I did, though,” Woods said.
One competitive moment, on the 12th hole with Woods’s ball near a large tree 165 yards from the green, showed why Woods is, actually, just as different from everybody else (in golf) as he dares to announce that he is.
At the top of his backswing, he would almost hit the tree. On his downswing, he would certainly smash his nine-iron against it. “I told the gallery: ‘Be careful. This club might snap,’ ” Woods said. “I had to aim 20 yards right of the right bunker.”
He not only pulled off the snap hook, leaving the ball near the center of the green, but was in such precise control of himself and the club that just as he smashed the club into the tree, he also adjusted its path so that it slid up the tree trunk, though it bowed almost in half. Then, miracle manufactured, Tiger sighted down the shaft. Broken? Not even bent.
As he has many times in recent years, Woods showed cracks in his armor on the final holes, flaws that once were seldom seen. And Van Pelt, like many Woods adversaries in recent times, didn’t seem in the least fazed by battling Woods in what was essentially match play over the closing holes.
Even if Woods eventually gets all the way “back” in his own mind, he’s never going to intimidate and bring out the weakest in his foes to the degree he once did. They know he’s flawed, on and off the course. They know he’s just a golfer, not all the messianic silliness his late father once claimed.
But the other pros know he’s coming — fast. The public and media may be slow on the uptake. But they’re not. “He’s had a focus his whole life,” Van Pelt said. “A lot of people say they want to do something but they don’t back it up. He’s backed it up since he was a little child.”
So, who’s the best player in the world right now? Not in the ratings, but in Bo’s opinion. “Tiger kept his rhythm for two days. He’s always had beautiful rhythm. He’s getting way more comfortable,” Van Pelt said. “I’d have to say him [as No. 1].”
Without another major, not many will agree. In some ways, Woods now looks like a great player in his 20’s on his way to his first major championship. He has to get over all the psychological humps, all the forms of golf pressure. The first time when he was coronated, Woods sprinted through all those tests, barely noticing them. Now, he’s facing them all as a reformed person and re-made golfer. He has to have his new swing fall apart under pressure; that happened at the Masters. He has to be tied for the lead entering the weekend, then shoot an ugly, often dispirited and angry 8 over par the last two days; that happened at the U.S. Open.
When does he surmount the last hump in this hard climb? “Some days aren’t as good as others. I try hard. Sometimes I don’t quite hit the ball well or not putt well or do everything right and not chip well,” Woods said. “Welcome to golf. It tests your patience.”
Often, in recent years, in part because Woods wants to get back to the top so badly, his patience is the 15th club that has failed him most. And his temper has been his biggest foe.
Maybe someday Woods will get his smile back. Or perhaps that old carnivorous grin will never seem appropriate or authentic again. So maybe it will be some new and somehow different expression that crosses his face when he’s pleased or satisfied or, at least, temporarily at rest from his endless quest to win more golf tournaments of all varieties, major and minor and perhaps polka dot, than anyone who ever lived. Or who will ever dare to live, confronted with such a monolith of obsessive achievement.
But that’s not now. For the moment, Woods is grim and grinding, even in the split second that he wins another golf tournament. It’s not just that winning at golf is his job or his passion or his lifelong gift. It’s also his only available choice. Get back on top. Then find out what that means, what it is or isn’t worth, what demons it quiets, what exorcism it completes and what joy it releases.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell