Commentary

A kinder, gentler winner?

Updated: April 6, 2010, 2:53 PM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Tiger WoodsHarry How/Getty ImagesOn Monday, Tiger Woods vowed to tone down his negative and positive outburts, but can he win without the fist pump?

Here is the question now about this new, softer, calmer, suddenly huggable Tiger Woods:

What if the same insatiable hunger that fueled his sex drive is the same insatiable hunger that fueled his golf drive?

What if becoming a better person makes him a lesser golfer?

I remember when Woods was 21 and leading the 1997 Masters by 12 shots with only four holes to play. It was basically a coronation parade in spiked shoes. On 15, he hit a meaningless shot from the rough that, for some reason, just fried his brain. He reached back and slammed down his club, just missing the skull of a small boy who'd snuck close just to touch him.

And I thought: Oh, my God. Nothing's ever going to be enough for this kid.

As a golf fan, you have to wonder: Now that he says he's changed, will his hit-man instincts change, too?

After 45 days of addiction therapy and four months of shame and three years of "lying to myself," you wouldn't have recognized the man who sat before the world Monday in his first press conference since he knocked over a fire hydrant and ignited his life.

Woods said things like:

"I just took it all in today [on his practice round]."

(This from a guy who I once saw blow by Nike chairman Phil Knight and his own mother, Tida, outside the Augusta National clubhouse like they were patio chairs.)

And ... "I want to be able to help people. ... If I win championships along the way, so be it."

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Harry How/Getty ImagesThe new Tiger Woods was happy to sign autographs on Monday.

(This from a guy who used to sign one autograph for every 1,000 Phil Mickelson signs.)

And ... "It's not about championships. It's about how you live your life."

(OK, I'm really going to have to see some ID.)

Look, worldwide humiliation and the fear of losing your family will change a man. I hope Woods really does believe it's about the way you live your life and not about championships. But what if the very traits that left him in the TMZ gutter -- self-obsession, a limitless appetite for domination, me-first-ism to the extreme -- are the same traits that delivered those championships?

I hope not, but you wonder. We don't usually build statues of nice, helpful, well-balanced men.

Exhibit A: Ben Hogan. A tournament winning machine and, by all accounts, one of the most miserable curs to ever stripe a 2-iron.

Exhibit B: Michael Jordan. Did you hear his Hall of Fame speech? Seven years after he'd won everything, he was still trying to step on his enemies' Adam's apples.

Exhibit C: Barry Bonds. Seven MVPs and almost as many friends.

Brad Faxon is a nice guy. Fred Funk, too. But Tiger Woods? He used to be the guy who ran the sword through your spleen, then danced on your corpse. Is that guy gone?

I once took a back-country snowcat ski trip with a bunch of buddies in Colorado. Turned out Woods and his buddies had rented the snowcat the week before. I asked the guide how Woods skis.

"I've never seen a guy get so mad at himself," the guide said. "He's just learning, but every time he'd fall, he'd throw his poles and swear. He wanted to beat his buddies down the hill so bad."

In addiction therapy, you hear these words a hundred times: acceptance, serenity, vulnerability. But not in a million years would you have heard those words applied to pre-hydrant Woods. The words arrogant, unquenchable, bulletproof, maybe.

If Tiger Woods is going to save his marriage and save his life, he'll have to be unselfish in the ultimate selfish game. Can't you just see it? He's studying a putt when he suddenly looks up and goes, "No, go ahead, take the call, ma'am. I'm in no hurry."

He vows no more "entitlement." But Tiger Woods always played as though the trophy had his name engraved on it when he showed up Tuesday.

He vows no more "entitlement." But Tiger Woods always played as though the trophy had his name engraved on it when he showed up Tuesday.

He vows to "tone down my negative outbursts and ... my positive outbursts." But can he win without the fist pump? Can he win without passion?

He vows to follow Buddhism, but Buddhism teaches "the greatest effort is not concerned with results." Has the Buddha heard of Jack Nicklaus?

Who knows? Maybe this whole Tiger Woods 2.0 will be even better on the course. He talked Monday about finally having "fun" again playing golf. He talked about wanting to find "balance." Who had his life in better balance than Nicklaus himself, who loved tennis as much as golf and his wife more than the two combined?

I'm thrilled for Woods that he seems to have found the first few rungs of a very long ladder out of his troubles. Even his face seemed lighter and brighter than it did last year. Maybe all those creepy secrets sag right through your mind to your eyelids. He seems to finally understand that even though his own father painted him as a god walking the earth, the same mortal rules apply to him: You can't cheat on your wife with your own personal harem and figure you can get away with it. But you wonder if golf's truest rule will also apply: 99 percent of the field loses.

Toward the end of Monday's press conference, somebody asked Woods if he almost "wanted" to get caught.

He shook his head and said, "All I know is, I acted just terribly, poorly, made just incredibly bad decisions, and decisions that hurt so many people close to me. That's enough."

So there it is. The kid finally got enough.


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