Behind the scenes with Tiger Woods

8/30/2007 - Golf

NEW YORK -- You are cruising through Midtown while sitting atop one of those double-decker tour buses, a wide swath of perfect blue sky encasing the city. There's nothing like a cool summer morning in Manhattan, the bustle of the streets against the familiar background of granite and concrete, the sweet smell of chestnuts and perfume, exhaust fumes and sweat forming a cornucopia that is unmistakably New York.

A woman brandishing a chartreuse handbag hurriedly crosses 33rd Street, evading an oncoming taxi by mere inches. Three pigeons swoop down on an unsuspecting hot dog vendor before he shoos them away.

Look around, though, and you'll notice that your fellow passengers aren't enjoying the same pleasures. It's an intriguing array, these people. A dozen or so public relations folks, more than a handful of VIPs, some unwieldy cameramen, a few buttoned-down security guards and seven Tiger Woods wannabes.

The last group all look the part, resplendent in brick-red golf shirts and black Nike golf hats, and from a distance each could pass for the real deal. But get up close and personal with these fellas and you'll notice their flaws like Goldilocks pecking at the porridge. Too fat. Too skinny. Too dark. Too light. Too tall. Too short. Too ugly. (Sorry, buddy.)

Like a gaggle of traveling Elvis impersonators, the UnTigers would be the center of attention on any other bus in any other city in America. But not this one. The buildings, the handbag lady, the pigeons and the wannabes are hardly distractions as all eyes are firmly affixed on Tiger Woods himself, sitting in an aisle seat, 10 rows deep. The photographer next to you plies himself awkwardly onto a steel beam surrounding the bus' outer perimeter, craning to snap a good shot. A man dressed like a caddie climbs over you to steal some face time with Woods, getting a photo that will adorn his basement wall forever, despite the fact that -- tsk, tsk -- the hired help wasn't supposed to make such requests.

As the caravan to promote Woods' newly released EA Sports video game rolls through the city, he fails to make as much of a splash with the folks scurrying around on the sidewalks below, most of whom likely don't know he's aboard the bus and, well, may not care, either. Woods doesn't blame 'em.

"This is New York," he says. "Everyone's got their own deal going on."

And that's just fine with him. You are sitting next to Woods and, both remarkably and unremarkably, he sounds very much like any other person with whom you'd trade small talk on a bus. Contrary to popular belief, his entire arsenal of conversation does not revolve around bentgrass greens versus poa annua or his quest to break Jack Nicklaus' career major record or that 6-iron he once hit from 220 yards with a buried lie in the bunker.

Instead, the discussion ranges from the weather ("What a perfect day," he says) to the Yankees ("Is Clemens 43 or 44?") to the muscleheads he witnessed in the gym this morning ("They were lifting some serious weight."). As the bus passes a sign reading, "5 MPH," Woods quickly quotes the Will Smith tune, "Summertime":

"Leanin' to the side but you can't speed through. Five miles an hour so everybody sees you."

You consider enforcing a 2-stroke penalty -- the original lyrics call for 2 miles an hour rather than 5 -- but decide the effort was more impassioned than the faux pas was punishable.

He seems like a perfectly normal dude, except, of course, there aren't too many dudes who can plop down next to you on a bus and discuss appearing on "The Today Show" just a few hours earlier. The interview? Woods didn't mention it. But the control room, with the commotion of what seemed like dozens of producers and directors all yelling information at once in a sort of controlled chaos? That really got him talking. From there, he headed to the New York Stock Exchange, where he rang the bell at promptly 9:29:50 a.m. local time, because, as he informs, "It actually rings for 10 seconds."

After some 20, 25 minutes, the bus comes to a stop and its star attraction steps off and poses for photographs in front of his giant likeness painted to cover the entirety of the double-decker. Woods puts his arms around a few of the wannabes and flashes his pearly whites -- the same smile that's become recognizable from so many Sunday evenings spent standing on the final green holding a trophy aloft, the flashbulbs popping as a TV announcer proclaims, "Well, he's done it again, Jim." Woods finishes the impromptu photo shoot and you follow him through a door, down a hallway and toward an awaiting elevator. He gets in. You don't. Some guys have all the luck.

You are at Chelsea Piers, standing on the fourth story of a tiered driving range, hanging out next to Woods' silver-and-black golf bag, replete with logos for sponsors Buick and Nike. Frank, his ubiquitous driver headcover, isn't talking today, but if he was, he'd likely remind his pal of USGA Rule 4-4, which states, "The player must start a stipulated round with not more than 14 clubs." Woods' bag currently contains 16 clubs, including a pair of 2-irons that are indistinguishable, save for a tiny "TW" etched into the backside of one clubhead.

Today, however, is hardly a "stipulated round." The biggest allure of Woods' new video game is called GamerNet, in which virtual competitors vie for the best trick shot, posting their own Tiger moment to the Internet while other players try to emulate the act. As such, Woods is now giving his own trick shot clinic -- real-life style, that is. He swats at the ball with one of those 2-irons, sending it so high and far that it jumps the netting at the end of the range and appears headed for a low-flying helicopter. He pulls driver and rips a stinger that travels no more than 10 yards higher than the range mat. He turns around and punches one lefty -- with a right-handed club. He does the famous bounce-the-ball-on-the-clubface thing, then takes a mighty cut and whiffs. You check out the look on his face and see that even the most incomprehensible shot at the most informal setting gets him frustrated. He tries again and makes contact dead solid perfect.

Woods completes the clinic a few minutes later and an intrepid fan blocks his exit route.

"Can I get a picture, Mr. Woods?" the guy pleads.

Woods obliges. The camera, however, does not. "It's too dark," the amateur photographer tells his friend, who implores him to try again. Same photo, same problem, only this time Woods doesn't stick around for another try, ducking through the crowd en route to the door. Moral of the story: If you get only one chance at a Kodak moment with the man, make it count.

You are sitting on a tall, black director's chair in a dimly lit room, one cameraman behind you, one to your right, and an audio guy to your left. Tiger Woods is sitting three feet away, in an identical tall, black director's chair -- except for the words "TIGER WOODS" on the opposite side of the cloth that is straddling his back. He is awaiting your opening question.

For close to two hours, Woods has been holed up in this room alternately conducting one-on-one interviews and reading promos off a makeshift prompter. (OK, it was a guy holding up a few pieces of paper with bold lettering on them.) He's about a scratch-handicap cue card reader, only twice stumbling over a word before starting anew and getting it right. "Got a new career ahead of you," a bystander calls out, to which Woods bluntly deadpans, "Yeah, whatever."

He has another hour-plus left of these interviews and while an entire afternoon of speaking with people hardly seems like rigorous activity, it can be. Only, Woods makes it look easy. A smile here, a clever quip there. He's assaulted with questions about his baby daughter, Sam Alexis, about breaking Nicklaus' record, about -- of course -- the video game. He handles each one as if there's a media coach with a direct line to his inner ear canal, producing answers that are informative without ever revealing too much. In a way, it's an eerie reminder of his golf game. A less-focused person would struggle to stick with the strategy. Woods grows stronger as the afternoon continues.

With a gallery of onlookers -- the PR folks, the VIPs, even the security guys -- watching the scene in hushed tones, you begin asking him questions. Tough questions, you think. What's the best thing about being Tiger Woods? What's the worst thing? What's your greatest fear? What's your biggest choke? Woods mows 'em down like a series of uphill 2-footers. You conclude the interview and thank him. He reaches out and with a firm grip shakes your hand, calls you by your first name and thanks you right back.

It's right then that you remember something Woods told you hours earlier on the bus. In response to a comment about what a unique, chaotic day this is, he looked at you with those big, brown eyes, the ones that have glared into a baker's dozen major championship trophies, and told the infinite truth: "Nah, this is easy."

Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com