Commentary

Woods the competitor won't change

Originally Published: March 16, 2010
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

Tiger Woods looked into the camera and knew he needed to speak the truth. The game's top-ranked golfer appeared debilitated, dejected and, for maybe the first time in his career, completely vulnerable. In other words, he looked human.

This description could easily explain Woods' demeanor throughout a 13-minute speech that was delivered from PGA Tour headquarters Feb. 19, during which he addressed personal affairs that had been cause of his self-imposed leave of absence from golf. Instead, it serves as a summary of thoughts from four years earlier, and should provide the reason he will come back as very much the same competitor when he returns in early April at The Masters.

On June 16, 2006, a forlorn Woods walked off the West Course at Winged Foot Golf Club having just posted a second straight 6-over 76 to miss the cut at the U.S. Open. In his first start after nine weeks away from the game following the death of his father Earl, it was clear Tiger's head wasn't right for tournament golf.

"What's transpired off the golf course ... I don't know if it gives you a different type of perspective," he said at the time. "I don't care if you had what transpired in my life, recent or not, but poor execution is never going to feel very good."

Tiger Woods
Quinn Rooney/Getty ImagesWhen last we saw Tiger Woods on a golf course, he was hoisting a trophy after winning the Australian Masters in mid-November.

Woods then admitted he returned too soon, claiming "I was not ready to play golf."

There's no doubt that his 2006 comeback and the impending return are totally different situations, but the former should apply as a useful learning tool. At the time, Woods forged a valuable lesson about returning to competition before he was completely ready from a mental standpoint. It would be perplexing if he made that same mistake again.

This won't be the first recovery in his professional career since then, either. After undergoing season-ending knee surgery following his 2008 U.S. Open win, Woods returned to action just more than a year ago -- even if it seems like an entire lifetime has passed since then.

Again, this was a contrasting scenario, considering that it dealt with a physical pain rather than an emotional loss, but in this case there was no self-diagnosis about it coming too soon. Woods lost in the second round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, but within a month he was earning more hardware, thanks to a dramatic come-from-behind victory at Bay Hill.

Don't be shocked if a similar pattern becomes apparent this time around.

That's right. Woods will win again, and often. And yes, he'll fall short on occasion, too. It shouldn't come as a surprise that whatever the result, it will be credited to or blamed on the events that have transpired in his personal life.

When he triumphs, it will be said that Tiger earned a title despite all the hardship he has brought upon himself with this scandal, perhaps developing greater focus on his professional pursuits in the aftermath. When he fails, it will be theorized that the off-course situation was too much of a distraction to overcome within the confines of a tournament, that his time spent away from the game left him rusty and unprepared. Lost in the analysis might be the fact that only two possible conclusions ever existed in the first place.

Let's remember that this is a player who won six of 17 events on the PGA Tour while mostly healthy during the 2009 season, including an 0-for-4 record at the four major championships. Which leads to this simple truth: Much as he has throughout his career, Tiger Woods will lose more events than he wins, but he will continue to win at a higher percentage than any of his peers.

This isn't to say he will return as the same person. When Tiger rejoins the competitive arena for the first time since winning the JBWere Masters in Australia on Nov. 15, he will very likely be a changed man. More contrite. More polite. More cautious around media and fans.

The greatest difference in Woods from the first tee shot to the final putt in each round may come more from his disposition than his actual game.

During that speech last month, he indirectly revealed that he was projecting anger from his private life into his professional career. "When I do return," he said, "I need to make my behavior more respectful of the game."

These words seemed to come in direct response to those of eight-time major champion Tom Watson, who previously maintained: "I feel that he has not carried the same stature as the other great players that have come along like Jack [Nicklaus] or Arnold [Palmer], the Byron Nelsons, the [Ben] Hogans, the players in the sense that there was language and club throwing on the golf course. You can grant that of a young person that has not been out here for a while. But I think he needs to clean up his act there and show the respect for the game that the people before him have shown."

While Watson might have been one of the few professionals who tackled this topic, there is no debating the legitimacy of his claim. Over the past few years, Woods has become increasingly emotional on the golf course, and not in the way of fist pumps and smiles, either. From bouncing his driver into the gallery after wayward tee shots to lashing out with a string of expletives every time the wind shifted direction in his backswing, he no longer played by the long-standing "gentlemanly" rules of the game.

Woods is accustomed to living under a microscope, but never before has every aspect of his life -- from his words to his facial expressions, from his swing to his putting stroke -- been as heavily scrutinized as they will be during the next few weeks. There will be a critical eye toward his every single movement, from the minute he arrives at the golf course to the time he leaves.

It remains to be seen how Woods will handle the increased intensity, but avoiding a repeat of history should be of paramount importance to producing a return performance that isn't greatly affected by recent events.

If there's anything we've learned about Tiger Woods over the previous four months, it's that we really knew very little about him beforehand.

If there's anything the 14-time major champion learned about himself from his return four years ago, it's that he wouldn't come back this time until he was both emotionally and mentally prepared for the challenge.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.