Column: Not so easy to cheer for Tiger anymore
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — He could have used the 23 minutes to practice his putting, or check out the new slope on the 16th green. It might have been enough time for a quick lunch in the player's lounge, or a friendly chat with first round playing partner Sang-Moon Bae.
But there were questions to be answered, stories to be told. Tiger Woods understands this as well as anyone, so he dutifully headed to the interview room in the Masters media center to face the inevitable onslaught of queries about his game and his life.
A few hours earlier, Rory McIlroy sat in the same room and talked about the final round meltdown last year that would have destroyed a lesser golfer. He was alternately serious and charming, especially so when he talked about a conversation he had with Greg Norman about losing a heartbreaker at Augusta National.
"Sorry. I wasn't born," McIlroy said at one point, drawing laughter when asked if he and Norman discussed a near miss in the 1980s.
A tough act to follow, not that Woods even tried. He had his script, and he was sticking to it.
The questions were mostly friendly, the responses entirely sterile. An attempt at telling a story about his first Masters with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus had already been told many times, and seemed mostly an exercise in filling the time he was forced to stay in his chair.
That, too, was surely in the script. Better to fill time than to let one question slip in about how he had managed to overcome the emotional turmoil of his past to regain his position as the favorite to win his fifth green jacket this week.
His game is back, yes. That was perfectly clear two weeks ago when he wore down the field the way Woods always used to in his prime to win for the first time on the PGA Tour since a shocking sex scandal derailed his career and his life.
Took a while, and it came with a new swing. But it sure looked a lot like the same old Tiger we used to know and love.
He's not so loved anymore, though you wouldn't know it by the crowds who cheer his every shot. Maybe they just love his game. A survey by Nielsen and E-Poll's N-Score, which measures endorsement potential, showed only 17 percent of respondents said they like Woods, compared to 52 percent who thought Phil Mickelson was appealing.
Hardly surprising, because Mickelson feels genuine when he speaks. He's engaging when it comes to fans, and he signs everything put in front of him.
Woods doesn't, and he's got a sordid past to boot. Winning another green jacket isn't going to change that, even if it drives up ratings for CBS.
His bag used to be sponsored by major brands like Buick and AT&T. Now it carries the name of an obscure company that makes energy and vitamin supplements that dissolve under your tongue.
Nike still stands behind him, but other corporations who once stood in line hoping to get his signature on an endorsement contract want nothing to do with him. An occasional foray into a group of fans to sign autographs notwithstanding, he still comes across as aloof and arrogant.
Two years ago, Woods sat in the same interview room, talking about his life and his comeback after months away from golf because of the scandal. He claimed he had learned his lesson, and vowed to be a more humble player.
There was no such attempt at introspection on Tuesday. He deflected the only question about his comeback by saying he was happy to be playing again in his 18th Masters at a place he finds so special. His other answers were so banal that even his favorite journalists couldn't bring themselves to write them down.
Want some insight into Woods? You're better off reading the new book from his former instructor Hank Haney than listening to Woods himself. Haney didn't exactly deliver any bombshells, but he offered up enough to anger Woods to the point where he got into a confrontation recently with a writer who had the temerity to ask about it.
That's the Woods of old, and that may be the only Woods who can win. He's got an insatiable desire to be in control, whether on the golf course or in delivering the message of the day to the media and what remains of his fan base.
It's not so easy anymore, but nothing is. Woods is an old 36 and if he wants to win at least five more majors to break the record of 18 set by Jack Nicklaus he needs to begin winning them again now. But there's a new generation of players who are not afraid of challenging him, and he hasn't won a major in nearly four years.
Still, when the Masters begins Thursday it will be surprising if Woods' name isn't on the leaderboard. He's been playing the tournament half his life now, and knows the course so well he finished fourth the last two years despite not having confidence in his rebuilt swing.
More importantly, the old swagger has returned. Being in contention won't be good enough.
"I'm here for the green jacket," he said.
Indeed, it could be a win for the ages. A fifth Masters title, and the start of a march toward the record book.
Just don't expect everyone to be cheering.
Tim Dahlberg is national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or twitter.com/timdahlberg