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Bold, new Tiger?

Golf's top player is starting to show his human side

Posted: Thursday August 25, 2005 12:27PM; Updated: Tuesday August 30, 2005 10:30AM
Tiger Woods
Tiger looks good with a scruffy chin.
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Is it too early to declare that there's a new Tiger Woods on the course?

The signs are few, and perhaps it's easy to read too much into them. But it seems like Tiger Woods is letting himself go, in ways small and large -- and for the better, as far as I can see. It's about time.

For instance:

1) The half-grown goatee. Tiger was sporting some scruff at last week's NEC Invitational. He has sported that look before, but this is the sloppiest he has ever let himself go in tournament play. And he won. Is a round in sweatpants far behind?

2) His new television commercial for Accenture. It debuted during the NEC,and if you didn't see it, Tiger spends about half the ad walking around in nothing but a towel, showing off a physique that has to be the most sculpted in golf. I don't know how the ad will play to people who hire consulting firms, but in the doughy Tour locker room, it has to feel like a piece of one-upmanship.

3) Blowing off the Monday finish of the PGA Championship. As you may have read, Tiger left Baltusrol on Sunday night, ever though he was the clubhouse leader when play was suspended and still had an outside shot at a playoff.

The PGA blowoff obviously is a much bigger deal than the commercial or the scrappy facial hair. But all three are examples of Tiger testing decorum and doing whatever he feels.

And it was decorum, more than anything, that demanded that Tiger stay an extra day in New Jersey.

Critics point out that Tiger finished two shots out of a playoff, and you never know when someone's going to go Jean Van de Velde on a closing hole. During the NEC telecast, CBS analyst Lanny Wadkins commented that if Tiger stayed on Monday, he could have benefited from some gamesmanship. If he had been at the practice range that morning, warming up alongside the other competitors, Tiger might have gotten in Phil Mickelson's head and cost him the decisive strokes.

Which is silly, and not just because Mickelson deserves more credit than that -- he can handle the sight of Tiger on a driving range by now. But if Tiger had played that mind game, he would have made himself seem petty and small. He doesn't need to yell "Noonan" when other guy putts.

Of the 156 players in the field, 155 would have waited out the finish. Staying the extra day is what Tiger was supposed to do -- just like we're supposed to compliment a friend on their new haircut, no matter how bad it looks. Woods had a chance on paper, but not really. By going home, he showed he won't be held hostage by propriety.

Good for him. Tiger has been better than everyone else for so long, but only now does he appear to be enjoying it. Maybe he can edge away from the near-robotic public persona he has assumed since 1997, when he felt burned by a GQ article that repeated some off-color jokes he told in the presence of a reporter.

Since then, Tiger has followed the Michael Jordan model of comportment. Be polite, be courteous, and never give the media a self-immolating soundbite along the lines of "We're talking about practice," "I have to feed my family," and "I play when I want to play."

The plan has paid off. Tiger will make $80 million in endorsement income this year, more than any other American athlete. He is not going to break away from it any time soon. But maybe, just maybe, nearly a decade later, Tiger will open up a little.

Michael Jordan is a fine role model, but before him there was another sports icon, Muhammad Ali, who let fans know how much he enjoyed being the greatest of all time. Tiger's Accenture commercial, with its hint of preening, is a step in that direction. How great it would be if Tiger really showed everyone how much fun it is to be Tiger Woods? He should answer his PGA critics with a poem:

I headed home to Orlando
Instead of waiting by the tee
Now Phil has two majors
Like I did when I was 23.

Tiger wants to be the greatest. It's time he start acting like it.