Posted: Wed April 10, 2013 5:58PM; Updated: Wed April 10, 2013 6:19PM
Michael Rosenberg
Michael Rosenberg>VIEWPOINT

Back (maybe, just maybe ... ): Has Tiger Woods returned to form?

Has Tiger Woods returned to form? (cont.)

Has Tiger Woods returned to form? (cont.)

Has Tiger Woods returned to form? (cont.)

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Tiger Woods looks like he's returned to form with his recent play, but can he win The Masters again?
Tiger Woods looks like he's returned to form with his recent play, but can he win The Masters again?
John Raoux/AP

NOTE: This story appeared in the April 18, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated.

In April 2010, in his first tournament since the world started laughing at him, Tiger Woods sprayed shots all over Augusta National. He did finish fourth at the Masters, a testament to his talent, will and ability to scramble. But before his private plane left Augusta, he told his longtime friend John Cook that he wasn't fooled.

"He says, 'I'm so confused right now, I don't know what to do,' " Cook recalls. " 'I don't know what my golf swing is supposed to do.'"

When Woods got home to Orlando, he met Cook at their home club, Isleworth. Cook had previously sensed tension in Woods's relationship with his swing instructor, Hank Haney, but had kept quiet. At Isleworth, Cook asked Woods pointed questions: Do you like your direction? Are you happy with Hank? In the past Woods had betrayed nothing, merely promising to grind his way back to dominance. This time, Cook says, "He was beyond spinning it with, 'I really need to get to work.' You could really tell he felt lost."

In a career of firsts, this was another: Tiger Woods, lost on a golf course. Haney quit after that Masters. (Friends suspect Woods would have fired him anyway.) At times during that 2010 season, Woods looked like something he had never been: a hacker. To this day Woods—publicly at least—blames injuries, and the four surgeries to his left knee have had a cumulative effect. But health was hardly his only problem.

You, of course, are familiar with the backstory. On Thanksgiving weekend of 2009, Woods had crashed his Cadillac SUV into a fire hydrant outside his house, throwing his life into turmoil. One tabloid report that he had been unfaithful to his wife, Elin, metastasized into dozens more. Woods became the star of a daily reality show that he couldn't cancel.

For his whole career, despite being the most scrutinized golfer in history, Woods had kept his golf game in a cocoon. He played entire rounds without directly acknowledging a single fan. Interviews were rare (and still are; Woods declined to talk to SI for this piece).

His father, Earl, whom Tiger adored, was a philanderer, and Cook says Tiger had vowed he would not make the same mistake. Now he had, and everybody knew it. Even casual fans were disgusted.

The pain was self-inflicted, and it was intense. The cocoon had vanished. Woods was flailing in golf and life. The world was watching. And Woods, who always seemed oblivious to the masses, was watching the world watch him. "He'd say, 'Did you see that TMZ thing?' " Cook recalls. "I'm not [up] on TMZ, so I don't really care. He would pay attention to that. And something was on every day."

Woods had displayed a temper on the course for most of his career, but now the outbursts were louder and affected his play. His interactions with the media, which had been cool but civil, became contentious. Initially there were concerns in Tiger's inner circle that the galleries would razz him mercilessly, but that didn't happen. The misery came from within.

"It's like mixing three or four colors of paint," says former PGA Tour player Notah Begay, one of Woods's best friends since childhood. "Once it's done, you can't unmix it. Once you have all these components in play—the media, the scandal, the personal history, the performance—it's like this chaos. And it's hard to make sense of that in front of everybody.

"I'm not saying one person's turmoil is any more or less important than anybody else's, but having to experience that in front of the world—having everybody at the grocery market, the gas station, the gym knowing exactly what you did, who you did it with and how it's adversely impacted [your] life—multiplies the impact it has on [your] emotional stability and psyche. It was evident in his play. He was not very focused."

Woods had long leaned on his interactions with famous men, iconic men, from Michael Jordan to Muhammad Ali to Nelson Mandela, to learn how to handle global celebrity. But in 2010 he was stuck.

"I know him as well as anybody," Begay says, "and I had no advice."

Woods had endured minislumps before. But those struggles had merely brought him closer to the field; they had not made him part of it. At age five he was so good that the best 15-year-old golfers in Southern California viewed him as a peer. They ate lunch with him, joked with him and competed against him. Years later this would be spun as part of Earl Woods's grand plan, but Tiger's first coach, Rudy Duran, says it wasn't planned at all. "I provided the same outlet to hundreds of other kids," Duran says. "Earl was way less pushy, way less trying to groom a touring pro than most of these parents."

The father was not obsessed. The child was. Tiger played golf to the point of exhaustion, then fell asleep in the car on the way home. His parents had to push him away from the course, toward school.

Earl was so amazed that he kept raising expectations in public. He'd show up at a junior tournament and casually announce that his son would win. By the time Tiger turned pro, in the summer of 1996, Earl famously told SI, "I was personally selected by God himself ... to nurture this young man.... Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity."

Really?

"Earl was an idiot," says John Anselmo, Tiger's coach from ages 10 to 18, with a laugh that lets you know he is talking about a friend. "I loved him, but he was an idiot. He was bragging about his son like crazy, and he was overdoing it."

Tiger wasn't trying to change the course of humanity. Given the choice between golf and anything else, Tiger chose golf. Anselmo says that even when pretty girls walked past the driving range, the young Tiger barely noticed.

It was commonly accepted that Tiger was hunting Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 majors. Friends say that isn't quite true. Sure, he had a poster of Nicklaus in his childhood bedroom. But many kids own posters of their heroes. Trip Kuehne, who competed against Tiger as an amateur and became a good friend, says the record never came up between them.

Notah Begay and Tiger Woods share a laugh in 2011. Begay is one of Woods' closest friends in golf.
Notah Begay and Tiger Woods share a laugh in 2011. Begay is one of Woods' closest friends in golf.
Kevin Rivoli/AP

Begay, however, says Woods has a number in mind now. But it isn't 18. "He is focused on 20," Begay says. "That may be a little hard to believe, considering what's transpired in the last three years, but that's where his focus is. He thinks he is capable of winning 20 majors."

Why 20? Because that is what Tiger thinks he can accomplish. And if he reaches 20, he will hunt for 21; if he remains stuck on 14, he'll keep hunting for 15. He is not driven by the external approval that would come with passing Nicklaus. More than winning the Masters, he wants to master the game.

"It's a huge distinction," says Conrad Ray, Woods's college teammate and now the Stanford coach. "He is happy he has all those trophies on the wall, but to me it's the game within the game that really drives him."

As a teenager Woods would hit a perfect shot on the range, then immediately try something else. After winning the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes, he decided to change his swing because he thought he could improve. After winning four straight majors with his new swing in 2000--01, he rebuilt it again.

Since 2010 he has undergone the most dramatic changes of all. Woods has revamped his swing yet again; been divorced; hired a new instructor; switched caddies; changed putters; recovered from knee and Achilles-tendon injuries; moved from inland Orlando to the coastal Florida town of Jupiter, where he and Elin share custody of their five-year-old daughter, Sam, and four-year-old son, Charlie; switched home courses; started dating Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn; and returned to No. 1 in the World Ranking.

Woods has won six of his last 20 official events and, for the first time in five years, he is the favorite in the Masters, which begins on April 11. The Nicklaus comparisons are heating up again, but you rarely hear this one: Nicklaus did not play golf seriously until he was 10 years old. Woods was a prodigy before he turned three. Woods cannot remember a single day in his life that was not colored, in some way, by his obsession with golf. Almost all of his relationships were formed in the shadow of his greatness.

Over lunch at the Doral Golf Resort near Miami in mid-March, Begay is asked: When Woods's infidelities became public, what was his biggest worry? Begay thinks for a moment.

"I think his biggest concern at that point was just: Who, of his closest friends, might judge him?" Begay says. "He knew the media was going to be hard on him—sports media, the mainstream media and tabloid media. I think he was concerned about what his friends thought." Woods apologized to them individually.

This was an adjustment for him. Woods had never had to ingratiate himself with others. His talent drew people to him.

Former Tour pro Casey Martin explains. Martin can't walk long distances because of a rare circulatory disorder in his right leg, and in the 1990s he sued the PGA Tour for the right to use a cart in competition. Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer spoke against his position, arguing that walking was an integral part of the game.

Woods, Martin's old Stanford teammate and friend, was in a better position to help him than anybody else. But, Martin says, "I wouldn't say he was overly supportive. He made a few comments, but I think he wanted to stay out of it." The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in Martin's favor. Like many college friends, Woods and Martin lost touch for several years. But Martin's feelings never changed.

"I pull for Tiger like you can't believe," says Martin, who coaches the Oregon men's team. "I've never pulled for a guy like [I do for] Tiger. I don't know what that comes from. When you see somebody who is so different and so special, you're mesmerized. I always find myself going, Why do I pull for this guy so much? When he was struggling, gosh, it hurt me. I'm like, Come on! I want him to break every record. I can't help it."

That social equation—when Tiger did not put in the effort to please others, his talent made up the difference—played out in his favor a thousand times in a hundred ways. Duran, his first coach, worked with him from ages four to 10 without getting paid. ("I can't charge for having fun," Duran says. "It didn't feel right, so I didn't.") Anselmo did not get paid either, though Woods did pay some of his medical bills after turning pro.

Haney wrote in his 2012 book, The Big Miss, that Woods paid him only $50,000 per year, plus a $25,000 bonus when Woods won a major. Haney also wrote that Woods apparently had no interest in being his friend, no matter what he did. Yet Haney tells SI, "Honestly, I would pay him for that job. He knows that."

Spectators were on the same side of that social equation. Woods went entire rounds without making eye contact with them. He seemed inhumanly unflappable, an effect enhanced by his Nike golf outfits. They breathe where he sweats, so you don't see moisture on his shirt, and he doesn't have to pull at his sleeves or hike up his trousers, because they fit perfectly.

Shortly after turning pro in 1996, Woods signed a two-book deal with Warner Books. He worked on every detail of his first book, How I Play Golf, and it became a runaway best seller. His second book was supposed to be an autobiography. Woods never wrote it.

For years, sportswriters complained that Woods never said anything interesting. But they praised him relentlessly. "From 1997 to 2005, I'll bet you [there were] 200 times a media person said to me: 'I'm doing a piece on Tiger Woods. Can you give me some good adjectives?' " says PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem. "They were just trying to one-up each other—how gushy they could be over Tiger Woods."

When Woods crashed his Cadillac, the gushing stopped. The public soon hopscotched to the next celebrity scandal, but Woods struggled to move on. As he did so, he had to choose pieces of his old life to carry into his new one.

In August 2010, the same month his divorce became final, Woods asked fellow pro Sean O'Hair for the phone number of O'Hair's old coach Sean Foley. They worked together for several sessions. At the end of September, after seven straight finishes outside the top 10, Woods hired Foley, officially forming one of the most misunderstood relationships in sports.

Swing coach Sean Foley and Woods have developed a rigorous but effective relationship together.
Swing coach Sean Foley and Woods have developed a rigorous but effective relationship together.
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Foley sounds more like a science professor than somebody teaching a sport. He talks about swing dynamics, as in, "A dynamic is: How do I create energy through my pelvis? How do I use the ground to create energy? A dynamic is: If the face is pointed two degrees right, and the movement of the sweet spot through the golf ball is four degrees right, with a seven-iron you're going to hit a ball that's going to start right and curve back."

Foley hears people say the golf swing should be simple and says, incredulously, "Keep it simple? How? You're talking about energy systems, velocities and linear speeds.... There is nothing simple about it."

Partly because of the science talk, analysts have accused Foley of trying to turn Woods into a robot. The truth is, of Woods's three professional coaches—Butch Harmon, Haney and Foley—Foley is the most inclined to give Woods space.

Foley sees Woods on the driving range before a round, says, "Hey, bro," and moves on. He senses that Woods wants his space. Foley does not give Woods a pre-shot routine, tell him what clubs to swing in warmups, or discuss equipment. He rarely talks to Woods about putting.

Foley eats lunch with Woods regularly when they work together but estimates they have eaten dinner together twice. He has been to Woods's new mansion in Jupiter but not often. He would rather save time and meet at Woods's new home course, Medalist Golf Club. It's their office. After tournament rounds, whether Woods shoots 65 or 75, their routine is the same.

"We don't go back and work on the things that didn't work that day," Foley says. "We just keep in the system, in the system, in the system, until that is a highly insulated neural circuit, and in time of pressure or distress or whatever, that's what the brain allocates, rather than an old one or an in-between one. It's not about fixes at all."

Translated into English: He wants Woods's swing to hold up under pressure. He gives detailed answers to Wood's questions but doesn't micromanage his swing thoughts.

Cook says that Haney would send Woods "to the first tee with a scroll of stuff [to remember]. It was like he had that quarterback playlist on his arm. I like Hank, and I've known him a long time. [But] the time I spent with them together ... I'm listening and going, Wow, that sounds really complicated to me. I didn't think they needed to be doing that."

Haney says he didn't worry about overloading Woods, because "he always told me, I'll process it. I'll pare it down. Don't hold back." And Haney frequently points out that Woods won 31 of 91 events when they worked together, and six majors in six years. For any player in history that is extraordinary. But how do you compare the incomparable? How can anybody know what Woods would have done from ages 28 to 34 with another instructor?

Before his divorce Woods had always sought the advice of older, wiser men—not just Anselmo, Harmon and Haney but also Mark O'Meara and Cook, Isleworth neighbors who are a generation older. Foley is a peer who doesn't see Woods as a protégé.

Ten months after hiring Foley, Woods made another bold move: He fired his longtime caddie, the brash Kiwi Steve Williams. Williams was both adviser and protector—barking at photographers, glaring at spectators, publicly feuding with Phil Mickelson. Williams and Woods were groomsmen at each other's weddings.

Woods never explained the firing publicly. But his hiring of caddie Joe LaCava in September 2011 is telling. LaCava's skills are highly respected—he was on Fred Couples's bag for years and Dustin Johnson's as well—but he is also incorrigibly easygoing. Woods signaled that he no longer wanted his caddie to act like a bodyguard.

Haney seemed to covet Woods's friendship. Williams prized it. LaCava says he and Foley are "not looking for a friendship. Yet he makes you feel like he's your best buddy."

LaCava stayed at Woods's house for the Honda Classic, and when Woods triumphed at Torrey Pines, he told LaCava, "We won this f------ tournament!" LaCava thought, We didn't win anything.

In the past Woods snapped at caddies and coaches. LaCava says Woods has not blamed him for a bad club choice or read on the green.

Woods now had a coach he trusted, a caddie who simply caddied and a swing that reduced stress on his left knee. His game and his life were coming back. On Sept. 30, 2011—six months after joining Medalist and almost exactly a year after he hired Foley—Woods made five straight birdies on Medalist's back nine en route to a course-record 62.

In November 2011, Woods flew to Australia for the Australian Open and the Presidents Cup. He seemed more at ease than he had been in years. He bantered with people he did not know very well and was in no rush to leave the room.

"Everybody felt really comfortable around him," Cook says. "It hasn't always been that way in these events."

Woods's friend Steve Stricker says, "I think he learned a lot from a couple of years ago: Be more cordial to everybody, respect other people. He is happier with himself. You can see it. Just the way he is treating people is better. It looks like he is working hard at it."

In March 2012, Woods won his first official tournament since the tabloid storm. Now he looks like the best player in the world.

"If Tiger gets to 19 majors, they're going to write amazing articles about me," Foley says. "The fact of the matter is, it has nothing to do with me. I don't have to go out on the course and deal with fear and gallery noise and slow play and figure out where the wind is and what the divot's telling me. I don't have to deal with any of that."

Foley doesn't even watch a lot of it. As Woods played his opening round at Doral last month, Foley walked the course following another of his players, Justin Rose. A spectator recognized Foley as Woods's coach and told him, "I think you're doing a great job."

"Thanks, man," Foley said.

"It's really cool to watch," the fan continued.

"Thanks, man."

After the spectator walked away, Foley said, "That is nice of him to say that, but I don't care—just like when the guy goes, 'I think you're s---. I think you're ruining the game.'"

Steve Stricker and Woods finish practicing in Doral, Fla. Stricker thinks Woods is back to his old self.
Steve Stricker and Woods finish practicing in Doral, Fla. Stricker thinks Woods is back to his old self.
Alan Diaz/AP

The Medalist Golf Club, in Hobe Sound, Fla., is where worldwide fame meets Florida wildlife. In any given round you might encounter alligators, PGA Tour stars Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler, rattlesnakes, British Open champions Ian Baker-Finch and Mark Calcavecchia, pumas, Dan Marino and No. 1--ranked LPGA player Stacy Lewis, more rattlesnakes, or Tiger Woods, who joined in March 2011.

Look: There is three-time major champion Nick Price having a drink in the clubhouse. And yes, that man wearing a striped Masters shirt in the parking lot really is Peyton Manning, who just played 18 holes as a guest. At the Medalist's member-guest tournament this month, Woods partnered with broadcaster Ahmad Rashad, while fellow member Michael Jordan teamed with guest Keegan Bradley.

Medalist is a golfer's golf club. It's open for dinner only one night a week: Wednesday, when there is a buffet. There are no houses on the course. (A few houses have a view of the 3rd hole, but they are not affiliated with Medalist.) The clubhouse is nice but not gaudy. Cart paths are sand.

"There are no rules," club president De Mudd says. There are also no tee times. The best players in the world play in shorts, with shirts untucked. They can play alone or in fivesomes; play music from their carts, as long as nobody complains; play all 18 or hit six tee shots on one hole, as long as nobody has to wait behind them.

In the inverted reality of Woods's life—his house is visible from the water but not the street, and he released photos of himself with Vonn so the media would leave them alone—he needs a place as exclusive as Medalist to feel most like a commoner.

He calls staffers by their first names and chats with them before heading to the 1st tee. He says hello at the halfway house and goes on his way, like any other member instead of one of the most famous athletes in the world.

He enjoys the kind of golf test he has loved since childhood: a firm and fast course where the wind kicks up and Woods has to be creative to score well. A few Sundays ago he invited Rory McIlroy over for a 36-hole duel—Woods won the first 18, McIlroy the second—and Bubba Watson says they often play matches.

Woods plays as many as 45 holes in a day, and when he isn't at Medalist he practices at the short-game facility at his house. The kid who used to pound balls into a net in his parents' garage now hits full nine-irons in his backyard along Jupiter Sound.

But he does not cling to that cocoon the way he did. For years, when Woods played the annual Tour stop at Torrey Pines in San Diego, he would curtly say hello when the starter gave him his scorecard. Business. Fans standing a few feet away had no idea that Woods had known the starter, Tony Perez, for most of his life. Tony's son, PGA Tour player Pat Perez, competed against Woods as a child and remains a friend. On Sunday of this year's tournament, Woods took his card, smiled and hugged Tony.

"He just wrapped his arms around me and wouldn't let go," Perez says. "I told him, 'Welcome back.'"

In the spring of 2012, after qualifying for the U.S. Open at Olympic in San Francisco, Casey Martin was pleasantly surprised to see this tweet from @TigerWoods: "Simply incredible. Ability, attitude and guts. See you at Olympic Casey."

Woods added a link to a story about Martin. They had not talked in years, but they played a practice round together at Olympic. After all those years of rooting for Woods, Martin knew that Woods was rooting for him too.

"Everything is so stable now," Begay says. "Tiger and Elin are on better terms, for the sake of their children. He is very involved with his children. And the golf is not far behind. It's been difficult to maintain focus with all the off-course distractions, but I think he is firmly settled with his familial responsibilities and where his life's at now.

"Last year you saw he was a little bit more reserved. He was able to accept his failings with a little bit more humility. I think those are indicative of somebody who is in a healthy place emotionally."

Is Woods playing better because he is at peace? Or is he at peace because he is playing better? How much of his success comes from having a healthy knee, and how much is a result of a healthy outlook? There is no way to break this down mathematically: Twenty-seven percent is health, 16% is swing change, 24% is from being at peace with himself. It is all part of the picture. He can't unmix that paint.

The force that drove him from early childhood is still vibrant: Woods is still trying to conquer golf. Not professional golf or golf history. Golf. The ball at his feet and the hole in the distance. It is the constant that saved him from teenage burnout, professional failure and the crush of celebrity—that kept him from being golf's Jennifer Capriati, Todd Marinovich or Lindsay Lohan. He could always retreat into the game.

That desire has brought him all the way back here, to his familiar status as the clear Masters favorite. He will arrive at Augusta facing old expectations with a new perspective.

After Woods won the WGC-Cadillac Championship earlier this month, he stood on the 18th green with his trophy as waves of PVIs (People of Varying Importance) posed for photographs with him: Finchem, Doral owner Donald Trump, Cadillac executives, Doral members, interns, assorted others.

Two Cadillacs appeared to be floating in the lake behind him. The cars were on platforms just below the surface, an old golf-tournament trick.

Woods patiently smiled and made small talk, then smiled some more, no matter who posed with him. Music blared from speakers a few hundred feet away, and between poses for the cameras he quietly bopped up and down to the beat. The child prodigy is 37 years old and looks happy.

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