Three years ago Tiger Woods burst onto the scene with anarchy in his heart and Jack Nicklaus on his mind. Almost overnight he changed the face of professional golf. Back then Woods played with the volume turned way up. He strutted around tournament sites to a sound track of squealing teenyboppers, breathless reporters, grumbling colleagues and, always, the click-click-click of a thousand cameras. His weekly press conferences were as entertaining as anything he did on the course. They were rowdy, standing-room-only affairs at which he laid odds on his winning the Grand Slam, played coy about rumors linking him to supermodels and generally acted like the biggest star in the sports universe, which he was. Woods took the hype, pressure, criticism and expectations and refined them all into his own sort of rocket fuel, which he used to power his ascension.
As we all know, Woods plummeted back to earth, dragged down, like so many before him, by the demands of being the No. 1 player in the world, a spot he has ceded to David Duval. Recently Woods fell to third in the World Ranking behind Davis Love III, the poster boy for complacent consistency. Sad to say, but Woods was beginning to look like just another good golfer, content to cash his inflated checks and brag about how often he finishes in the top 5. Even more stunning was how far Woods's Q rating had fallen. Duval's icy proficiency was now the game's most compelling show, and even Sergio Garcia, with his teenaged exuberance and Old World charm, was generating more buzz.
Last week, at the Deutsche Bank-SAP Open in Heidelberg, Germany, Woods traveled back to the future, dominating a world-class field and setting off the kind of Tigermania that has been dormant for nearly two years. This was Woods's first trip to Germany and his first appearance at a European tour event on the Continent, and he was greeted by a level of fanaticism usually reserved for a new George Lucas movie. Woods shot a 15-under-par 273 at the St. Leon Rot Golf Club, three strokes clear of Retief Goosen of South Africa, but his golf was only a sidelight. The victory was a testament to Woods's still potent star power, particularly when the PGA Tour's Colonial Invitational got stuck with a leader board full of Olin Brownes.
Woods blew into Germany in high style, having leased the Orlando Magic's team plane, a 737 disguised as an oversized living room with plenty of space for Woods and the 13 members of his entourage, including some guy named O'Meara. It was not a craving for bratwurst that drew Woods to Germany. Dietmar Hopp, the billionaire founder of SAP, the global software company, made an appearance-fee offer that six of the top 10 players in the World Ranking (plus Garcia) couldn't refuse. Woods was widely reported to have received by far the fattest fee—$1 million.
Hopp's investment began paying dividends on Wednesday afternoon, two days before the start of the tournament, when Woods held a press conference for some 100 unruly reporters. "I haven't seen this for some time," Woods said to the assembled mob, sounding rather pleased. "In the States the press is getting accustomed to me." The first question put to Woods was what one English reporter termed "a curve-ball, fastball and slider all rolled into one." Woods was asked what his impressions of Germany had been before arriving in Heidelberg. This may have been the SAP Open, but Woods is no sap. "Not exactly the most positive things," Woods said, "from the history I got at school." He then deftly segued into effusive praise for Bernhard Langer and some of Germany's younger players. Woods's candor was noteworthy enough to get his mug splashed across newspapers throughout Europe, and he got high marks for the high-wire act. Woods also endeared himself to the European press corps by heaping praise on Garcia. "I get asked a lot about him," Woods said, "but I don't mind because he's such a nice kid."
It's a little premature for Woods to be talking like a doddering elder statesman, as he showed in the opening round last Friday, with a 69 in tough conditions that left him three shots behind Ernie Els. On Saturday his swing got a little loose, but a hot putter carried him to a 68 and the midway lead, which thrilled the crowds that by week's end would exceed 100,000. In Sunday's third round, Woods took control of the tournament with another 68. During the final round on Monday his lead never dipped below those three strokes.
After his victory Woods talked a lot about validation. Of his exorbitant appearance fee, he said, "I feel the tournament got what it wanted." He also expressed satisfaction with his steady performance. Over the past two years he has paid much lip service to the improvement in his all-around game. Woods noted his victory in February at San Diego and his career-best 61 at the Byron Nelson Classic two weeks ago and said he is finally getting results. "I went through a period when I was changing my game, and I wasn't as proficient at winning," he said. "Now I feel everything has really gelled."
Having enjoyed this taste of his former life, Woods may be ready for another sustained run as golf's leading man. There is a historical precedent for Woods's emerging from an overseas adventure refreshed and refocused. One of his defining performances came at the Asian Honda Classic, in Bangkok, in February 1997. Woods was playing in Thailand to honor his mother's homeland—and to pick up an appearance fee of nearly $500,000—and his arrival in the middle of the night was carried live on four of Bangkok's five TV stations. Despite a bad case of the flu, Woods exceeded even the wildest expectations, driving the 389-yard 10th hole during the third round and finishing at 20 under par, and 10 strokes clear of his closest pursuer. Two months later he made history at the Masters, and a global phenomenon was born.
"One thing I've learned from sports is that you never arrive," Woods said on Monday. "You can always get better. I'll never arrive, but it's a fun journey."