EVEN FROM 200 YARDS AWAY TREE TREMONT was an unmistakable figure. He was built like a martini glass, with powerful shoulders and chest tapering to a 30-inch waist, all of it accentuated by his tight, European-cut clothing, which [wife] Belinda handpicked for him, as Tree liked to remind reporters. (He was giving himself plausible deniability.) By comparison, the other players looked as if they had just stepped off a shuffleboard court. Tree's stride radiated athleticism, confidence, superiority. There was something virile about his presence, certainly for women but for men, too. Twenty weeks a year, whether you saw him live or on your flat-screen TV, people watched Tree Tremont throw grass in the air, and it excited them in ways they couldn't even articulate.
In theory I was paid to be a neutral observer, but you couldn't be neutral writing about Tree Tremont. I knew a lot of sportswriters who felt overmatched covering him. The speed at which he won his first 13 major championships and 53 PGA Tour titles had no precedent. A lot of us, with no blueprint, were lost. My take on him was that as easy as Tree could make the game look, he was a grinder at heart. He brought intensity to every shot, and he played with a controlled fury. At Kapalua on Friday for the second round, it was humid and his mocha skin was glistening by the 1st green. The golfing highlight of the day came on the fairway of the par-5 15th, as he stood dead still and assessed a thorny shot. He was standing on a tilted fairway, his ball below his feet. The pin was on the front left of the green. He'd have to hold a draw against a slice wind. The shot required strength, nerve and superior skill. Most players would have chosen the safety of laying up. Tree pulled out a one-iron, a club so unforgiving only he still carried one. After Tree won his ninth major, matching Ben Hogan's total, The St. Petersburg Review-American put out a special section devoted to Tree. For a long piece I was writing for it, I asked Tree when he would replace his one-iron with something easier to hit, like the 15° hybrid. "When Hogan does," Tree said. Hogan had been dead for years.
Tree toweled down the grip of his one-iron and took a few purposeful practice swings. Many golf swings on Tour, clinging to old models of gentlemanliness, were long and graceful and artistic. Tree's action was blunt and forceful and scientific. I had seen him play tens of thousands of shots, but the violence of his action still awed me. He lashed at the ball at Kapalua's 15th and drove it through the heavy air with an audible sizzle. The TV cameras and spectators followed the ball, as they always did. I watched Tree. From his cocky twirl of the club I knew it was a superb shot and that he knew it too. That twirl move was not a regular thing for him, not at all. His standards were impossibly high. The ball came to rest 20 feet from the hole.
He stalked the eagle putt, missed it but still went on to shoot a second-round 64. He was leading by five with two rounds to play. The tournament was all but over. Stepping from the scorer's tent behind the 18th green, Tree was greeted by tiny Bill McNabb from Golf Channel. Tree took one look at him and couldn't stop laughing.
"Jee-zus, did you microwave your face? You're gonna be the reddest Irishman in Orlando."
McNabb laughed heartily, flattered by Tree's put-down.
Tree resented that Golf Channel monopolized so much of the Tour programming. The cable outfit was costing him money. CBS and NBC and ESPN gave him so much more exposure. Richard Fenimore, the commissioner of the PGA Tour, lived in fear that Tree would someday criticize the Tour's TV contracts, and negotiating the TV contracts was the most important thing the commissioner did. But Tree never did. He always played his part, in all things. After every round, regardless of his score, he answered questions from everybody. Back when he had turned pro, Tree's father, Big Herb, told him, "You play golf for free. You get paid to promote." Tree understood that TV made myths and that myths made people rich. After the twins were born, Tree did spots for Saturn about the importance of car safety. He talked over footage that showed Tree strapping his kids into their car seats. Nobody I knew had ever seen Tree Tremont driving a Saturn. He was a Bugatti guy, a Maybach guy, a Range Rover guy. A tricked-out Hummer, now and again. He did not drive Saturns. I knew that. The public did not. Maybe I should have written that up, but I didn't.
Tree pretended to treat McNabb's questions with earnestness. On camera he was always thoughtful but careful, sometimes amusing, occasionally funny. Never sarcastic, never cutting, never off message. His discipline was astounding. He told McNabb how refreshed he was from having spent the holidays with his family. He told a story about his daughter asking Santa for a green jacket. He imitated her high voice: "I want one just like the one you got for winning the Masters, Daddy."
He credited his good play to his new 5.75° Arrow driver. Made by Arrow Golf, which paid him $30 million a year. He owned a piece of the company, too. "That new Arrow driver is giving me another 15 yards, and I love how I'm flighting it," he told McNabb. Flighting it. That was one of Tree's ways of letting people in, by using the terms of his craft in ways other people did not.
When the interview was over, Tree hopped in a golf cart that raced up a steep hill, toward the press room. I jogged up the hill and arrived, winded, just as the press conference was beginning. I settled into my seat, and Tree gave me a nod.