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.