Greatness was in the room at the 2015 Open Championship at St Andrews when four Major champions faced select media.
On the right sat Arnold Palmer, flanked by Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Gary Player. With 35 Major titles among them, when they spoke, you listened.
You could hear a pin drop as Palmer expressed his passion for the game. At the age of 85, and struggling to walk at times, he had made the trip from the United States to Scotland to attend that week’s World Golf Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Player, a winner of 165 tournaments around the globe, told it like it is, as usual. ‘This is a man who would be here at any cost and, let me tell you, I know of four [inducted] golfers playing in this Open who didn’t bother to go up the road to the evening.’
As Palmer spoke, I watched Woods, next to him. He listened intently to one of the godfathers of the sport and hung on every word. It was that week when my perception of him changed. Not in terms of Tiger the golfer, or Tiger the flawed human being when it came to his private life. It was more than that. Tiger Woods – who went on to miss the cut at St Andrews – fronted up like a champion, a gentleman, and, if truth be told, a world away from the pampered billionaire I’d read and heard about. He won 14 Majors to Palmer’s seven, but here he was, taking a metaphorical backseat to the elder statesman. Respectful.
There must be so many inner demons still raging inside the mind of the Tiger. Regrets, he’s had a few. Once bulletproof as an individual and a golfer, he turns 41 in December and in October announced that he was ‘not ready’ to stage another comeback. This time owing to injuries of a physical sort, not the mental ones sustained in the public meltdown of his marriage.
Woods was ranked No 1 in the world for 683 weeks – that’s 13 years – and is now languishing at around 800 in the World Ranking, sinking like a stone all the time.
At St Andrews, albeit in the presence of a hand-picked audience, the American was jovial, intelligent and seemingly sincere. He was respectful to Palmer, to Player, the sponsors and the significance of the Claret Jug placed a few feet away.
A few weeks later a parcel arrived in the post. It was the flag from the 18th hole at that 144th Open Championship and on it were the scribbled words, ‘To Gary, Best wishes, Tiger.’ It was a gesture that knocked me sideways.
Yes, there are other versions of what he is ‘really like’ and they are not complimentary.
The celebrated writer John Feinstein – author of A Good Walk Spoiled – wrote a couple of years ago: ‘In most golf interview rooms, if Tiger said the Earth was flat, people would write it down. Most golfers will usually answer a few extra questions either one-on-one or to a small group after a press conference. Not Tiger. He’s so security-obsessed that a PGA Tour official had to walk into the locker room to inform him that his security guards could not order the media to leave just because Tiger didn’t feel like talking.’
What I also remembered from that interaction was that, of the four golfers in the room, only one wore a cap – Woods. I have often wondered about that.