RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In Orlando, Florida this morning, golfer Tiger Woods begins his quest for a fifth straight PGA Tour victory. True, there are more than 100 other world class golfers entered in the Arnold Palmer invitational. But this year the fact that there's Tiger Woods and then there's everybody else is especially noticeable.
Woods, himself, says he's playing better than ever. And that's quite a statement for a 32-year-old guy who's already won 63 PGA Tour events, including 13 of the major tournaments.
All of which has put the golf world into a heightened state of Tiger-mania. NPR's Tom Goldman has more from Orlando.
TOM GOLDMAN: Let's start with an apology. I came to Florida to try to explain how Tiger Woods is laying waste, anew, to the ridiculously hard game of golf. How it is that eight years after winning the USA Open by 15 strokes, which is just silly, and the British Open by eight, he says he's playing better in all facets of the game. My aim was to be dispassionate, to stay above the hyperbole.
But I'm sorry to say, after a couple of days at the Bay Hill Club in Orlando, I've been forced to simply behold Tiger. What else can you do when you ask golfer Sean O'Hair to describe Woods and he gives you this…
Mr. SEAN O'HAIR (Professional golfer): Um…
(Soundbite of laugher)
GOLDMAN: Or ask golfing legend and tournament host Arnold Palmer about Wood's golf game.
Mr. ARNOLD PALMER (Legendary golfer): He has got it by the neck and he's choking it. And he should. His game is obviously responding to his commands.
(Soundbite of golf swing)
GOLDMAN: It was just after sunrise yesterday when Tiger Woods cracked a three wood off the first tee. Dressed in a black hat, black striped shirt, gray pants and black shoes, Woods joined three amateur partners in the traditional pre-tournament Pro-Am competition. A large crowd, huge for a Pro-Am, followed along. Many were golfers and they watched Woods' every move.
What Arnold Palmer said, how Woods' game is responding to commands, that's a profound statement for all the frustrated millions who stand over a golf ball, say to themselves this baby's on the green, and then watch in horror as it screams dead right into a water hazard.
One of those watching Woods with laser eyes was Jonathan Ford. He lives in California and came across the country to see Tiger.
How long have you played golf?
Mr. JONATHAN FORD (Golfer): Probably 15, 18 years.
GOLDMAN: So when you watch him are you picking things up?
Mr. FORD: A little bit, but not much. I just know that I can't do what he does.
GOLDMAN: OK. So what is it that Woods does and is doing better than ever?
Mr. LARRY DORMAN (Writer, New York Times): It's almost imperceptible to the naked eye.
GOLDMAN: Larry Dorman writes about golf for the New York Times. He used to work for the golf company Callaway. He says Woods' golf swing has gone through major reconstruction over the yeas, even as Woods dominated the game. And now, says Dorman, it's paying off.
Mr. DORMAN: The work that he's done has made him more consistent and better able to fix things that might go wrong right when they go wrong on the golf course, which he thinks is the big difference, or one of the big differences, in his game.
GOLDMAN: Woods also has done some significant repair work on his psyche. He talks about life being balanced now. And a big part of that is he's able to cope better with the wrenching death of his father nearly two years ago.
Earl Woods taught Tiger how to play the game and helped hone Tiger's legendary focus on the golf course. Earl would throw golf tees at Tiger while Tiger was addressing the ball. He'd yell racial epithets at his son. All of which, Tiger encouraged.
Mr. TIGER WOODS (Professional golfer): I was playing against guys who hit the ball longer than I did, who were better players than I was. And the only way for me to get better is just to get tougher. So I figured if I didn't have the physical skills or the physical gifts, I could challenge them on a mental level and be tougher and outthink them. It would give myself a chance to win golf tournaments.
(Soundbite of applause and cheering)
GOLDMAN: Woods finished yesterday's Pro-Am with a routine birdie putt on the 18th green. Then he went and talked to reporters. He was cordial and easygoing. Only a few times did he get that look - the hooded, steely-eyed glare he has when he's locked in a competition on the course. He got the look when a reporter asked: do you really think you can win every tournament you play this year?
Mr. WOODS: I mean, you don't play to finish top tens or make cuts. You play to win. If you're entered into the field, I don't understand why you'd think any other way.
GOLDMAN: It sounds logical really, until you realize how hard it is to win one PGA Tour event. Sean O'Hair, the guy who thinks Woods is the messiah, O'Hair won his first tournament in 2005 and his second one last week.
Mr. O'HAIR: You know, I was very naïve thinking that this is going to happen to me every year. Obviously it didn't. And I think I've kind of learned what winning on the PGA Tour really is and what it represents.
GOLDMAN: It means you have tamed the hardest golf courses in the world, with varying terrain and weather conditions. It means you have conquered the best golfers in the world. And it means you have beaten the enemy that lives between your ears.
Again, here's golf writer Larry Dorman.
Mr. DORMAN: The self-doubt that can creep in, you know. You're trying to get your first tournament win, thoughts of all your junior golf days and people who helped you get where you are and your mom and your dad and your mom drove you to, you know, got up at 6:00 in the morning to drive you to, you know, your junior golf events. All those things start flooding in. And that's why there are sport psychologists who work with these players to try and get them to keep those thoughts out of their mind, because if they think about it they can't win.
GOLDMAN: Hence, the adulation for the man in Nike Swooshes who can't seem to lose right now. As Woods left the golf course yesterday, his path became a gauntlet of autograph hungry fans.
Unidentified Man #1: Sir, please. You said after the match.
Unidentified Man #2: Please.
Unidentified Man #3: Tiger, please. Tiger, please.
Unidentified Man #1: Please, Tiger, you said after the match.
Unidentified Man #3: Tiger.
GOLDMAN: Woods, the multi-tasker, walked along chatting with a reporter as he signed hats, posters, tickets, anything. He was calm, friendly, completely at ease in the eye of an adoring storm.
Unidentified Woman #1: Oh, thank you.
Unidentified Woman #2 Thank you.
Unidentified Woman #3: Please, Tiger. Thank you so much.
GOLDMAN: The lucky ones went away with a very legible signature and a beatific smile on their face. For the others, anguish, but they should take heart. There'll be many more chances. Amid the talk of Tiger being the greatest of all time and in upcoming season that could be historic, Woods simply says the prime of his career is still to come.
Tom Goldman, NPR News, Orlando.
MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
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