CNN?s Don Riddell coaxes Tiger Woods out of his shell, as the world number one talks Majors, Ryder Cups and a deep desire to let his personality do the talking
Tiger Woods? manager says his client is not superhuman, and Woods himself can?t understand what all the fuss is about. But tail the world?s number one around a golf course for just an hour and you?ll get a sense of the hysteria that surrounds his every move. His adoring fans follow in their hundreds, if not thousands, journalists jostle for an elusive interview and even tournament sponsors who?ve paid Tiger?s multi-million dollar appearance fee want to be pictured with him. Tiger Woods is one of the most valuable endorsements in the world, he?s a walking brand worth an estimated half a billion dollars and one of the few genuinely global household names.
I?m intrigued as to whether there?s anywhere he can walk undisturbed. ?Yes,? he replies, ?under water!?
It?s the second time in just eight months that I?ve been lucky enough to interview Tiger ? and both occasions have been memorable. The first, after his 10th Major success at St Andrews, was far from intimate. The television viewer would have seen a cosy little chat between myself and the new Open champion, but crammed with us into the small, sweaty room was an assortment of managers, minders, publicists, a team of back-slappers and various other interested parties. Too many people have a vested interest in Woods to let him properly off the leash.
The second time was different, however. Ahead of the Dubai Desert Classic in February, CNN was given unfettered access for 30 minutes. That?s not particularly long for an in-depth feature, but where Woods is concerned such an audience is practically unheard of and there were absolutely no complaints from us. Having said that, I wondered if we?d need that much time. The world?s best player started off in monosyllabic form. I ask if he has any plans for the year. ?Yeah, I do.? What are they, I probe. ?Win? he says, adding ?that?s it.? When pushed further he added ?win, three letters?.
THE FANTASTIC FOUR
Although he?s smiling, Tiger?s pointed answers are making the conversation a little uncomfortable. I suppose that asking Woods to name his preferred tournaments is like asking a father to pick his favourite child. He simply wants to win every time he plays. And unlike, let?s say Retief Goosen, who?ll happily assess his chances in the Open versus the Masters, Woods doesn?t have to. He?s already won every Major at least twice, but I manage to get him to admit that the Major tournaments are the most important.
?My golfing career revolves around those four events so hopefully I can peak at those four times of the year and get everything organised.?
He?s peaked 10 times already, eight more and he will match Jack Nicklaus? record haul. Does he think of that every time he prepares for a big one?
?No, it?s something you have to put off because it takes a career. It?s something that?s not going to happen this year; it?s not something that?s going to happen next year. It took Jack 20 years, it?s going to take a long time and I understand that. So far I?ve done a pretty good job and hopefully over the rest of my career I can continue.?
By inference, I think we can assume that his year does not revolve around the Ryder Cup. In four previous appearances, Woods has taken eight points from a possible 20, a disappointing record. There are frequent accusations from Europe that the US and Woods don?t particularly care for the biennial event.
?I don?t agree with that, it means a great deal to us. It?s just that we haven?t played as well. We certainly haven?t putted as well. Any match play event comes down to putting. The team putted great at the Presidents Cup last year, hence we won.?
During the interview, it?s hard to forget that Woods is one of the most iconic celebrities in the world. We?re chatting in a tower above the practice green ? out of sight of the excitable crowds, but with a minder on the steps just in case.
?I just don?t understand the people and the fascination,? the 30-year-old says. Fame is something Woods has learned to live with, but even after 10 years of it, he?s uncomfortable with the status that is bestowed upon him. It?s at this point he reveals his love of the sea. Underwater ? he?s a keen diver and spear-fisherman ? Tiger can be his own man; a world away from the photographers and the autograph hunters. Not that he actually complains about the intrusion.
?I feel like my life is pretty special, but I don?t look at myself that way. You know, it is what it is. I caused all of this by making some putts at the right time and by hitting some good shots.? That?s a bit of an understatement, but I let him continue.
?I look at myself as a competitor. I love to compete. I love to get out there and mix it up with the boys and see what I?ve got, see if I can take them down.?
One man he particularly enjoys ?mixing it? with is Mark O?Meara. Separated by 19 years in age, they?re an unlikely match, but Woods clearly has a lot of affection for the ?big brother? he never had. ?We?re so similar, we do everything together. We ski, we fish and we play golf. And it?s fun.?
When Woods was a wide-eyed rookie in 1996, it was O?Meara who looked out for him. ?He was the one who took me under his wing. He didn?t have to do it, but he did.? His voice softens as he adds, ?He?s like my big brother, and I love him dearly.?
A decade ago, golf was pretty much Tiger?s only pastime, but at the end of 2005 he took six weeks off. For the first 24 days he didn?t even touch a club. That would have been unheard of in his youth. Instead, he recharged his batteries with a little rest and recovery. O?Meara can take much of the credit for introducing some balance in his life. As, of course, does Tiger?s wife, Elin.
?Without a doubt, I have a beautiful, great wife,? says Tiger, his eyes lighting up. ?Ever since she moved in four years ago we?ve been an inseparable team. A lot of my success is certainly due to her. There are so many things and distractions that go on in my life, many of which the public doesn?t see, and she has brought balance to my life. I?m very lucky to have that.?
With Elin?s support, Tiger has built the Tiger Woods Learning Centre for children in California. And on the subject of building foundations, I suspect it won?t be too long before we see the first Tiger Woods-designed golf course.
?I would love to get into that. I wanted to wait a good while though because I wanted to get a taste and feel for every kind of golf. I?ve played on every continent except Antarctica in order to understand what a course should be like and how it should be played.?
Woods clearly doesn?t do anything by halves. His work ethic is legendary, and I wonder if he considers himself to be a natural talent or a hard worker.
?It?s a bit of both. I was lucky I had a little bit of talent. My dad didn?t have to encourage me to work. I always wanted to perform at my best every time I competed. For me, the enjoyment is preparing. When it?s time to compete, let?s roll.
?My golf is evolving, with every day and every shot. You may hit one good one, but the next one may be a little bit off and you?ve got to try to figure it out… you have to be so dedicated and so disciplined to try to get things better.?
“I was lucky I had a little bit of talent. My dad didn?t have to encourage me to work. I always wanted to perform at my best every time I competed.”
To that extent, Woods takes no satisfaction from a lucky break. With the defence of his Masters title looming, the conversation turned to that chip for birdie on the 16th in the final round last year. While his fans celebrated it as one of the most dramatic shots of all time, Woods dismisses it as fortunate. ?The shot I played at Hazeltine [at the 2002 USPGA] was aeons better than that.?
Describing an awkward lie and a howling gale, Woods talks fondly of a 3-iron shot that he shaped up over the trees, with a big draw, onto the green. ?I?ll never forget how good I felt when I hit that shot. It went through the shaft, into my hands, through my arms and into my heart.?
To most of us Tiger is a golfer, albeit a very special one. And to me it?s clear that the game is his passion although he wants to be remembered as more than simply a player. ?Golf is what I do, it?s not who I am. I don?t ever want to be defined as a golfer. I want to be defined by my character, as a person.?
What?s for sure is that he won?t be remembered as a film star. I ask if he?s ever been offered any roles. ?Yep,? he says, ?all the time. I?m not interested though, being in front of the cameras is not for me.?
?You?d never guess,? I tell him, ?you were great in our interview.?
Tiger?s response offers quite an insight into the other world he inhabits. ?Just because you?re good at something doesn?t mean you enjoy doing it.? I assume he?s not talking about golf!
Tiger admits that he?s fortunate in his life and he continues to work damn hard for it ? but he?s also keenly aware of the sacrifices he?s been forced to make. Any athlete that?s come even half-way close to Woods? achievements is always talented and determined, but what struck me was his complexity of character. It?s rare that in a brief encounter someone would reveal such polarity. On the course he can be utterly ruthless, displaying a killer instinct that drives fear into his opponents, but there?s also a soft, emotional side.
Tiger professes, ?I?m just like you, we?re all the same, we?re all human?, and he genuinely believes it. He?s just a bit better at swinging a golf club ? and he?s got half a billion dollars more in the bank!
Don Riddell hosts CNN?s Living Golf, the half-hour programme devoted to golf on and off the course that hears from the biggest names in the game. Living Golf is on CNN every Monday at 9.30pm.