LOS ANGELES — Tiger Woods was not going to wait to hear the end of my question before he fired off his answer.
“Nope,” he said, anticipating where it was headed. “Nope.”
He wasn’t pissed. In fact, there was a hint of a grin on Woods’ face.
In the first half of his Tuesday press conference to kick off the Genesis Invitational, Woods was asked what he thought about Tom Brady and LeBron James and Aaron Rodgers, about whether watching them navigate the winter of their athletic lives had inspired him to consider his own mortality. He demurred at first, mentioned his injury history, then brought up how there were times when he wondered if his body might make the decision for him “When you get a little bit older and a little bit banged up, you’re not as invincible as you once were. That’s the reality of all of us aging,” Woods said. “I remember as a kid growing up, watching John Elway speak and just crying saying ‘I can do it but my body won’t allow me to do it anymore.' I’ve gotten to that point a couple times.”
But he also talked about how different golf is from their professions.
“In our sport, there is no contact,” Woods said. “I don’t have 300 pound guys falling on top of me. It’s just a matter of shooting a good score. We have the ability to pick and choose and play a little longer. We saw my hero Arnold Palmer play 50 straight Masters. I’m not even 50 years old yet. You look at Gary Player, he played 51 Masters. We’re different sports.”
His answer got me thinking: Was there a part of him that was softening in his late 40s? Could he envision a day when he could play tournament golf without waking up that morning convinced he could win the tournament?
“I have not come around to the idea of being…” Woods said, and then there was a noticeable pause.
He closed his eyes. It felt like he was mulling a snippet of a future he wanted no part of.
“If I’m playing, I’m playing to win,” Woods said, and he let the words hang in the air for a moment like a mantra. “I know that players have played and tried to be an ambassador for the game and tried to grow the game. I can’t wrap my mind around that as a competitor. If I’m playing in the event, I’m going to try and beat you. I’m there to get a W. I don’t understand how making a cut is a great thing. If I enter an event, it’s always to get a W.”
He apologized for cutting me off. He was in a joyful mood. But I wondered if a part of him wanted to shout: Dude, do you even know me at all?
“There will come a point in time when my body will not allow me to do that anymore, and it’s probably sooner than later,” Woods said. “But wrapping my head around that transition, being in an ambassador role and just playing, just being out here with the guys? No, that’s not in my DNA. I flip my hat around and become a player, and I want to get the W.”
It's easy to get hyperbolic about Tiger. I’ve been guilty of it, but so have the players who have been generational bookends to his career. Who can forget the infamous interview Woods did as a rookie with Curtis Strange, an interview before Woods’ first professional tournament where Strange (a two-time U.S. Open winner) tried to educate him, informing that he might come across as arrogant or brash if he said he expected to win, and that finishing 2nd or 3rd didn’t make it a bad week.
“On Tour, that’s not too bad,” Strange said.
“That’s just not in my nature,” Woods replied.
“You’ll learn,” Strange said.
Twenty five years later, Woods still hasn’t learned, and there is something magnetic about that stubborn, irrational self belief.
I used to wonder if he’d ever have a Duel in the Sun moment like Jack Nicklaus did when he finished a stroke behind Tom Watson at the 1977 Open Championship, but still put his arm around Watson as they walked off the 18th green. Nicklaus could revel in the cauldron of competition, yet still pull back and celebrate the success of others. When he made a Sunday charge at the 1998 Masters at age 58, he wasn’t furious when he finished four shots behind Mark O’Meara in a tie for 6th. He seemed elated he could remind people he was a man — the man — who once made the game look easy.
Tiger Woods has always been built differently. It’s possible there will come a day when he will stroll the manicured fairways of Augusta National or the wispy rough of an Open Championship, and be able to enjoy the atmosphere and soak up the appreciation of the crowd. Much like it was with Arnie and Jack and Tom in their 60s, people will want him there, just to say they saw a glimpse of who he used to be.
But I also won’t mind if Tiger won’t indulge us in the pomp and pageantry. He was programmed to kick your ass — by his parents, by his coaches, by his own obsessive, creative brain. That’s his DNA. He bent the world of golf to him, not the other way around. When he tees it up in a PGA Tour tournament this Thursday for the first time in three years, he’s still seeking something, convinced he can win at the one course, Riviera Country Club, he’s never conquered.
If he has to reassess at some point, so be it. Golf would be grateful if he stuck around, even if he morphed into a player who was more hopeful than he was cutthroat.
I’m just grateful we’re not there. Not quite yet.