Game Changer

Tiger Woods may not be the same when—or if—he returns to competition. He may be even better, says a local sports psychologist. But it wouldn’t be out of character for a defiant Woods to play on his own terms.



Photo By Scott A. Miller

It’s September, and Tiger Woods is arched over a crucial putt during the Ryder Cup Matches in Wales. He makes a smooth stroke, the ball tracks toward the cup, but at the last second it horseshoes around the rim and doesn’t drop.

“Nice putt, Chee-tah!!” bellows a lug draped in the Union Jack. The partisan crowd erupts as Woods glares
in the general direction of his tormentor. That only fuels the fire.

“Too much Viagra!”

“Just screw it, Tiger!”

A scenario like this could become a reality for golf’s fallen hero. But eight months from now, Woods should be used to it. That’s assuming he actually returns to competition.

There are no certainties about Woods’ future. As of this writing, six weeks after the infamous run-in with a fire hydrant unleashed a torrent of revelations about his marital infidelities, Woods was in seclusion, his whereabouts unknown. His last public statement, posted Dec. 11 on tigerwoods.com, announced his hiatus from golf in order to focus on reconciliation with his wife, Elin. Various unconfirmed reports had him in rehab to kick a Vicodin habit, in therapy to address sex addiction, hunkered down with Elin in marriage counseling and working with lawyers to hammer out a divorce settlement. 

It may be presumptuous to probe the intimate relationship between husband and wife, but it’s also difficult to imagine Mrs. Woods ever being able to appear in public with a husband who doesn’t deny having been a serial philanderer, or to subject their children—daughter Sam, who turns 3 in June, and 1-year-old son Charlie—to the harsh spotlight that’s sure to accompany a renewed life with Woods.

Elin Woods recently purchased a home on an island in her native Sweden. Whether she retreats to a safe haven there as a single mom, or whether she and Woods take up residence in that presumably more wholesome environment, remains to be seen.

Even if the couple split, we’ve likely seen the last of Woods as an Orlando resident. Before the Thanksgiving bombshell hit, he and Elin had been approving finishing touches to their dream compound on Jupiter Island. With its mooring for his yacht Privacy, practice golf holes, fitness center and other amenities, the residence figures to be Tiger’s lair of the future. The only drawback is that Jupiter Island, unlike Isleworth, is not a gated community, meaning he’ll be hard-pressed to keep the paparazzi at bay.

With each passing week of Woods’ lockdown, speculation mounts as to how the saga might play out. Some believe Woods’ aura of greatness is irretrievable, that the episode has left him so bitter and disoriented that he may never return to golf. Others argue that Woods is so resilient, resolute and talented that he’ll come back with a vengeance.

Two prominent sports psychologists, both based in Orlando and whose services are used by dozens of pro golfers, offered their takes on what may be going through Woods’ mind as he plots his future.

“If he decides to come back, which is the big ‘if,’ then there’s no question in my mind that he will be as good, if not better, than ever,” says Dr. Gio Valiante during a conversation at his modest office at Rollins College, where he teaches sports psychology. Among Valiante’s consultancy clients are professional golfers Camilo Villegas, Stuart Appleby, Justin Leonard and Chris DiMarco, as well as Orlando Magic star Dwight Howard. 

“You have to understand the belief system that’s in play,” says Valiante. “He’s got a really unique belief system.”

With that, Valiante turns to his desktop computer and pulls up a quote attributed to Woods that appeared in the January 2008 issue of Golf Digest magazine:

“The greatest thing about tomorrow is, I will be better than I am today. And that’s how I look at my life. I will be better as a golfer, I will be better as a person, I will be better as a father, I will be a better husband, I will be better as a friend. That’s the beauty of tomorrow. There is no such thing as a setback. The lessons I learn today I will apply tomorrow, and I will be better.”

 “The one thing about Tiger,” Valiante says, “he’s the greatest learner I’ve ever seen or met. He makes mistakes—everybody does—but I’ve never seen him repeat the mistake.”

Valiante concedes that Woods’ words may sound hollow and more than a little disingenuous in the context of recent events, but he still comes to the golfer’s defense.

“Here’s the question I asked myself when this happened,” he says. “Is there a difference between one sin 50 times over or committing 50 separate sins? In my mind, there is.

“Take that one sin, that one character flaw, foible or whatever you want to call it—take it off the table,” he says. “Then look at the totality of the man’s body of work, what he’s contributed.

“I don’t think his image is far off from who he is.”

Dr. Robert Winters isn’t so sure.

“Is Tiger Woods as mentally strong, as emotionally strong, as we’ve been led to believe?” Winters muses during an interview at Ocean Prime restaurant in Dr. Phillips. “Or is all that hype?

“The thing that perplexes me as a psychologist—here’s a person that’s supposed to be so mentally tough, so independent and who trusts no one other than his inner circle, but he would actually put his trust in people he hardly knows at all,” says Winters, referring to women linked to Woods as his paramours. “That’s a paradox.

“All of it comes off as an ego need,” says Winters, performance consultant to the David Leadbetter Academy at ChampionsGate, where he has worked with Michelle Wie, a rising star on the women’s tour, among his 140-plus clients over the years., “There’s so much ego feed in this—the ego to control, the ego to subdue, the ego to seduce. There’s so much here of Tiger’s ego.”

Speaking strictly from a performance standpoint, Winters says it probably would be best that Woods’ marriage end so he could focus solely on golf.

“This is what Tiger Woods has left. It’s the only thing he can control,” Winters says.

“I’d tell him, if you’re going to come out, then come out with all guns blazing. . . .  It won’t be the same when he gets back inside the ropes. It’s going to be a different type of noise, a different type of distraction. So he’s going to have to be getting himself ready.”

It’s a myth that tournament spectators treat golfers with reserved awe and respect. Most people in the gallery do observe the “Quite Please” signs that marshals hold up while players are making shots, but there are many others who are unfamiliar with golf traditions and etiquette. They’ve been lured to a once-a-year event, a heavily promoted local happening, often with tickets given to them by business contacts. Some tournaments even market themselves as party venues, the PGA Tour’s Phoenix stop—with its raucous Birds Nest hospitality area—being a prime example. 

The only thing such casual fans know about Woods is that he’s won a lot of tournaments and slept around. As tongues become looser with each beer in the midday heat, the heckling directed at Woods could become vicious.

“He’s going to have to expect things that he’s never had to account for before,” says Winters. “In his pre-planning strategy, that’s what he’d better be doing in the next 90 days.”

Many golf insiders look for Woods to resume competing at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill next month. He would be in familiar surroundings; he has won the tournament six times; it would serve as a tune-up for the Masters; the event is managed by IMG, which also handles Woods’ business affairs; and Woods figures to have an empathetic host in Palmer.

Still, Woods’ first tournament since the scandal broke would be an international media event, with the celebrity gossip muckrakers embedded in galleries. The shutterbugs alone could keep Woods’ bullying caddie, Steve Williams, busy snatching cameras and tossing them into lakes. TV ratings would be off the charts.

Inside the ropes—meaning those that separate golfers from tournament spectators, not the velvet variety found at such Woods hangouts as The Blue Martini—Woods would be fine, Valiante says.

“He has such an uncluttered routine,” he says. “Once he’s able to put the emotional trauma and baggage and messiness of this [behind him], as it quiets, the talent doesn’t go away and the routine doesn’t change.

“The big question mark is motivation. The two variables I tell every golfer they need to guard are confidence and motivation. Those are, psychologically, the two most important things.

“The confidence will be there for him,” Valiante says. “The motivation is the thing that’s been punctured.”

Woods’ all-consuming goal is to pass Jack Nicklaus as winner of the most major championships. Nicklaus notched 18 between 1962 and 1986; Woods has won 14 since 1997, the last at the U.S. Open in 2008. That Woods will win at least five more majors no longer is a foregone conclusion.

Even before the sex scandal, chinks had begun to appear in his armor. After the ’08 U.S. Open victory, Woods underwent surgery on his left knee, which sidelined him for eight months. The operation was the fourth on the same knee since 1994.

In December, it was reported that several times in 2009 Woods had received controversial platelet-rich plasma injections in the left knee. The injections were administered by Dr. Anthony Galea of Toronto, a sports medicine specialist who has since come under suspicion of providing athletes with performance-enhancement drugs.

The revelation that Woods’ knee is still bothersome sparked speculation about the 34-year-old’s durability. The link to Galea also fueled suspicion with regard to the dramatic change in Woods’ physique since he turned professional in 1996. His gains in muscle mass occurred before the PGA Tour reluctantly implemented a drug-testing policy in 2008, which it had to do to comply with Olympic regulations, therefore enhancing golf’s ultimately successful bid to be included in the 2016 Summer Games.

Woods won seven times worldwide last year, but was 0-for-4 in the coveted majors, despite being in contention down the stretch at three of them. Most glaring was his loss at the PGA Championship to little-known Y.E. Yang of South Korea, with whom Woods was paired in the final round and to whom he surrendered a 2-shot lead. Three months later, Woods was paired with Phil Mickelson in the closing round of the HSBC Champions, a World Golf Championship event in Shanghai, and lost to his archrival by five shots.

It stands to reason that the personal humiliations Woods brought on himself will undermine the aura of invincibility he’s enjoyed for years.  Europe’s Ryder Cup captain, Colin Montgomerie, said as much in January.

“I think the mystique has gone,” Montgomerie said in an interview with Sky Sports. “I think the mysterious nature of the guy has gone. He is suddenly, you hate to say, more normal now.”

Valiante says, however, that the frenzy around Woods might be tougher for his opponents to deal with than it is for him. “They may be more distracted than he is,” he says. “He’ll filter it out quicker.”

Of course, there’s always the possibility that Woods, who Forbes said had cracked $1 billion in career earnings last year, might decide he’s endured enough aggravation and simply retire. What’s more plausible is for Woods to go rogue, retaining only a couple of loyal sponsors and playing a limited number of tournaments around the world—the majors and a handful of foreign events that pay star players appearance fees, which are prohibited on the PGA Tour.

“It’s not out of his character to do that, to say a big F-you to the world,” Valiante says. “He wouldn’t do it to deprive people. He’d do it to [resume his career] on his own terms.”

 Having lost endorsement deals with Accenture and AT&T, and with his role scaled back by other sponsors, such as Gillette and Golf Digest, Woods has few contractual obligations to fulfill. Nike, a rebellious brand that has built its golf franchise around Woods, conceivably could support a Woods foray into Asia, where there’s a move afoot to consolidate several secondary golf tours into a super-circuit under the banner of OneAsia. As a past champion of all four majors, Woods can remain eligible to chase Nicklaus’ record without competing on the PGA Tour, which has no say in the management of the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open or PGA Championship.

Certainly the ultimate “screw you” would be for the beleaguered Woods to arrive at the Ryder Cup with the modern “Grand Slam” in his pocket, having won all four majors in a calendar year. Seven of his 14 major victories have come at three of this year’s four venues, Augusta National (Masters), Pebble Beach (U.S. Open) and St. Andrews, Scotland (British Open).

Should he take his golf clubs and play elsewhere, the effect could be devastating for the PGA Tour and the U.S. television networks that broadcast its events. The Tour has ridden the wave of Tigermania, with total prize money quadrupling—to about $275 million last season—since Woods turned pro 14 years ago. Woods also is the only reason millions of viewers tune in to golf telecasts.

Whatever he may or may not achieve this year, no speculation about Woods is complete without touching on his relationship with the late

Earl Woods, who was the driving—and nurturing—force behind his son’s golfing ascension. Ironically, it was the crumbling of Earl’s first marriage and admitted inattention to three children that prompted him to dedicate his life to the development of Tiger, his only child with second wife Kultida. Yet Earl Woods, who lived apart from Kultida for several years before he died in 2006, once revealed to a New York Times reporter, “I’ve told Tiger that marriage is unnecessary in a mobile society like ours.”

If anything motivates Woods moving forward, Winters says, it’s the defiant attitude instilled by his dad.

“It’s the core issue of ‘I haven’t just let my fans down, I haven’t just let my wife and children down, I haven’t just let golf down—I’ve let my father’s legacy down,’” Winters says. “To me, that’s going to be the psychological core for Tiger Woods.”

Valiante agrees. “His father prepared him to deal with anything that comes between him and his goals. [He said] ‘You’re going to have to overcome massive obstacles. You’re not going to know what they are.’ This being it, Tiger was brought up in a way to know how to quickly deal with it, quickly purge it and move on.”

Everyone suspects how much Woods binged. Soon we’ll learn if he can purge.

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