How well did anyone know Tiger Woods?

Tiger Woods at the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship.

Tiger Woods at the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship.

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His rivals used to joke that if you cut Tiger Woods open, all you would find were some wires and a few nuts and bolts.

Now they know better.

Tom Watson, who won five British Opens himself, watched Woods carve up St. Andrews nearly a decade ago and called him “supernatural.”

The last month proved otherwise.

As another PGA Tour season starts without Woods, one question stands out:

Did anyone really know him?

Recollections point to a player who craved control inside his world of golf, only to test his limits outside of it.

During a trip to New Zealand for his caddie’s wedding, Woods went bungee jumping off a cable car suspended 440 feet over a river valley. On the same trip, he climbed behind the wheel of a race car and traded paint with the competition on a dirt track.

Woods spent a week at Fort Bragg going through Special Forces training with the Marines and became a master scuba diver, capable of holding his breath for four minutes at a time while exploring the ocean. It was one of his tales from under the sea that first gave his colleagues pause.

Woods was having lunch at Firestone Country Club in 2003, regaling Darren Clarke and Thomas Bjorn with stories about diving and spearfishing. He could stay on the ocean floor even longer, Woods explained, when he used a regulator. But the scenery was so much better without one.

“You don’t want any bubbles because that scares the fish off,” he said. “The only problem is that when you don’t make any bubbles, the sharks come around, too.”

Bjorn stiffened, raised a bushy eyebrow and said, “Just be careful down there. Our future earnings depend on you.”

That story seems appropriate now, since Woods hasn’t surfaced in public since Nov. 27, when he ran his SUV over a fire hydrant and into a tree at about 2:30 a.m., the opening chapter of an expose of his private life – a second life, really – that few imagined could exist.

He was never without flaws, displaying a nasty temper at times, a foul mouth on occasion, and routinely blowing by autograph seekers. Yet those sins were forgiven soon enough, or at the very least forgotten, once Woods began conjuring magic from his clubs. Maybe that’s why he rarely felt a need to apologize.

At his last tournament, the Australian Masters, Woods hit a poor drive on the 13th at Kingston Heath, then flipped his driver to the ground and watched it bounce sideways into the gallery. The crowd turned into a mosh pit – albeit a polite one – passing the driver toward the front and back into Woods’ grip. He took it without explanation or embarrassment, quickly turned away and barely acknowledged the episode after the round.

“That was my mistake,” was all Woods said.

Then there was the famous tirade on the 18th at Pebble Beach on Saturday morning at the 2000 U.S. Open. Wrapping up a second round delayed by fog, Woods hooked his tee shot into the ocean and followed it with a few curses picked up by a boom mike on the tee box – during cartoon hour, no less.

A year later, returning to Pebble Beach for the first time since that historic 15-shot victory, Woods reached the 18th tee during a practice round and tried to recall his choice of words. Finally, a reporter recounted them for him, adding, “At least that’s what my kids told me.”

The warm smile was replaced by a cold stare.

“I am who I am,” Woods said.

Tabloid-fueled reports have linked him to almost as many women as he has major championships. One of those women kept a voicemail from Woods and gave it to a celebrity magazine. She said the affair began when Woods’ wife was seven months pregnant with their first child. More sordid testimonials followed. In a matter of weeks, he went from being on top of the world to the butt of jokes on the late-night talk-show circuit.

Even Disneyland got into the act. During the “Aladdin” show at the resort, a genie explains to Aladdin that he can’t make people fall in love with him.

“Only saying that to you once,” the genie adds. “I had to say it, like, 15 times to Tiger Woods.”

But he was easy to fall for. Woods proposed to Elin Nordegren at a game preserve in South Africa, and married her in Barbados in 2004. Then along came two beautiful kids: first a daughter, Sam, and then son Charlie. When the family – dogs included – gathered for a tender family portrait not long after, Woods looked like the man who had everything.

Will anyone ever look at him the same way again?

Much depends on what happens to the marriage, but the jokes likely won’t end until he returns to golf, and no one – perhaps not even Woods – knows when that will be. The Masters seems the most logical choice, because it’s both a major and the game’s most buttoned-down event. Everything from how fans behave to how many media members get inside the gates is tightly controlled.

But if Woods doesn’t show up in April, then when?

The U.S. Open returns to Pebble Beach in June, and Woods has won there. The British Open returns to St. Andrews in July, and Woods has won there, too – twice, by a combined 13 shots. The Ryder Cup is set for October, but he’s never been fond of team-oriented play.

Golf has always been an individual pursuit for Woods, so much so that whenever people question his Ryder Cup record (10-13-2), he responds with a question of his own: What was Jack Nicklaus’ record in the Ryder Cup? Anyone? Ah, but everyone knows Nicklaus won 18 professional majors. That’s all that matters to Woods.

Despite not winning a major in 2009, few observers would have bet against him catching Nicklaus, and soon. Someone who’s won 82 tournaments worldwide and 14 majors before turning 34 doesn’t forget how to play, and Woods is entering a sweet spot in his career, an age when most players are just coming into their prime.

Yet he’s never played before fans who figure to be this hostile, and just as intriguing will be the reception from his fellow pros.

Anthony Kim, a promising young pro Woods has worked with, considered the question and said with a shrug: “Same guy to me.”

We’ll see. The PGA Tour gets under way Thursday, Jan. 7, with the winners-only SBS Championship at Kapalua, Hawaii. Woods hasn’t played there since 2005, so it’s not until he skips the San Diego Open, which starts Jan. 28, that his “leave” begins taking on significance. Then again, he’s grown accustomed to setting his own rules.

Years ago, after the first wave of “Tigermania,” Woods worked out a deal with the PGA Tour requiring him to appear for a pre-tournament interview at the media center only where he was the defending champion. One year at Memorial, the Tour erected a podium alongside the putting green to accommodate the media crush that follows Woods everywhere, inconveniencing all the other pros nearby working on their game. The media center was no more than 50 yards away. No one from the Tour challenged Woods.

When CBS Sports placed a camera on the tee box at the same tournament to analyze players’ swings, Woods had his caddie place the bag in front of it. He was working on his swing and preferred to do it without unsolicited advice.

He has been wary of the media for as long as he has been a pro, yet keenly aware of what’s in the news. When he returned this year after missing eight months due to knee surgery, one of his first questions during a practice round was about the state of the newspaper industry.

Woods was discussing the departure of longtime Los Angeles Times’ golf writer Tom Bonk, someone he’d known and liked for years, when he was asked, “Do you read the newspaper?”

Woods started to laugh, then slyly said he reads whatever is left at his hotel room door on the road. Yes, he knows exactly what is written about him. He tried to control that, too, delivering careful, clipped answers to questions, whether they’re posed by the local radio station or Time magazine.

Even his leisure outings seemed stage-managed at times, whether that was courtside at an Orlando Magic NBA game or on the sidelines of a Miami Dolphins NFL game. The last such appearance was during halftime at the Stanford-Cal football game, announcing Woods’ induction into Stanford’s athletics hall of fame.

As Woods began speaking, he was interrupted by scattered boos from the Cal section. He appeared genuinely rattled, for a moment. And that was before all those sordid stories began piling up, one after another – enough anyway, to make a person wonder how Woods will react when it comes time to make his return.

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