Tiger Woods 'so thankful' to be back as he bids farewell to 2018

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 06: Tiger Woods and his girlfriend Erica Herman look on during a Presidents Cup media opportunity at the Yarra Promenade on December 5, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. The Presidents Cup 2019 will be held on December 9-15, 2019, when it returns to the prestigious Royal Melbourne Golf Club in Australia. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images) Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Tiger Woods 'so thankful' to be back as he bids farewell to 2018

PGA Tour

Tiger Woods 'so thankful' to be back as he bids farewell to 2018

Tiger Woods doesn’t play around during press conferences.

A lot of jocks use them to curry favor with media and fans, but Woods doesn’t need that. Even if the answers seem dull at times, it’s actually a more genuine discussion because he’s not using that time to craft a more likeable image.

He’s there because it’s part of his job and he’ll answer the questions he wants to answer and brush off the rest. Picture a more moderately-tempered Nick Saban.

Woods was in Australia this week on an advance scouting trip in his role as U.S. Presidents Cup team captain.  It’s likely to be his last public appearance of 2018.

Woods is looking to play a lighter schedule next year and still isn’t sure if he’ll begin the season just after New Year’s at the Sentry Tournament of Champions or in late January at Torrey Pines. Until then he’ll be back home in Jupiter, Fla., with time spent practicing and lifting and eventually celebrating his 43rd birthday in 24 days.

So this week’s press conference in Melbourne was probably the last we’ll hear from Woods in person until after the Holidays. Among the gifts it included – a question about his off-course demeanor this year.

“I’m certainly more appreciative of the game of golf and what it has meant to me and what it has allowed me and given me the opportunity to do,” Woods said. “You know, 20 years ago was a totally different deal. I was trying to just play and compete and beat everyone. Now I’m appreciative of having the opportunity to come back and play again. I’m just so thankful to be part of the game of golf as a competitor again.”

There’s some heavy stuff in there, and it all relates to the perception that Woods has made big changes as a person. Opened up more in interviews, signed more autographs, talked more with other players.

As someone who walked nearly every round with Woods this year, I watched him stop and thank members of the military every opportunity he had, even mid-round. I also watched him sign a glove for a fan he hit with his ball while he was leading the British Open.

Is it real?

It’s a complicated question with a simplistic premise – Woods is more personable now and therefore he is good, which implies the old, guarded Woods must have been bad.

It ignores the decades of circumstances and real life events which have shaped Woods and everyone who has watched him. It’s a bad premise. He did what he felt he had to do then in order to win, and he’s not perfect now.

Woods’ outlook on golf and life has changed over the past two decades, and he spelled it out very clearly in Australia. He used the word ‘appreciative’ and that’s probably the best way to describe his off-course demeanor over the past year.

PARIS, FRANCE - SEPTEMBER 28:  Tiger Woods of the United States watches on with girlfriend Erica Herman during the afternoon foursome matches of the 2018 Ryder Cup at Le Golf National on September 28, 2018 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

Erica Herman was a constant presence with Tiger Woods this year. Here, she and Woods watch the action during the Ryder Cup at Le Golf National in September. (Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

Woods keeps a tight circle on the road while traveling. It includes girlfriend Erica Herman, a constant presence at nearly every tournament including last week’s Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas (photo above).

It’s important to remember that up until very recently, Woods never had to worry about his status on Tour. He made his pro debut at age 20 and won his first tournament one month later, at the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational. The Tiger train left the station and it’s still rolling, all these years and 79 wins later.

Certainly, Woods was blessed. But he also out-worked everyone else. He wasn’t handed 14 major trophies. He sacrificed any semblance of a normal life, even by pro athlete standards, in preparation to go out and take them.

Winning big was all Woods knew. Then came the back problems and the mounting injuries and suddenly, Woods thought it was all over.

In early 2018, walking up and down stairs without pain was a small victory. The back fusion surgery that ended his agony and allowed him to compete again changed everything. He doesn’t practice nearly as hard as he used to, partly because that would take away from time with his kids.

Still, in the past 54 weeks, Woods has moved up from No. 1,199 to No. 14 in the Official World Golf Rankings. He held a solo lead on the final day of the British Open, nearly won the PGA Championship and ended a five-plus-year victory drought on a triumphant Sunday at East Lake.

When asked what kind of Presidents Cup captain he hopes to be, Woods’ answer indicates he’s very much the same person. He just has a different perspective on some things.

“One that leads our team to a victory,” Woods said. “One that guys will have a lot of fun and respect, and one that hopefully I’ll create an environment where it’ll be a moment and a week that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.”

Winning still comes first for Woods, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s just good to keep an open mind about whatever comes next.

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