Rozner: Thinking back on a conversation with Tiger Woods

  • Tiger Woods holds his U.S. Open championship trophy after winning a sudden death hole against Rocco Mediate on June 16, 2008 at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego.

    Tiger Woods holds his U.S. Open championship trophy after winning a sudden death hole against Rocco Mediate on June 16, 2008 at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego. AP File Photo

 
 
Updated 2/28/2021 6:06 PM

Listening is a lost art, especially among those who believe they understand a trade better than the master craftsman.

But when a genius speaks, it's actually possible to learn more with your ears.

 

Over 37 years, I have seen and heard it all, but also fortunate enough to sit with Muhammad Ali, to stand with Michael Jordan and to walk with Tiger Woods, to seek out knowledge -- and to listen.

They are the best performers in the history of sport, so it's not unreasonable to think they may know more about what they do than those who trash their performance and legacy, pontificating that defies logic -- and often sanity.

It was with that in mind that I asked Woods if I could accompany him to the range after Round 1 of the BMW Championship at Cog Hill in 2009, following his post-round media briefing.

One of the cool things about him is he's keenly aware of who's putting in the work and walking the course, rather than watching on big screens from the air-conditioned comfort of the media center, so with a smile he motioned for me to come along.

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Amid another torrid stretch -- was there any other kind? -- the experts had been critical of his 2009 season because he didn't win a major coming off a long rehab, following 2008 ACL surgery and a broken leg, on which he won the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.

In 2009, he won five times with two seconds and 12 Top 10s in 15 starts. That's a great career for most players. But Woods heard from those who know better that he had played too conservatively.

"A lot of the time, they're not out there playing on the golf course," Woods told me that Thursday afternoon, after shooting an opening-round, 3-under 68. "I'm out there analyzing the situation and hitting the shots I think are right.

"Getting advice is just part of the game," Woods chuckled. "I think I know what to do and when to do it. I see what I see and analyze it, and try my best to execute it. Really, I feel like I know what I'm doing out there."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Two shots off the lead after Thursday, by Saturday Woods was taking apart a renovated Dubsdread, firing a course-record 62. Just that fast, the postoperative Woods was no longer washed up, not after a 9-under third round that left him with a 7-shot lead.

"It's funny that people were saying I played conservatively (at the PGA Championship)," Woods said. "I played the same way for the first three rounds (at the PGA) and had a 2-shot lead. I was playing what I thought the golf course gave me.

"That's one of the things I've learned as I've matured over the years is you play what the golf course gives you. That's one of the reasons why I've become much more consistent. I may not go as low. I may not win by as big a margin, but you don't have to.

"You're always tweaking. You're always trying to get better. The game is fluid. It's never concrete. That's the beauty and also the most frustrating thing about it. You have moments where you hit it good like I did today, and then you have the other moments. Today, I hit it good."

It reminded me of September 2007, when he also won at Cog Hill with an 8-under 63 on Sunday. It was his sixth of seven wins on the year, including the PGA Championship, with a second at the Masters and a second at the U.S. Open. In all, 12 Top 10s in 16 starts.

In a stretch of four wins in five starts with a second, and winning at a historic clip, that's when I asked him if he could possibly play better golf.

He offered simply, "Yes."

Woods smiled after I asked if he knew something no one else did, as if there's something else he plans to add to a game that featured 31 one-putts and 3 bogeys in four rounds of 67, 67, 65 and 63.

Better golf?

"Yeah," Woods laughed. "I mean, if you don't think that way, just quit."

Many PGA and LPGA pros wore red and black Sunday to honor him, as Tiger Woods has been top of mind again. How bad is the pain? Will he walk normally? Be able to play with his children? Least important, will he ever play golf again?

Just quit. The notion seems unimaginable, even if the doctors tell him it's impossible.

I thought of the many conversations I've had with him over the years, how much he enjoyed breaking down a shot or a hole, the process, the club selection, the execution, trying to understand that which is unfathomable to mortals who walk a few miles with a Sunday bag and dream of personal records.

It has been a gift, all these years of excellence. And if it is over, it will remain always a gift.

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