SPRINGFIELD, N.J. -- It was one of those rare days when he wasn't in a hurry. And no one was there to hustle him away.
We've seen it before, but always in the locker room, surrounded by a handful of reporters he knows well. Never -- and we mean never -- in a press room at a major championship.
|Tiger Woods is focused -- but not too focused to chat up the media on Tuesday. (Getty Images)|
That Woods did this two days before the year's final major, which just happens to be a chance to win his third major in one year -- again -- should tell you all you need to know. And, oh, one other thing. He did it for 20 minutes in front of a pack of reporters -- most of whom he didn't know.
Ready? So ready for this 87th PGA Championship it's scary.
This isn't the Tiger of 2000, nor does he want to be. This Tiger is older, wiser, stronger, tougher -- as if that's possible -- and more relaxed. He knows himself better. He's so at peace that nothing's bothering him. Not someone taking his parking place Monday morning. Not a monster of a course. And especially not the buzz that, well, there isn't a buzz about his latest potential slice of history. That he's so not a novelty anymore.
"You have to laugh about it," he said with a wide grin. "There isn't any other way. At home, people in the supermarket are talking about it. They say things like, 'I wish you could play better.'
"All I can do is go out there and play, I can't control what people think. The hard part for me is I didn't do anything wrong. I didn't take the club out and beat the crap out of anybody. I wasn't in a hockey fight."
Tiger has been damned if he's won and damned if he hasn't. He's been scrutinized for everything from reworking his swing to being happily married. He's been vilified for playing so well he has no rivals and for not seeking one out himself.
And you know what? None of it matters. Not a lick of it.
Who we have in front of us is the greatest player of his generation. A man who has one number in mind -- 18 -- and it's currently sitting next to the name of one Jack Nicklaus. It doesn't matter how he wins, but that he does. It doesn't matter what we say, only that he knows he can get better.
"It's like people ask you, 'Are you there yet?'" he said. "No. You never get there. And that's the great thing about it. You can always be better the next day. That's how I look at golf and how I look at life. You can always be better."
At times like these, we wonder. He's been forcing us to think out of the box for almost a decade now and he isn't about to stop. There was the Slam, the Tiger Slam and now the double slam. He doesn't pause for a deep breath. He looks for ways to get better; to win more.
"When I had my nice run there in '99 and 2000, I won 17 times," he said. "That was great, but it can always be better, right? That's how you've got to look at it. You have to look at the fact that you can become better. If you think you can't, then walk, because you have no business out here if you think you can't get better. "
Tiger 2005? How does a Masters, a British Open and a runner-up finish at the U.S. Open grab you? Heck, he could be looking at the Grand Slam if he'd only been able to putt at Pinehurst. And if he wins here at venerable Baltusrol? A course that with 240 additional yards and a humidity index near 100 percent has turned into a muscle course?
"That would be huge, huge," he said.
There's a long way to go before that happens and no one knows that better than Tiger. As he skimmed his way across subjects as diverse as his parking place, the finishing holes here, back-to-back par-5s, which stretch for 1,254 yards, his confidence and the lofts, lies and lengths of his clubs -- which, incidentally, haven't changed since he was 14 -- you could see the calm before this next storm.
That he hasn't played Baltusrol in competition -- the last major here was the '93 Open when Tiger was the reigning U.S. Junior Amateur -- is so not a big deal. The course is longer, softer and has more trouble than a dozen years ago, which brings the remnants of the '93 field back to Tiger.
Even that sounds funny.
Listen closely and you'll realize that no one comes to a major better prepared than Tiger. Face it. His focus is on four events every year. Anything else is oh-by-the-way. You don't win 10 of these any other way. Just ask Nicklaus. Just ask the players who chased both of them.
That Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen are the only players to have won multiple majors in the same time frame is notable. So is the fact that even when they've had the chance to add to their lists, they haven't.
"The guys had their chances," he said. "Phil was there all four times last year. Ernie was there all four. It's not easy to win a major championship."
Tiger laughs easily when the question of rivals comes up. No, there's no one person there, rather a group of people. Just like Nicklaus, who had a half-dozen rivals over, what, a 15-year period?
"Give us time," he said.
Yes, he expects challenges. News flash. He knows he isn't perfect. He's been known to drive it off course and putt like a dog -- or at the very least have a bad week at the absolutely wrong time. But he's also been known to find a way to win doing it.
Which is why he's the man to beat. Here and everywhere else.
Point, if you want, to the U.S. Open. Or even to the Buick Open where he left himself too big of a gap -- one even a closing 66 couldn't fill. But then pause and think again.
Tiger is no longer a man on a mission. He's the best player in the world. A man at peace -- content in his life and confident of what he wants to accomplish. A man who has found that balance so many are still seeking.
He doesn't go home and break a club over his scuba gear when he fritters away a chance at the Grand Slam. Oh, he simmers for a while, then snaps out of it. Like he said, he just has to get better.
How much better? Can you wrap your mind around history?
He's so focused right now he hasn't even stepped into the locker room, let alone opened his locker. Or looked at the vintage shots of the man whose records he's chasing.
All in due time?
He just smiled. He knew. We knew.