Vincent Hogan on Tiger Woods: 'A lot of people in this room owe their careers to him and he knows it'
Appearing more humble and human these days, Woods admits the stress of his Masters triumph took a heavy emotional toll
Mid-morning in Portrush and, drumming his fingers on the dais, Tiger Woods slips instantly into a game with the photographers at the back of the interview room.
Every move of his hands triggers a frenzy of camera shutter action. They are his puppets here. The cartoonish solemnity of questions coming his way belong in some parallel world, because Tiger can all but adjust the temperature in this room whenever the urge takes him.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
The Masters champion will speak for 21 minutes; at times bullish, at times wistful. But everything around him is such a blizzard of hyperbole, he seems to take comfort in the power of small things. So an arched eyebrow draws the sound of gunfire and he meets it with a gentle, schoolyard grin.
A lot of people in this room owe their careers to him and he knows it.
So nobody demurs when he declares that golf has never been the most important thing in his life, that "Mom and Dad and my kids have been the most important things in my life and that hasn't changed."
Maybe greatness earns you the right to manipulate history.
And who in their right mind would tilt this exchange back towards the rampant infidelities and the fact that as his Dad, Earl, passed away, Tiger was a few miles away in bed with a lingerie model he'd picked up in Las Vegas? That was the chaos of his past.
At Augusta last April, Tiger re-announced himself as golf's goldmine.
Commercially, he changes everything for the game.
But maybe the uncomfortable truth is he does far more than that. Golf hangs on his every word because, even with all the thrillingly fearless, almost hormonal golf being played by the younger generation, nobody has a hold on the game's imagination quite like this man who summoned some of the best golf ever seen while his life was out of control.
Can he win a fourth Open title now?
Woods is believable when he says he can. Even at 43. Even when faced with bigger hitters who have no surgical metal in their backs. His Masters triumph was built upon humdrum qualities like resilience and patience and he sees the same virtues being decisive now over four days on the Causeway coastline.
"When you come to an Open Championship, it's set up for anyone," he says. "Anyone can roll the ball on the ground. You don't have to hit the ball very far. You can actually hear it land and still roll it out there far enough. It opens up the field.
"It allows the players that don't hit the ball very far or carry the ball as far to run the golf ball out there."
No question, he seems more human to us now, less corporate. The scenes with his children by Augusta's 18th green communicated an emotional depth that the golf world long suspected to be beyond his grasp. For a long time, Tiger's greatness came with a kind of spiritual sterility.
And maybe nothing became that sterility quite like that scripted apology to TV cameras at the headquarters of the PGA Tour in Ponte Vedra Beach nine years back.
That was Tiger then. More a billboard than a man.
But he has softened (off the course at least) perceptibly. It's as if something has shifted inside of him. Asked if he has found competition golf "a bigger challenge" than he expected post-Augusta, his response proves mature and nuanced.
"It took a lot out of me," he declares flatly of the Masters. "That golf course puts so much stress on the system. Then if you look at the leaderboard after Francesco (Molinari) made the mistake at 12, it seemed like seven, eight guys had a chance to win the golf tournament with only, what, six holes to play.
"And so it became very crowded. A lot of different scenarios happened. I was reading the leaderboard all the time, trying to figure out what the number is going to be, who is on what hole. And it took quite a bit out of me.
"Seeing my kids there, they got a chance to experience The Open Championship last year after their dad took the lead and then made a few mistakes. And this time they got to see me win a Major championship. Charlie was too young to remember when I won in Akron. And Sam was, what, one when I won at Torrey (Pines). So it was a very emotional week and one that I keep reliving. It's hard to believe that I pulled it off and I ended up winning the tournament."
Those words would have been unimaginable coming from a young Tiger. That thread of honesty, humility even. Golf has been fixating on the story of his absence from most tournament golf (bar Majors) since his Masters win, as if there was some sensory deprivation in a big-name field without him.
There has been, he insists, no mystery.
"I learned last year I played a little bit too much, the body was pretty beat up," he says. "And after I won in Atlanta, you saw what I did at the Ryder Cup. I was worn out. So this year, I made a conscious effort to cut back. And you have to understand, if I play a lot, I won't be out here that long. That's the tricky part, trying to determine how much tournament play I need."
The signs weren't good during practice on Monday in the company of Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler, Woods looking tired and a little careworn on the course.
Had he maybe sought any local advice from Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell or Brooks Koepka's caddie Ricky Elliott on Portrush's secrets?
Woods joked that he'd texted Koepka after the USPGA, congratulating him on another high finish and suggesting, 'Hey dude, do you mind if I tag along and play a practice round?'
"I've heard nothing!" he declared to gusts of laughter.