Looser, more out­go­ing Tiger just happy to be able to walk

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - LEADING OFF - SCOTT FOWLER Scott Fowler writes for The Charlotte Ob­server.

You don’t “work” golf. You play golf. At its core for most peo­ple, golf is a good ex­cuse to hang out in the sun­shine with your friends — or a good walk spoiled, de­pend­ing on how you’re hit­ting it that day.

The thing with Tiger Woods, though, no mat­ter how well he was hit­ting it in all those vin­tage Tiger years, was he rarely seemed to be hav­ing much fun.

Tiger would stare right through gal­leries of fans aching for any sort of in­ter­ac­tion with him like they were a for­est of trou­ble­some pine trees — just more ob­sta­cles in the way of the mis­sion.

The only reg­u­lar eye con­tact Tiger supplied back then was to his golf ball. He would pump a fist and scream in cel­e­bra­tion oc­ca­sion­ally af­ter rolling in a long putt, sure, but the 1,000-watt smile he flashed in all those com­mer­cials was rarely ap­par­ent on the course.

That was then and this is now — Tiger Woods is 42 years old. He long ago fell from the ranks of su­per­hu­man ath­letes into the “very hu­man and very flawed” cat­e­gory. He has sur­vived mul­ti­ple scan­dals, mul­ti­ple back surg­eries and mul­ti­ple times that he thought maybe he was go­ing to have to leave the game for good.

But Tiger is back in Charlotte this week, play­ing at Quail Hol­low Club for the first time since 2012. He en­ters the Wells Fargo Cham­pi­onship ranked 93rd in the world — and still smil­ing due to a sec­ond chance to play the game he still loves.

“I am very thank­ful,” Woods said Wed­nes­day. “There was a long pe­riod of time when I didn’t think I would ever play golf again. I was just hop­ing I could walk with­out pain. And now I’m out here play­ing against th­ese guys.”

Tiger won’t be fa­vored this week in Charlotte. It would be quite an ac­com­plish­ment if he could place in the top 10.

The last two times he played the Wells Fargo Cham­pi­onship, he shot 74-79 in 2010 and 71-73 in 2012. On both oc­ca­sions, he missed the cut. He wasn’t even around for the week­end when the golf gets se­ri­ous.

But he did also win this tour­na­ment in 2007 — the only time he has ever won a PGA Tour event in North Carolina — and has fin­ished in the top five three times.

Tiger has al­ways en­joyed play­ing Quail Hol­low Club when his body would let him, and fans in Charlotte are for­tu­nate that he is healthy enough to play it again this week. (He said the course is “much harder than it used to be, that’s for sure.”)

In any tour­na­ment, even if he doesn’t fin­ish near the lead­ers, Tiger is still a lock to move the prover­bial nee­dle.

Tiger’s body is dif­fer­ent than it used to be, of course. All those back surg­eries means he can’t un­cork his swing with the raw power that he once had.

“I cer­tainly can’t lift the weights I used to,” Woods said. “I can’t run the way I used to. There’s a lot of things I wish I could do, but I can’t.” He sounded like a lot of 42-year-olds at that mo­ment, wish­ing for the way he used to be at 22.

And yet he still is Tiger Woods, be­moan­ing the 115 mph golf swing he was tak­ing sev­eral years ago as “slow mo­tion” and talk­ing in tech­ni­cal terms about the groove con­fig­u­ra­tions in the new irons that he hopes will cure the in­con­sis­tency he had with those clubs at the Masters.

Once pop­u­lar with the gallery be­cause of his ut­ter dom­i­nance at a youth­ful age and re­ally not much else, Woods now is cheered for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons. Some of it is un­doubt­edly a sym­pa­thetic re­ac­tion. But it also seems to stem a bit from Woods try­ing to be a bet­ter man.

Ob­server re­porter Bren­dan Marks was fol­low­ing Woods around Wed­nes­day as Woods played in the an­nual pro-am. At one point, as Woods ap­proached his ball on the fair­way, a male fan yelled: “I love you, Tiger!”

The old Woods had heard this sort of thing many hun­dreds of times. And even in a pro-am, when the scores don’t count, odds are that he would have ei­ther ig­nored it or, at best, given a curt nod in that di­rec­tion.

This time, though, Woods looked the fan’s way and paused.

“Awwwww,” Tiger said with a big grin. “I love you, too.”

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