ORLANDO, Florida – A year ago, we thought we knew Tiger Woods. Then we realized we didn't know him at all. Then we struggled (sometimes comically, with the help of body language experts) to get to know him. And last week, via Twitter, we met him again.
"What's up everyone," he wrote.
That's a poor substitute for the "Hello World" slogan from another decade. This year has been Goodbye World – Tiger waning like the sun in a bad "Mission to Pluto" film at the local planetarium. He's disappeared from the leaderboards and he's also become even more remote personally. Oh sure, we see his face during tournaments, but that betrays nothing. We learned how he got away from his "core values," but we never learned what those core values are. And as long as Tiger's voice is the only voice we hear about Tiger, we'll never quite believe in him again.
In his over-rehearsed apology speech, Tiger pledged: "I know above all I am the one who needs to change."
Has he changed? Hard to tell. A raft of calls made to people in the golf community this week has yielded little. Most golfers didn't call back. Some picked up the phone and fumbled for words.
"Do I think he's changed?" Roger Maltbie said. "That's not really a question for me to answer. I don't see Tiger off the golf course."
"I wouldn't know," Steve Pate said. "I haven't seen him in four years."
"Do I think he's changed?" Amy Alcott said. "I think that's a thing that Tiger will have to … I don't really know."
"I wrote him a couple notes," Chi Chi Rodriguez said. "He never replied to my notes. I don't think he had 'em. I think IMG buried 'em."
Now look at the testimonials for quarterback Michael Vick. His teammates love him, chanting "Good job, Mike!" as he got to his locker after his first victory as a starter this season against Detroit. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson hurried to give him the ball from his first touchdown pass that day. In the last two weeks, we've heard glowing praise for Vick from the likes of Tom Brady and even Michael Jordan. Where's the glowing praise for Tiger? Where's Tony Dungy giving his blessing or the crusty columnists melting in appreciation?
Part of it, of course, is winning. Vick is winning. Tiger is not.
Part of it, of course, is team sports. We see Vick interact. We see him push the praise onto teammates. Tiger has no teammates. He doesn't even seem to have a lot of close friends.
So while it's easy to feel Vick has changed, simply from watching his suddenly serene demeanor, it's impossible to know if Tiger has changed. Nobody defends him who isn't paid by him. Vick faces the media and takes all questions. He opens up about crying in prison and being stunned that he's back playing the game he loves. Tiger faces the media and fights to control both himself and his questioners.
In his speech, Tiger said he had strayed from Buddhism. Has he returned to that faith?
In his speech, Tiger said "I will continue to receive help." Has he continued to receive help?
In his speech, Tiger said he didn't know when he would return to golf, but "when I do return, I need to make my behavior more respectful of the game." Weeks later, at the Masters, Woods unleashed a torrent of profanity that upset even the even-handed Jim Nantz. "Have you ever heard Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus use that kind of language?" Nantz told WFAN Radio. "What are the parameters between what's right or wrong?"
[Related: Team Tiger still guilty of missteps]
The reason we don't know Tiger any better than a year ago – the reason we haven't seen any evidence of change – is because he probably doesn't know himself any better. All the talk of "core values" notwithstanding, he probably has no idea who he really is. Vick had many months to ask himself tough questions in prison. He had Dungy and, eventually, his Eagles teammates and coaches. Even Kobe Bryant kept his wife close by during his downfall. Woods lost his lodestar – his dad – and he lost his wife, and in a way, he lost his kids. "Very few go through this without some sort of identity crisis," said Steve Ashley, founder of the Divorced Fathers Network. "He probably feels like a failure."
Is he the Tiger who scared the life out of opponents on the course? Or is he the Tiger who now gives his son a bath and makes his kids mac 'n' cheese instead of dining out? Is it possible to be both? If he was the "old" Tiger, he'd be chipping hundreds of balls an hour. But if he was the "new" Tiger, he wouldn't have come back to the course so soon. He might not even know if he wants to be the "weekend dad" who sees the kids every few days, or the "50/50" dad who does as much child-rearing as his wife. These are choices every divorced dad has to make, and it takes more than a few months to make them.
In a year's time, we've gone from thinking we know Tiger to having less of an idea than ever. But Tiger himself has made that journey, too. Remember when so many faces on our TV screens proudly announced "I Am Tiger Woods"?
It seems not even the man himself can say that now.