Old Tiger has learnt new tricks

For the longest time, Tiger Woods came across as something other than human, impervious to the emotional swings that govern the lives of us earthlings.

Tiger Woods' first victory in two-and-a-half years at Bay Hill just over a week ago has elevated him to one of the favourites to win the Masters, a tournament he has won four times previously. Phil Noble / Reuters
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For the longest time, Tiger Woods came across as something other than human, impervious to the emotional swings that govern the lives of us earthlings.

Cold-blooded? Why, his blood seemed straight out of a freezer.

The golfer arrived by it honestly. As a youngster, Woods was trained to wall off distractions by his father/coach Earl, who would cough, jangle keys or roll a ball past him in mid-swing.

As an adult, measured against his peers, Woods was a veritable automaton, playing with invisible blinkers on. He appeared unaware of the noisy gallery, unaffected by names moving on or up the leaderboard.

In May 2006, Earl Woods died, bringing momentary upheaval to the controlled universe Woods lived in. A month later, not coincidentally, he missed the US Open cut, ending a record-matching streak of 39 he made in majors.

Change, even for the most iron-willed, can be unsettling.

Soon, however, order was restored. He won the British Open and the PGA Championship, each at a splashy 18-under par. There might have been tears at the trophy presentation, but only sweat dampened his steely face during those rounds.

And so it went until late 2009, when a minor, one-car accident in his neighbourhood ripped the cover off his closely guarded existence.

Spilling out were sordid tales of marital infidelity, igniting tremors of change that no man could disregard.

His wife divorced him. She and their two children moved away.

The media, often cowed by his antagonistic approach toward them, pounced with reports on his dalliances.

He replaced his trusted caddie and his swing coach.

Compounding the turmoil was a series of injuries - neck, ankle, knee, leg - that seemed the work of an avenger using a voodoo doll of Woods as a pin cushion.

Athletes' careers are finite, and the question was properly raised as to whether Woods could adjust to his unravelling and rescue a career in peril.

The answer came barely a week ago. Just a few miles from the scene of his run-in with a fire hydrant, Woods strong-armed the Arnold Palmer Invitational by five strokes, his first PGA Tour triumph in nearly two-and-a-half years.

Thus is the table set - with the finest china - for this week's Masters. One win was all it took to recast Woods as the favourite in his favourite tournament, which he has won on four occasions.

How we deal with the inevitably of change ultimately determines our fate. As we recalibrate, do we wander too far from our base and never find our footing? Or do we adjust, incorporating the new with what we knew?

On a few counts, Woods has attained some balance, proof that you can teach an old Tiger new tricks.

He no longer attempts to soldier through a round in pain. There was the withdrawal after 11 holes into his final round at Doral early last month with a sore Achilles tendon, more as a precaution than out of necessity.

Realising that middle-age creep might be adding stress to his oft-ailing knee and other body parts, Woods decided to reinvent his swing with the unorthodox coach Sean Foley and his self-described minimalist approach.

Woods was no overnight success with Foley, their association dating to the summer of 2010. But lessons have sunk in, and not just with Woods. The Foley academy also includes recent tournament winners Hunter Mahan (twice) and Justin Rose.

Add it up, and Foley's fingerprints are on half of the last eight PGA Tour trophies awarded.

Conditions are ripe for Woods to take his instructor over .500.

The ambient noise generated lately at the Masters by his non-golfing double bogeys will be turned down.

(Some will emanate from ex-coach Hugh Haney - whose behind-the-curtain book The Big Miss is not coincidentally being released this week. More will spill from controversy about Augusta National's men-only membership and whether the newly appointed chief executive of IBM will be invited to join, just as were her four male predecessors.)

Woods adores the Masters course so much that its toughening in 2001 will forever be termed as "Tiger-proofing".

A building block to his victory three weeks ago was winning the Chevron World Challenge in December.

Yet, the Palmer win is slightly misleading because the course could have been designed in Woods's dreams. He has triumphed there seven times.

The semi-legitimate World Challenge had a mini-field of 18 players.

And Haney does get under his skin. Wait until someone asks about the book's details of his allegedly odd obsession with the Navy Seals.

The tipping point in Woods's favour might be a sense of appreciation that he has reached the light at the end of a long, life-altering tunnel. Finally, golf might hold the proper perspective.

While lining up a putt on the final hole at the Palmer, a revealing camera close-up showed Woods, apparently replaying the journey in his mind, smiling as he pulled his cap over his face.

It was an unusual touch of humanity from the mostly otherworldly Woods with which we could all relate.