21 for 2021: 21 things I learned about Tiger Woods this year

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Tiger Woods offers up a smile during the PNC Championship in December.

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I first saw Tiger in person in 1995, at the U.S. Amateur at Newport, which he won. Since then, I’ve spent too much of my adult life thinking about him and worrying about him and rooting for him. It was not that I wanted more for him. Tiger can take care of himself without any help from the likes of me. My fantasy was what he could do for the game.

Since 1995, there has never been a year where Tiger led less of a public life. There was never a year where he led a more dramatic life. Our theme here, as we close out the year, is 21 things I learned about — fill in the blank. Herewith: 21 things I learned about Tiger Woods.

1. The man does not eat potato chips.

He revealed this to Henni Zuël Koyack when Woods gave his first videotaped interview, for Golf Digest, after his February car crash. But he uses the promise of potato chips as an incentive for his son Charlie in their backyard golf competitions. The idea of eating a tuna-salad sandwich on whole wheat, no matter how well-toasted the bread is, without inserted potato chips to crunch up the whole thing is unimaginable to me. But I’m not Tiger.

2. At his core — you might not believe this — he’s modest. He presumes nothing.

On the Sunday of the Genesis Invitational, in February, Jim Nantz of CBS asked Tiger if he would be playing in the fourth round of the Masters.

“So Tiger, seven weeks from today, the final round of the Masters,” Nantz said. “Are you going to be there?”

“God, I hope so,” Tiger said. “I got to get there first.”

A thousand ways to read that, but here’s the most obvious one: to play on Sunday, you have to make the cut first.

3. Tiger can shut down a legitimate inquiry with ruthless efficiency.

At his Hero World event in the Bahamas, he was asked what he remembers about the Feb. 23 car crash that could have claimed his life. “All those answers have been answered in the investigation, so you can read about all that there in the post report,” Woods said. That’s about as non-responsive as a response could be. It serves needs. There’s no upside for Woods, to revisit the events of that scary day in public. That’s his obvious and understandable position.

4. Tiger is not afraid of change.

The rules of golf allow a player to carry 14 clubs. Woods has often said he will make a change only if he thinks it’s going to help him play better golf. Period. At the Parents, Offspring and Others event, aka the PNC Championship, Woods had a new driver. The face of his old driver was black. The face of that new driver was red. One thing I know, or I think I know: Tiger didn’t make the change based on the color.

5. Tiger must be really into upper-body weight training.

We’ve known that all along, but now we know it as never before. Did you see him at the PNC? You could spend time in 30 NFL locker rooms and never see somebody with skinnier ankles and bigger biceps than Tiger Woods on the eve of his 46th birthday.

6. Tiger is, by far, the most dominant golfer since Hogan in his prime, and then some.

This comes from Jim McCabe, a PGA Tour historian, who posted 46 fun facts about Woods in honor of his 46th birthday on Dec. 30: “Tiger has been No. 1 a total of 683 weeks. The next four with the most weeks in the top spot — Greg Norman, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, and Nick Faldo— combine for 669 weeks.” Yikes.

7. Tiger is deeply loyal to the PGA Tour.

Asked to assess other possible golf leagues that could threaten the PGA Tour, Woods said this year, “I’ve decided for myself that I’m supporting the PGA Tour. That’s where my legacy is. I’ve been fortunate enough to have won 82 events on this tour and 15 major championships, and been a part of the World Golf Championships, the start of them and the end of them.”

Any other questions?

8. Tiger will be in mourning over the death of John Madden.

Well, no, Tiger didn’t say that. But he grew up on the Raiders, he loves NFL football — how could he not be in mourning? Madden was a complete original. He was Ben Hogan meets Johnny Miller meets Lee Trevino.

9. Tiger loves Trevino.

If you didn’t know that, you would have if you saw Trevino talking golf with Charlie Woods at the PNC, Tiger watching and listening, watching and listening.

Of that session, Woods said, “He wasn’t really giving a lesson to Charlie. He was just talking. Like he does. I got a chance to be around Lee quite a bit early in my career, the quality of strike. Now he’s 82 years old. It’s not what it used to be, but he finds the middle of the face each and every time. I don’t care how old you are.

“The audio. He still has the audio. And he still has the shape of shots. It doesn’t go as far now. But no one has control of that golf ball, not as well as he has. The old balata ball into the wind, the shots he played, how he did it, hardpan in Texas, and it transferred to pretty much everywhere around the world. People would just sit there and listen. Just listen. You walk on range, and you know the guys who know how to hit a golf ball. Lee was that guy.”

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10. Like a lot of us, Tiger has a whole thing about Hogan.

In public, he referred to him as “Mr. Hogan.” You really don’t have to do that. But Tiger did.

11. Tiger feels very close to Justin Thomas and his father, Mike Thomas.

In that same interview, he told Henni Zuël Koyack, “The Thomases and the Woodses are like family. JT is like the brother I never had and Charlie is like the brother JT never had.”

12. Tiger Woods now has 6.5 million followers on Twitter.

That’s a lot. By comparison, Jim Herman, his fellow Floridian and PGA Tour player, has 21,000.

So Tiger has more followers. But @gohermie is a funnier feed.

13. Tiger was really quiet in 2021.

The transcription service ASAP Sports has an extraordinary repository of Tiger Woods interviews. Not all of them, but many. There are three listed for 2021. For 2013, there were well over 100.

14. Tiger is a super-realist, Part I.

In the aftermath of his life-changing car crash, Woods said he will never be able to play the Tour again on a fulltime basis.

15. Tiger is a super-realist, Part II.

Even after his second-place finish at the PNC event with his son, Woods insisted he was not close.

“Most of [my drives] were just hot cuts or slappy cuts up there, something out there,” Woods said. “The hardest part for me was that what I saw distance-wise and what I felt on my last look — I always play by my hands and my last look — didn’t match up a lot of times. I was short. And then a few times, I actually hit it solid and I smoked it over a couple greens. I’ve got some work ahead of me.”

16. Tiger is a super-realist, Part III:

A reporter mentioned that Matt Kuchar said that Woods golf game looked ready for prime time, or close to it. Tiger wasn’t buying it.

“No, no, no, no,” he said. “I totally disagree. I’m not at that level. I can’t compete against these guys right now. No.”

But he did use the phrase right now.

17. Tiger’s great grasp of golf history — the majors and the rest — extends to the . . . PNC Challenge!

Asked about the similarity of his mannerisms and Charlie’s, Woods remembered how similar Craig Stadler’s mannerisms were to his son’s, Kevin.

“To me, the best of all time is watching the Stadlers play,” Woods said “I mean, that’s just the absolute best: The frustrations, the enjoyment, the cup throws, everything about it, that was the best.”

18. Tiger’s grasp of golf history really is astounding.

Another time, Tiger was looking for the name George Low Jr., a famous putter designer. Well, famous to some. He mistakenly used the name George Bayer, a famous, long-driving Tour player in the 1950s and ‘60s. Well, famous to some. Find another Tour player who even knows those two names. Maybe Jim Herman. That’s about it.

19. Tiger’s appreciation for golf history and family history is moving.

The things he said about Lee Elder, following Elder’s death. The first Black man to play in the Masters. And along the way, Woods flat-out said it: Charlie Sifford should have played long before Elder did, but he never got the invitation he deserved. Along the way, Woods honored the legacy of his father, Earl, who had a keen sense of golf and race and how the two things intertwined.

20. Tiger’s family picture became clearer yet.

At the PNC, every time you saw Tiger, there were five other people nearby: his longstanding girlfriend Erica Herman; his friend from junior golf and employee Rob McNamara; his caddie Joe LaCava; his son Charlie; his daughter Sam.

21. There’s nothing more important to Tiger than being a father.

My colleague Dylan Dethier picked this up, Saturday morning at the old Father-Son event. Tiger and Charlie were on the first tee. The starter introduced them. Tiger called out to his son, pulled him close and said, “Love you.”

To a better new year.

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Michael.Bamberger@Golf.com

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Michael Bamberger

Golf.com Contributor

Michael Bamberger writes for GOLF Magazine and GOLF.com. Before that, he spent nearly 23 years as senior writer for Sports Illustrated. After college, he worked as a newspaper reporter, first for the (Martha’s) Vineyard Gazette, later for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He has written a variety of books about golf and other subjects, the most recent of which is The Second Life of Tiger Woods. His magazine work has been featured in multiple editions of The Best American Sports Writing. He holds a U.S. patent on The E-Club, a utility golf club. In 2016, he was given the Donald Ross Award by the American Society of Golf Course Architects, the organization’s highest honor.