In the run-up to the Masters at Augusta National last month, the golf world held its breath. Will he or won’t he? The “he” being Tiger Woods; the question, whether the world No. 1 is capable of winning another major title after six years of going without.

Woods himself has made no bones about his goal to surpass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships, which means adding five to his current haul of 14. The probability of this has been debated endlessly by golf commentators, for to succeed would officially make him the greatest golfer of all time, his prodigious talent immortalised in the books. To not succeed would be to fail to live up to his potential.

By now, the golf world would have known that Woods gave up the quest for the Green Jacket to rest his injured back. It’s his first time missing golf’s most prestigious tournament in 20 years. He’s still young, the road is long; but the longer he falls short, the more the window for that achievement will close. There is the strength of his will, then there is the reality of the corporeal.

When we spoke in Palm Beach in February, he had yet to undergo surgery on his back to repair a pinched nerve. Sitting on the plush sofa, clad in a sleek white shirt and grey slacks, his elbows on his knees, he patiently answered questions about his golf game he must have been asked umpteenth times before. These are safe topics. It’s well known that he’s got an armour, both personal and personnel, to deal with unwanted scrutiny.

His wariness is understandable, given that everything he touches, every move he makes, generates news. Yet, during our conversation, there were revelatory moments when the human peeped out from the demigod, and Woods’ experiences as a boy and a father resonated with those present.

Two years shy of the big 4-0, he spoke about his longevity in the sport. “Golf can be a 30-year career at the elite level. In most sports, players peak in three years, then they are done. Here, you can have your ups and downs. You are going to have to fight your way through them and ride the wave as long as you can.

“The reality is that I’m not at the beginning of my prime years, I’m towards the end. The beauty of it is that I’m still in my prime. My game has turned in the past few years. When I first started working with Sean (Foley, his coach), I didn’t have any wins, then I won three two years ago and, last year, I
won five. Things are improving and we are looking forward to the next few years.”

In February, the golfer was prepped to play in the Masters.
In February, the golfer was prepped to play in the Masters.

Even if critics do latch onto Woods’ forced timeout as a further sign of his flagging pursuit of the prize, the genius he displayed on the course has created many die-hard believers.

Pro golfer Gary Player was quoted in a Golf Digest article as saying: “You can’t compare Tiger Woods to normal people. It wouldn’t matter if the gap (before another major win) is 10 years. He’s always done what no one else does.” Even the world-record holder himself has faith. Nicklaus said: “Frankly, I still think he’s going to break it.”

And Woods has his steely competitiveness. He said: “I’m going to play as long as I can, as long as I am competitive. The whole idea of our event is to win. I just can’t imagine going out knowing that I can’t win. When you’re at that point, you just bail.”

Just when that is, is moot. But he has prepared for that eventuality, having started a golf-course design business and built a foundation to help underprivileged youth get an education. He said: “I am keeping myself in golf for later on in my career, when I just can’t play anymore.”

The first golf course designed by Woods is scheduled to open in Mexico later this year.
The first golf course designed by Woods is scheduled to open in Mexico later this year.

If that is so, it will be a deliberate choice.

The world’s highest-paid athlete, who has earned an estimated US$1.3 billion (S$1.6 billion) over the span of his career, can retire many times over. Last year alone, he scored US$83 million, US$71 million of which was from off- course endorsements.

The sum is below the US$100 million he raked in at the height of his career in 2008 and 2009. Still, it is a mind-blowing figure considering that, at the lowest point of his life, he lost endorsements deals with premier names like AT&T, Accenture, Tag Heuer, Gatorade and Gillette.

In the grand scheme of things, it didn’t take him long to recover his earnings lustre. Rolex was the first major brand to embrace him again in 2011, vouching in a press statement: “Rolex is convinced that Tiger Woods still has a long career ahead of him, and that he has all the qualities required to continue to mark the history of golf.”

Now sponsored by sports label Nike and private aviation company Net Jets, among others, Woods is nevertheless grateful for this early show of confidence.

“This is my second time with the brand. (The first being with Tudor, Rolex’s sister brand). It’s incredible for it to want me back. The brand is so synonymous with greatness and prestige, it’s exciting to be part of it.”

On his wrist was a Rolex Deepsea, a renowned water-resistant watch that complements his passion for spearfishing and diving. Later in the year, he will show his aptitude in another field, when El Cardonal, the first Woods-designed golf course, opens in the Diamante luxury development in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

Golfers who have been waiting since 2006 for a Woods course to debut, only to be disappointed when projects in Dubai, North Carolina and a previous Mexico site fell through, can anticipate a route that snakes through dunes for the first nine holes and dry creeks for the rest, catering to a range of skill levels.

These days, he not only appears on TV screens globally, he’s also making it a point to visit other countries. Said his agent, Mark Steinberg: “Many years ago, we felt that Tiger would need to make annual appearances outside of the US to grow his brand. He’s stuck to that model and it’s proving to be beneficial.”

Woods popped up in India for the first time in February. He has visited China, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. Certainly, he has the hybrid background to connect with people in this part of the world. “When I go to Asia, I feel very comfortable. I grew up in an Asian household, my mum being Thai, so that culture is very similar to what I grew up in.”

Quizzed on his familiarity with the language, he laughed, a heart-warming sound that cuts through his circumspection. “I understand commands – ‘clean up your room’, ‘wash the dishes’, ‘take out the trash’, ‘do your homework’. ‘Sawadee ka’, ‘Sawadee krup’ – I understand all of that.”

We spoke about The Tiger Woods Band scheduled to be launched exclusively in Asia in April, and how sales of the red and black bracelet with the message “Live to Achieve Excellence” would support the planned expansion of his 17-year-old foundation in the region. He hadn’t wanted to grow it overseas, he said, until he found a model that would work globally, in different cultures, allowing kids in tough neighbourhoods to go to college and return as role models.

Sale of the souvenir will help fund the expansion of Woods’ foundation in Asia.
Sale of the souvenir will help fund the expansion of Woods’ foundation in Asia.

Woods’ own work ethic is well-known, a legacy of his father’s drilling. “If you don’t work hard, you not only don’t get results but, more importantly, you also don’t deserve them. Logging in your time means not just punching in for eight hours on the golf course. It’s being focused on improving, being in the gym, the pavement, all these different things you need to do to be the best you can possibly be.”

Having dedicated his life to excelling in one sport, does he feel he has missed out on another way of life? “Not necessarily,” he said. “I was encouraged to play other sports, so I ran track, cross-country, and played baseball growing up as a kid. I gravitated towards golf. The only thing I missed out on when I turned pro was anonymity.”

Woods is news – so much so that he can star in his own news ticker. You can envision a gamut of data sliding across the TV screen: the golf clubs he uses, the Buddhist bracelet he wears, his fallout with his caddie, the money he donates to charity, his fan-meet on Google Hangouts, his injuries, his performance on the course, his behaviour off it…

How does he keep a sense of self, when his every move is dissected and scrutinised? “It’s very simple. I don’t read it. It’s very easy to be caught up, especially now with the news cycle and social media. If you read the good and believe the good, then you’re going to have to believe the bad, and I just look at it as one person’s opinion.

“I just live my life. I have two wonderful kids and I have some records in the game of golf that I’m trying to break, and a foundation that I’m trying to grow globally. I have my hands full.”