Tiger finds that intensity and humanity can coexist at the Masters

6:44 PM ET

AUGUSTA, Ga. — In case you were wondering — “Is it me, or does Tiger Woods seem nicer and more relatable?” — wonder no more. Tiger Woods has officially changed. He is legitimately kinder and gentler and more cognizant of establishing a two-way relationship with the fans.

“He’s actually acknowledging them, he’s throwing balls to them, and he’s signing balls,” his friend and caddie since 2011, Joe LaCava, told ESPN.com after Woods’ Tuesday morning practice round with Phil Mickelson, Fred Couples and Thomas Pieters. “He’s tipping his hat to them, and it’s been great.”

But why? At age 42, a year removed from his spinal fusion surgery, why has the old terminator in Sunday red suddenly decided to humanize himself before galleries that already adored him unconditionally, warts and all?

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  • “His age, his kids, all of the above,” LaCava said. “He’s also appreciating the fact that he’s actually playing good and feels healthy again and has a normal lifestyle. … I think it’s good that he acknowledges the fact that people are behind him in this comeback, that they truly want him to win. He sees that fact, and he’s embracing it.”

    No more Mr. Not-So-Nice Guy, whether Woods is dealing with the fans or the opponents he used to mercilessly pummel into submission. In his prime, before the surgeries and sex scandal broke him in half, Woods would not have spent a Tuesday back nine at the Masters in the company of Mickelson. He might have been heard joking about Lefty, but he most definitely would not have been seen joking with him.

    Yet there they were, laughing together as they walked down the 10th fairway, two 40-somethings enjoying the regenerative warmth of the Augusta National sun, while Pieters, a muscular 26-year-old from Belgium, leaned into their conversation from the best seat in the house. “Our friendship has gotten stronger over the years,” Woods said of Mickelson, the closest thing to a defining rival during Tiger’s dynastic run.

    Just in the nick of time, Woods is reaching out to the same opponents and fans he spent most of his career ignoring or intimidating or both. To see him stalking about the Masters in his healthy past was to see a man silently warning those in his midst to keep their distance — or else. To read stories of how Tiger once dismissed people on muscle memory in the engrossing and defining portrait of the golfer, “Tiger Woods,” by authors Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian, is to recall that bygone friends and amateur rivals felt the deep-freeze, too.

    But Woods has emerged from what he called “some really dark, dark times” of pain that kept him bedridden, pain he couldn’t escape. He has finally realized that there are worse things in life than a little tee-to-green giveback to those who admire and even worship him.

    This is the final comeback for Woods, who last won a major a decade ago. His Hail Mary of a spinal fusion was, in his words, “a miracle.” If he winces in pain and reaches for his back after one more 129 mph swing, it’s all over. There will be no more surgeries. There will be no more miracles.

    Tiger knows it. The field knows it. Everyone who cares about golf knows it. If Woods wins the Masters, or any future major, his triumph will stand among the most enduring sports stories of our lifetime.

    That’s what makes his fresh approach so appealing. Let’s face it: Woods didn’t really need to change his ways to make the gallery feel part of his experience. For so long, the fans have been willing to overlook his refusal to make eye contact, his refusal to match Mickelson’s commitment to the autograph line, his refusal to bring them in. They understood that they were watching a genius at work, and they were willing to deal with the downside. The exhilarating payoff was more than worth it.

    But by making the transition Jack Nicklaus made when he tired of playing the robo-assassin to Arnold Palmer’s neighborly gunslinger, Woods has given the gallery at Augusta National a chance to be part of something extra special. The fans loved a winning Tiger when he couldn’t be bothered with them. Imagine what they’ll feel for a winning Tiger who has made the effort to connect with them?

    That feeling won’t be limited to the fans, either. Some pros who have rooted against Woods in the past are rooting for him now. “To see him back out playing is incredible,” Mickelson said. “We all feel that. I texted him a while ago while he was playing at Valspar, that it felt like it was a different time continuum because I found myself pulling so hard for him. It was unusual.”

    So was this practice pairing at the Masters: Woods and Mickelson hadn’t played a practice round together at a non-team event in as many as 20 years. Their time competing for the same side at the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup helped bring them closer, but Tuesday was about more than a nod to their red, white and blue memories. (In fact, their most vivid Ryder Cup memory remains Tiger’s disgusted expression after his teammate, Lefty, sent their tee ball on the 18th whistling into oblivion in a bitter 2004 defeat.) No, this was about Woods respecting a 47-year-old peer with five major titles and appreciating a supportive voice who never wavered during Tiger’s physical and personal crises.

    “He was trying to help me out when I was trying to make a comeback,” Woods said. “My body wasn’t feeling very good. ‘How can I help?’ … We’re at the tail end of our careers. We both know that. … We have had a great 20-year battle. Hopefully we’ll have a few more.”

    During their money game, Woods and Mickelson won some cold cash from Pieters and Couples, in part because of Tiger’s eagles on Nos. 13 and 15. Dressed in a short-sleeve shirt that accentuated his strong safety’s physique, Woods poked fun at Mickelson’s collared, long-sleeve shirt that accentuated only his need to stand out in a crowd.

    “The only thing that was missing was a tie,” Woods said.

    Mickelson called Tiger “very enjoyable to be around” and said they spent the nine holes making fun of themselves and each other. The elder statesman of the group, the 58-year-old Couples, conceded that Woods might not have played with Mickelson if he were still winning majors but added, “They’ve never really disliked each other, and they probably aren’t the best of friends. But they’re friends.”

    Woods spoke of belonging to a fraternity of golfers that used to be, in his younger days, a fraternity of one. What changed? Did someone from Tiger’s ever-tight inner circle at last persuade Woods to open up his softer side to players and fans alike? Was that someone LaCava, a passionate New York Giants fan from Connecticut widely known as one of the genuine good guys on tour?

    “Honestly, no,” the caddie said. “That’s really not my place. I want him as intense as ever.”

    In his final golfing act, much better late than never, Tiger Woods has found that intensity can go hand and hand with humanity at the Masters.