Sean O’Hair had a five-shot lead over Tiger Woods at Bay Hill in 2009 and, as the two prepared for the final round, they casually bantered back and forth on the putting green.
“He likes to break my balls,” said a smiling O’Hair, a Philly guy who’s not afraid to give it back.
But by the time O’Hair made bogey on the 10th hole, his lead was gone, as were the frat jokes and friendly jabs about the 76ers.
And the Woods whom O’Hair knew as his buddy was gone, too, replaced by the ruthless killer who had stepped on throats to win 14 majors by the age of 32.
O’Hair got was what every pretender to Woods’ throne used to get on the back nine: an icy stare. Woods wasn’t so much looking at them as he was looking right through them.
"No matter how friendly you are with him, he wants to slit your throat on the golf course," O’Hair would later say.
But that was then — before everything changed for Tiger Woods. He’s not the same now.
And that’s largely a good thing, because as the curtain was raised on his secret life, it was patently obvious that Woods needed to do a lot of growing up. He not only has matured, but has mellowed since the scandal.
He has toned down his anger on the course, makes eye contact and even smiles back at fans. He is much nicer to his rivals, as the bromance with Rory McIlroy shows.
Although it has been good to see Woods evolve as a man, the bitter irony is that it may have come at a price for him as a player.
A month ago, he was asked whether winning still meant as much to him as it once did.
“Losing a parent and having the birth of two kids put things in better perspective for me,” he replied. “The wins are (still) fantastic, but the losses aren’t what they used to be.”
It was the most honest thing I’d heard him say in a long time.
When he was younger, Woods brooded after losses.
He famously would tie a recalcitrant putter or wedge to the back of his golf cart and drive it around as a form of punishment.
Like his friend and mentor, Michael Jordan, Woods was driven by losing, perhaps more than he was sustained by winning.
But that seems like it’s gone. And there’s another piece of the old arsenal missing: Steve Williams.
In their dozen years together, they formed not merely the most successful team in the history of golf but the most intimidating, too. There was nothing friendly about them, which is how Woods liked it.
I thought about the way that dynamics changed earlier this year at Pebble Beach after Phil Mickelson had embarrassed Woods, shooting 64 to his 75 to win the AT&T National Pro-Am.
Woods’ new caddie, Joe LaCava — a well-liked man who’s quick with a smile — is close friends with Mickelson’s caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay.
The two of them were chatting throughout that Sunday afternoon at Pebble Beach, often with Mickelson joining in. While the three of them looked comfortable, Woods looked lost.
It’s clear that he’s trying to find some balance. But it’s not proving easy.
After his third straight weekend fade at a major — at the PGA Championship — Woods spoke openly about the struggle to find “the right attitude.”
“I came out with probably the wrong attitude yesterday,” he said of his disastrous Saturday round at Kiawah Island. “I was just trying to be a little bit happy out there and enjoy it. But that’s not how I play.
“You know how I am. I play full systems go, all-out, intense, and that’s how I won 14 of these things.”
He said the attempt to enjoy the moment “cost me."
“It was a bad move on my part,” he said.
On Wednesday, during a conference call to promote his World Challenge tournament next month in Southern California — one of only two left on his schedule for the year — I asked Woods about this dilemma.
“I just go out there, and I compete and try and get to the same energy level that I know I need to attain per shot, to hit and execute the shot that I want to hit,” he said.
“Some days it’s easier than others to get to that point.”
But is it more difficult to get there now?
“Some days it’s very easy to turn a round from a 73 or 74 or 75 into a round under par, and other days, it’s a little bit more difficult,” he said.