I of the Tiger
ARDMORE, Pa. -- Tiger Woods is very good at keeping secrets.
He keeps a secret like an Israeli spy. He keeps secret his workout routine, the houses he rents at tournaments, the schedule he'll play, the contracts he signs, the home he makes, the life he lives. You get more information out of a palace guard.
But why must his injuries be secret? More than that, why must he lie about them?
The latest is his left elbow, which, as it turns out, was not hurt Thursday at this U.S. Open. Turns out it was hurt weeks ago -- a rather important fact to know about the most important golfer in the world.
Check out how he told the world after his sweet 70 on Friday in the second round at Merion, a round that left him only four shots out with 36 holes to play, and yet a round in which he was wincing nearly every time he slashed out of the ankle-high rough here.
Q. You were clearly in a lot of pain yesterday. When did you hurt yourself?
Woods: A few weeks ago.
Q. How did you hurt yourself?
Woods: Playing golf at The Players.
Q. Where did you hurt yourself at The Players?
Woods: One of the rounds.
That's it. That's all we got. The man makes a Bill Belichick news conference look like a Senate filibuster. What does he think is going to happen to him? Does he think Phil Mickelson is going to jump out of the bushes and tackle him in the elbow?
Maybe Woods doesn't talk about his injuries because he's got gold-medal downhill skier Lindsey Vonn waiting for him at home. It's a little hard to whine about your golf elbow when your girlfriend broke her leg and ripped her knee in two places going 75 mph down an Austrian ski slope.
Honey, my elbow REALLY hurts. Would you massage it?
Or maybe he doesn't talk about his injuries because it's depressing to think about how many he's had. How many majors would he have won if he hadn't had a ripped Achilles, four surgeries on his left knee, a bad right ankle, a bad neck and a broken leg, just for starters? Twenty?
Or maybe he hides his injuries because it helps make him feel like it's Tiger against the world, that everybody's out to get him, that he can't give away anything, not a thimble, not a drop. Tiger Woods likes to pour you a nice full mug of shut the hell up. That's how Michael Jordan did it, and Tiger Woods idolizes Michael Jordan.
And it's not just the media. Rory McIlroy, who played with Woods the first two days in this Open, didn't hear Woods say a peep about his elbow.
Remember at Doral this season when Steve Stricker gave Woods a putting tip that changed his entire season? After he got it, Woods won three of his next four tournaments. Ever remember Woods giving anybody else a helpful tip?
No, the bear does not help the salmon. The bear eats the salmon. There's a reason Woods hasn't answered Sergio Garcia's note of apology that Garcia left in Woods' locker at Merion. Woods is quite happy to let those who offend him twist in the wind. Helps him see where the weather is coming from.
But before Garcia screwed the pooch with his colossally stupid "fried chicken" comment, he was actually getting to some not-often-discussed truths about Woods. He said Woods hasn't been telling the truth to the media for "15 years."
He's right. If you read Hank Haney's very revealing book about Woods, "The Big Miss," you know that Haney often noted how Woods lied to the media.
I would soon learn that what Tiger told the media about his round was way different from what he'd later tell me in private.
Forget the whoppers Woods told his now ex-wife. Woods has told some whoppers about injuries that were written, wrongly, into golf history for years. Such as how he completely tore the ligaments in his left knee in 2007. Woods told the world it was from jogging on a golf course. But Haney confirmed from two sources that he'd actually ripped it training at a Kill House -- an urban-warfare simulator -- used by Navy SEALS.
Like so many things about this man, good and bad, Tiger learned it from his dad, Earl, who taught him that transparency, openness and honesty are the enemy. Thus, when Tiger was a boy, he was drilled in the art of the shutdown.
"When's your birthday, Tiger?" Earl would say.
"December 30, 1975," the boy would say. "I was born in Cypress, California."
"Wrong," Earl would say. "I only asked you when your birthday is. You should've said December 30 and stopped. Only answer what you have to."
The pupil learned well. In Friday's tête-à-tête with the media, Tiger gave 20 answers. Seven of them were five words or fewer. Three were one word.
Nobody's asking him to change. What makes Tiger Woods one of the greatest sports champions in American history is his searing belief that he is surrounded on all sides. He is wholly and completely about winning, about dispatching everybody and anybody with extreme prejudice, be it the guy one shot ahead of him or 30 shots back. He is driven, focused and centered on himself and himself alone. This is why he's awful at team games, such as the Ryder Cup, and supreme at individual ones, such as U.S. Opens.
Elbow pain or no elbow pain, truth or lies, Tiger Woods has himself exactly where he wants to be once again in a major.
"Do you like your chances?" I asked him Friday.
"Yes," he said.
Somewhere, Earl must've beamed.
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Merion proved to be quite the test for the world's best at the 113th U.S. Open. Justin Rose ultimately triumphed, finishing the tournament with a 2-stroke victory at 1-over.