Tiger Woods reveals a more human side as U.S. Open offers exemption

For a decade, Tiger Woods owned the golf world. Now, he's taking on a new challenge and showing a different side of himself in the process.

THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 1963 -- Pictured: (l-r) Pro golfer Tiger Woods during an interview with host Jimmy Fallon on Tuesday, April 30, 2024 -- (Photo by: Todd Owyoung/NBC via Getty Images)
Tiger Woods showed a softer side of himself during an interview with Jimmy Fallon. (Todd Owyoung/NBC via Getty Images)

Tiger Woods doesn’t talk so much about winning any more. In constant pain, years removed from any serious showing in a major, Woods has little to no realistic shot to contend for an entire four-day tournament. He's been extended a special exemption into this summer's U.S. Open, because it's been so long since he played at a high level he wouldn't otherwise even qualify. But that adversity has forced him to adapt, and it’s led to an unexpected development: the rise of a more human Tiger Woods.

Back in the old days, Woods was a stone-faced assassin, burying opponents, laying waste to entire fields, claiming trophies by the armload. Woods’ mere presence on the leaderboard could cause opponents to quake, falter, lose focus, lose their grip. And as Bob May (who lost the 2000 PGA Championship to Woods in a playoff), Chris DiMarco (who lost the 2005 Masters in a playoff), or Rocco Mediate (2008 U.S. Open, playoff) could testify, the higher the stakes, the better Woods performed.

Woods can’t summon any of that old magic anymore. In retrospect, it’s likely that the 2019 Masters — that magnificent, unexpected, as-good-once-as-I-ever-was victory — was Woods’ curtain call at the majors. He needed the U.S. Open's special dispensation — an expected and appropriate invite for a three-time champion — because his five-year exemption for winning that Masters has run out.

Time comes for everyone, even Tiger Woods. He’s been playing so long that when he turned pro, the Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bulls were reigning world champions. The years, and the mileage, have softened Woods.

This week, during a promotional tour for his new Sun Day Red clothing line — we’re being generous to Woods here, so we won’t comment on the goofy spelling — Woods did turns with both morning and late-night talk shows, and the results were some of the most revealing and, well, human moments from Woods in years.

On the “Today Show,” Woods and host Carson Daly easily bantered about playing golf as kids in Southern California. Confidants have long said that Woods, like Bill Belichick, is a very different person in private than in front of a microphone, and moments like this seem to be proof of it:

The most real moment of the interview came when Woods discussed why his daughter Sam doesn’t play golf. “When she was growing up, golf took Daddy away from her,” Woods said. “I had to pack and I had to leave, and I had to be gone for weeks. And there’s a negative connotation to it.” Father and daughter have developed their own relationship far outside of golf, even as Woods watches over his son Charlie’s budding golf career.

On the “Tonight Show,” Woods gamely played along with host Jimmy Fallon’s reading of Verne Lundquist tree memes, despite not appearing to know exactly what a meme is:

Woods isn’t yet ready to shuffle off into golf’s sunset. Last month, he shot down a question about becoming a ceremonial, non-playing golfer at the Masters before the question was even finished. All indications are that he’ll be teeing it up at the season’s three other majors, starting later this month at the PGA Championship at Valhalla.

He’s been an active force in the ongoing PGA Tour-Saudi schism, representing the needs and expectations of the players with a voice no one else possesses. He’s expanding the game in another direction with the development of an indoor golf league set to debut next year. And he’s very much in contention to serve as a Ryder Cup captain in the coming years. None of those will add to his major total, but combined, all will shape the direction of golf for years to come.

For a decade, Woods owned the golf world. For another decade, he fought against time, injury and his own frailties, and triumphed again. Now, he’s taking on a new challenge — mentor, leader and steward of the game — and so far, it seems to fit him as well as the other two did.