ORLANDO, Fla. (McClatchy) — I think Arnie would love this new Tiger even more.
Then again, Arnie loved the old Tiger.
Arnie loved everybody.
And maybe, just maybe, with the gaping hole of grace and charm left by Arnie’s passing, Tiger is finally starting to emulate his old friend.
In making his return to the Arnold Palmer Invitational for the first time since Palmer passed away 18 months ago, Tiger Woods’ presence at Bay Hill on Tuesday felt strangely and wonderfully like a sentimental homecoming.
Tiger is coming back to his old Orlando stomping grounds more humble, more human, more amicable and more Arnie than ever before.
“To be able to win this tournament and have Arnold there to shake my hand and give me a big hug or having him say, ‘I called it, I knew were going to make that putt,’ ” recalled Tiger, who has won The Arnie an incredible eight times. “The little things like that — sharing jokes with him out on the green and he and I laughing together — those are the moments that, unfortunately, I’ll never have again. But I have those memories.”
In an interview shortly after Arnie’s death, Tiger recalled each time he’d see Arnie, the legendary Palmer would always greet him with a playful punch in the shoulder or the gut.
Or, sometimes, when Tiger lived here, he and Arnie would go out for dinner or drinks. Or Tiger would pick up his the phone to call Arnie for some advice on personal issues, golf issues, business issues.
They used to have a running joke for years in which Tiger would invariably greet Arnie with, “Hey, you know you still owe me $25.” It was in reference to the time when Arnie bought Tiger dinner when Tiger was a college golfer at Stanford. Tiger was temporarily declared ineligible by the NCAA until he repaid Arnie the $25 dinner tab.
Back then, they were the King and the Kid — two of the greatest golfers in the history of game who lived within a mile or two of each other here in Orlando. As time passed and Tiger got married, the connection with Arnie grew when his two kids were born at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies.
As he makes his return to Palmer’s tournament for the first time in five years, Tiger’s mind will no doubt flash back to those moments and memories with Arnie. In this day of texting and tweeting, Arnie would always leave a hand-written note in Tiger’s locker upon his arrival. And he was always there on the 18th green on Sunday to give Tiger a huge hug after yet another victory.
This, of course, was when Tiger was on top of the world. Before that fateful Thanksgiving night car crash in Isleworth. Before the messy divorce. Before the scandalous headlines and downward spiral. Before the multiple back surgeries. Before the mugshot filled with melancholy after he fell asleep at the wheel of his car while under the influence of a cocktail of painkillers and opioids.
Maybe after all these years and all these tears, Tiger is finally finding out what Arnie always knew: When all is said and done, it’s your fans, your friends, your family who are going to be there to prop you up.
“When people ask what’s driven me all these years,” Arnie once said, “I always give the same answer. It’s you.”
Back during Tiger’s heyday, he seemed more like a cyborg than an actual person. After he dismantled Stewart Cink in a match-play event a decade ago, Cink famously said of Woods, “I think maybe we ought to slice him open to see what’s inside. Maybe nuts and bolts.”
Tiger would walk stone-faced through crowds, ignoring all the kids who wanted his autograph. He was often aloof, arrogant and unapproachable.
Now that his flaws and vulnerabilities have been exposed, he has become noticeably more courteous and gracious. After Woods finished his round Friday at the Valspar Championship in Tampa, he made a beeline out to the gallery to sign autographs for his many clamoring fans. A video of one wide-eyed little boy looking up in wonderment and thanking Woods went viral.
Tiger has gained the trust and respect of his peers and was named captain of the President’s Cup team on Tuesday. He spent an hour patiently answering questions from the media and actually made small talk with a couple of writers afterward.
He smiled often and talked about the last time he won at Bay Hill when he was cleaning out his locker afterward and Arnie came up to him sipping his cocktail of choice.
“He said, ‘Grab a seat,’ ” Tiger remembers. “And I was like, ‘Absolutely, yes, sir.’ So we sat down and just started to B.S. and have a great time together.
“I’m going to miss those times, for sure.”
Now that Arnie’s gone could it be Tiger’s inner Arnie is finally starting to emerge?
Welcome home, Tiger.
We missed you.
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