Tiger Woods: "There's only one man more competitive than me"

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Tiger Woods talks to Golf Digest's Henni Zuel about getting punched by Muhammad Ali, his love of darts, and trash-talking Phil Mickelson. 

Henni Zuel (Golf Digest): You're a huge sports fan and everyone is dearly missing live sports right now. It just has this wonderful way of connecting everyone. Bringing us together, so good for you mentally and physically. So all about sports today, ranging from your stories to growing up and what sports you love. So we're going to start off with growing up. What was your second favourite school outside of golf? To watch or to play.

Tiger Woods: To play was baseball. Love my baseball. Obviously, you know my dad was a catcher, so naturally I was a pitcher. Just playing catch with my Dad in the backyard or playing ball with the other kids, I grew up basically in baseball and then played a little more golf. I liked playing baseball just like I like running track and running cross-country. But I didn’t love them. I loved playing golf. So the track and cross-country kept me obviously more fit for golf, especially in the summertime. But baseball gave me the footwork and the leg strength to play golf. And that's one of the reasons why my legs moved as much as they did is from playing so much baseball.

Henni Zuel (Golf Digest): In terms of your sporting heroes growing up outside of golf, who were the guys that you looked up to?

Tiger Woods: I would have to say it would be [Muhammad] Ali, then Arthur Ashe and then MJ.

Henni Zuel (Golf Digest): I love the story of you meeting Ali….

Tiger Woods: Oh man. Ok, well, I've met him on several occasions. But this is when I went for a practice at Shinnecock. The year that Goose [Retief Goosen] won out there. I checked into a hotel, I believe it is where the Hilton’s live, and so I'm checking in and I just have my backpack and literally my golf clubs. I'm just going up there for a day trip or stay the night and get up early the next morning and go play golf. I'm in line at the front desk and I get hit in the ribs, my right ribs. And it hurt. And I whip around and I’m thinking I'm just going to hit somebody. I was so pissed. I look around and it’s Muhammad Ali. He said ‘hey kid, how are you? [I said] ‘why did you have to give me a love tap that hard? He was old but it still hurt. And I just can't imagine being hit in a ring for 15 rounds like they used to fight back in the day. It’s just crazy.

Henni Zuel (Golf Digest): And when you turn around and see Ali, you’re not going to tap him back….

Tiger Woods: No, no, no, no. I'll going to lose that one…

Henni Zuel (Golf Digest): Growing up, what were your favourite teams. Have they remained the same over the years?

Tiger Woods: Yes, there are only three teams. Lakers, Dodgers and Raiders. There are no other teams that exist, anywhere… Now ‘do I like other players who play for other teams?’ Yes. And I will root for them. But there are no other teams.

Henni Zuel (Golf Digest): I can attest to that. I’ve seen you being a diehard fan.

Tiger Woods: Yes.

Henni Zuel (Golf Digest): Let's talk basketball. In ‘97, you played golf with Jordan before one of his finals games, which is crazy. Tell us about that and how that day was?

Tiger Woods: Yeah, I had won the Masters that year and he invited me up to come watch one of the playoff games. I think they were playing the Knicks in the Eastern Conference finals. I went up there and hung out with him for a few days. It was pretty neat to be a part of it and to see what nobody else did. I did the training that they did, they had the breakfast club, you get up early in the morning and it was me, Pip [Scottie Pippen], Rod [Denis Rodman], [Ron] Harper would all show up and do their lifts and then go to practice. Get a little bit of rest and then go to the game. And then repeat the process. There were they were locked in. It was cool to see in and just see the mindset, you know, I can relate to that. I can relate to the intensity. I can relate to being locked in like that and being in that type of focus and that type of world. The only difference is that in my sport I only need to worry about myself. They have to communicate with each other. [Think about] the other team's tendencies and different things than I'd ever have to worry about. But the mentality going into it was pretty neat to see.

Henni Zuel (Golf Digest): Now in terms of basketball, we know you like to shoot around a bit. What type of basketball player are you?

Tiger Woods: I'm not playing anymore. No, not with five knee operations and four back [operations] It just doesn't… I don't do that anymore. No more pickup games. But I will play horse. I'll play horses with anyone. I'll shoot. And I don't mind shooting. I love shooting. I’m shooting here at the house all the time. [But] the days of me playing a pick-up game are long gone.

Henni Zuel (Golf Digest):  I've seen you in action on the court. You tried to give me a lesson. I'm absolutely terrible. I think your dog stole the basketball from me I’m that bad…

Tiger Woods:  Yes, she does like that. She likes hogging the ball. And my other [dog] Bugs, he likes tackling the ball. So you get used to getting wet basketballs back from them.

Henni Zuel (Golf Digest): It’s fun to be competitive and to play a bit of horse and to fool around with that. Speaking of competitive, you and Phil [Mickelson] are going to be playing a match alongside Peyton Manning, who’s going to be your partner, and Tom Brady. Tell us a little bit more about that.

Tiger Woods: It's going to be Peyton and I against Tom and Phil and we're going to have a great time doing it. All the money and proceeds are going to go to COVID and all the relief efforts. We haven't decided exactly what charities we’re going to be donating all the money to [yet]. We’re going to be divvying it out, obviously, a lot of different causes that have had the impact for this this virus and that type of relief. And the people we're trying to reach I think is a great way to raise funds for something like this. Yes, we're gonna have a great time. But at the end of the day, you have to understand why we're coming together. We're coming together to help other people. This is different than what Phil and I did two years ago, playing our match in Vegas. That was just he and I just having a great time, trying to showcase golf in a different way. We're coming together to showcase golf in a different way, but it's about charity. That’s the reason why we’re all doing this, the reason we all talked about it, and why we all got on board together. 

Henni Zuel (Golf Digest): And another point of it, as well, is that it's a great distraction for people at home. As I said at the start, everyone is really missing sport. It's going to be brilliant in terms of lifting people's spirits to be able to see the four of you out there playing. How much have you and Peyton been strategizing the game?

Tiger Woods: Not yet. There has been a little bit of trash talking already, a little bit banter back and forth. Whether it's: ‘I might need extra caddies to carry my Super Bowls’, because he has more Super Bowls than my partner, or: ‘I’ve got more majors than Phil so I’m gonna have to have a truck come up to the first tee and U-Haul it out.’ We’ve had banter back and forth and it's been fantastic. But it’s typical us, it’s what we do. We like to give out the needle, and to give out the needle you gotta be able to take it. It's been fun, and it'll be like that when we play, when we compete. There will be banter back and forth, but it won't be as rough as what we have in our text exchange.

Henni Zuel (Golf Digest): I can imagine. For the better of everyone I have no doubt. I'm going to circle back to baseball. You and your Dad had a great relationship with baseball and you used to go out and throw the ball to each other in the back yard and have wonderful memories. And another memory that you have with him and baseball is when you're in high school. He took you to a Dodgers World Series game. How special was that?

Tiger Woods: Yeah, I get chills just thinking about that. It was Game 1 of the World Series and we got outfield tickets out in left field. We were down one run up. I think it was 4-3 at the time and Kirk Gibson comes out with two outs, runner on base and hits one off of Eck [Dennis Eckersley], hits it out. The place is going nuts and screaming and jumping, I'm screaming. I can't hear myself. And I remember seeing him round second and he's giving it the little fist bump coming around second. And it was just exciting for all of us who are diehard Dodger fans. And especially off of Eck. I mean, Eck was, next to Mariano [Rivera] was probably the greatest relief pitcher of all time. One off of him, it was special. 

Henni Zuel (Golf Digest): Having those experiences with live sport when you were younger, how much did that fuel the competitiveness inside you and make you feel like ‘I want that’?

Tiger Woods: Yeah, I've actually talked about this with Keegan Bradley because he's much younger than I am and he grew up in the Boston area. For me, growing up in L.A., we had five NBA championships with the Showtime Lakers. We had a World Series with the Dodgers. And we had two Super Bowls with the Raiders. So I saw nothing but winning and championships. Now, fast forward to Keegan’s time in Boston, all they knew were the Patriots winning, the Bruins winning, the Celtics winning championships. It’s just a different, you know, and the Red Sox breaking the curse and winning a couple of World Series. I was lucky enough to grow up in an era in L.A. that had a lot of great athletes and great champions. So I got a chance to witness a lot of that and to grow up a part of that. It was just a winning culture and winning town. And for me, I got lucky in that regard because you got to watch nothing but excellence for most of my childhood.

Henni Zuel (Golf Digest): One of the most iconic sporting venues in L.A. has to be the Oakland Coliseum. You got to visit the black hole. Firstly, tell people what the black hole is and what that was like.

Tiger Woods: As people know the black hole is pretty cool, people get into it and they dress up. They have the helmets, the face paint, the spikes, the pirates, the Darth Vader outfits - you name it. It's incredible. I tried to go with face paint, so I have silver and black, and then I had my Raider hoodie on. And it was a little bit chilly that day and no-one recognized me and I'm just a fan. We were screaming and yelling out every time. I believe we were playing the Broncos and we end up winning that game. So, it was a memorable experience. I haven't been in the black hole since, but I was up on the barrier one time, and I went over there, and they [the fans] were yelling at me to come over there and take the picture of them. [I thought] ‘I have to, I have to.’ I kept screaming while they’re running. I'm a diehard Raider fan, always will be. I know I’m playing against Brady [in The Match: Champions for Charity] - I’m not real happy about that because of the Tuck Rule. I still am bitter about that because that was our Super Bowl. They got lucky enough to get through Austin and went on to win a Super Bowl. That was our Super Bowl.

Henni Zuel (Golf Digest): So, we've talked about team sports. Are there any other surprising sports, or sports that people don’t know about, that you follow?

Tiger Woods: When I was probably in my early twenties, I was watching a lot of F1 when Michael Schumacher was dominant. Michael was so far and away - well the whole Ferrari team basically was far and away better than everybody else – I just wanted to watch. Obviously [watching] was a problem here in the United States, it was tough to get. But any time I could, I’d certainly watch, and he’d just dominate that sport for over a decade. And if I'm in Europe, I just talked to Sam this morning about it, we’re watching darts. They come out in the robes and everyone's into it. Throwing their darts and just having a great time. I guess it's really fun to watch!

Whether it’s playing in Oz [Australia] or in the Middle East or even in the UK, cricket is pretty prevalent, so I watch a lot of cricket. I’d watch a lot of rugby, for a number of years. Got to a chance to meet Hideki [Matsuyama] in Japan, we got a chance to play with some of the rugby guys. I just can't believe that those guys don't play without pads. I just think it’s incredible as big and as strong as they are. No helmets, no pads on, nothing, just hit. His [Brian Habana] back is still sore trying to catch his partner!

Henni Zuel (Golf Digest):: For those of you who may not have seen it, Brian Habana jumped on Hideki when he holed a putt. It was a huge putt, it was actually pretty impressive, but Hideki was not expecting it at all.

Tiger Woods: A 230 pound guy comes flying into him!

Henni Zuel (Golf Digest):: I think everyone around there was completely shocked. No one more so than Hideki but it was a brilliant moment and those guys are really competitive.

Tiger Woods: That's one of the things [why] I actually love being around other sportsmen. How competitive they are no matter what they do, because that's what's allowed them to get to that level. You have to have that type of drive and that type of willingness to put yourself out there and to understand you're going to have a lot of successes and have a lot of failures. But keep putting yourself out there. As I've gotten older, I keep talking to the guys: ‘How did you keep your careers going?’ I'd say: ‘that injury, this injury, that injury, rehab’. Those guys dealt with a lot of pain and I think that we all as athletes can relate to [that].

Henni Zuel (Golf Digest): It is nice to be able to relate to those guys and understand how the different sports work. But in terms of some main threads that are very similar across those sports, what would you say those are?

Tiger Woods: I'll say commitment; commitment to the process of trying to get better. It doesn't happen overnight. The people see the game, what actually happens during a game. But all the stuff that happens pre-game or some practice that leads up into it, or it's the off-season training, the gym work, the amount of weight you got to push. It's so much. And how long it takes you to wind down from that. The treatments, the ice baths, the being hooked up to a stim machine. You know, there’s so many different things depending on what your injury is, what's going on. But you don't get out of there for another couple hours. The game's over, everyone's leaving. And then the athletes are repairing themselves and trying to get themselves ready for the next one. And that's what a lot of people don't quite understand, how banged up they are and how much they have to deal with to get out there. And that's what we all understand as athletes. You go out there for a few hours, but it's all the other time that it takes to get to that point.

Henni Zuel (Golf Digest):: That commitment is far ranging and longer than a lot of people say. 

Tiger Woods: Correct.

Henni Zuel (Golf Digest): In terms of professional athletes outside of golf who have you seen that you think could seriously make a guy as a Tour player?

Tiger Woods: As a PGA tour player? I would say no one. But as a Senior Tour player, I thought John Smoltz could do it, I still think he can. He's got a lot of commitment, obviously, with MLB Network and he does some of some stuff with Fox; he's got a lot of time commitment there. But when he does get a chance to play, he does play well, and he's played in senior events. And obviously, this pandemic has happened and occurred where he was able to play early in the year - he thought he was going to get on a little bit of a run where he could play a little bit. But I think that he still can make the Champion’s Tour and can do well. I’ve played with him a number of times and he certainly has the ability and the skill to do it. It's just a matter of him getting enough time to build up to get to that point, to be ready. 

The only other player I think that could really do it, and he just turned 40, was probably [Tony] Romo – he’s [still] ten years away. He has the speed, he has the game. He plays in a few tournaments here and there, but it's not really that. It's about the consistency. You have to delve into it consistently. And then on your off time, you’ve got to be playing a lot and he has a lot of commitment to football on CBS, it takes a lot of time away. That's what's hard - you try and get that crossover effect. But they understand that, being former athletes in their sport, how much time it takes to be committed to a sport and to be a professional at your sport. And if you're not committed to the time that it takes, then it's gonna be very difficult to achieve the success that you want. But if they're able to do it, if they're able to have a little bit of time, I see no reason why they can't.

Henni Zuel (Golf Digest): Do you guys ever have arguments amongst fellow athletes of who has the toughest vote?

Tiger Woods: Well I have the easiest sport on the body. Obviously, football is brutal. Rugby’s off the charts. You name other sports like boxing, MMA – the amount of training, being hit all the time. OK. I don't have to deal with that. For a professional golfer, your career is literally measured in decades. How many decades did you play for? Arnold [Palmer] played in 50 straight Masters. That's ridiculous. But that's our sport. Guys have one in four different decades; I think I’ve won in three different decades now. That's how our sport is a little bit different, we don't have a short window, we have a number of years.

I think Terrell Davis made the Hall of Fame with Broncos, in what nine [plus] years in the league? If you're nine years on tour in our sport, you probably weren't very good. 

As I said, we're measured in decades. It's just a different a different sport. You can get away with not being in shape. You can get away with being an aging athlete. You find different ways to get it done. The ball doesn't know how old you are. There are ways of getting around it. Technology has certainly helped the older golfers hit the ball just as far as they used to in their prime - I'm an example of that. I don't swing a 120-gram shaft anymore. I've got down to, what, 70 now? Playing something that much lighter, or I've gone to a longer graphite shaft, heads have gotten bigger, golf balls have gotten faster. I still hit the ball as far as I used to, but apples for apples.

Henni Zuel (Golf Digest): Final question, and I think I can guess the answer to this, but have you ever met anyone across the great athletes that you've known who was more competitive than you?

Tiger Woods: I would say one 1a, 1b - whether it's myself or Michael [Jordan]. He's more, I think, I outwardly competitive than I am, but I have my tendencies to be a little competitive at times too.

Tiger Woods speaking to Golf Digest.