ARDMORE, Pa. - He is hard to embrace, even when victimized. He is hard to like and yet impossible to ignore, a flawed sports deity the way Mike Tyson and Eric Lindros once were and perhaps Kobe Bryant is now.

Tiger Woods likes to use the word "grind" to describe the four rounds of golf he must play to win a championship, and any news conference of his I have ever attended most certainly feels the same. After so much trial and so much error, his people skills have developed to the point at which he can smile appropriately and dart out a quip or two. But these sessions will always be more about laying up than about bold strokes, more about what was not said than what was said.

And so it was Tuesday. Tiger said he had not received a personal apology from Sergio Garcia for the fried chicken comment that followed the Spaniard's petulant protest of Woods behavior at The Players Championships a month ago. He also made it clear he wasn't looking for one.

"It's already done," said Tiger. "We've already gone through it all. It's time for the U.S. Open and we tee it up in two days."

Woods will tee it up Thursday as the PGA's top-ranked golfer, winner of four events this year including the TPC event at Sawgrass - where Garcia alleged Woods created a gallery disturbance that affected the Spaniard's shot, led to a testy exchange of words and, later, Garcia's racially insensitive response to a question, made in jest, about dining with Woods at this week's Open.

"We will have him 'round every night," he said. "We will serve fried chicken."

During his own news conference three hours later, Garcia issued repeated apologies to Tiger, offered one to all African-Americans, and disclosed that he had sought a meeting with Woods to personally apologize and, when that did not occur, left a note at his locker here. Asked about the contents of the letter, Garcia said: "I don't think that's for me to say. I think that if he wants to show you - I mean, the note is for him, so if he wants to show you, then he can. I don't have any problems with that. But I am not going to be the one showing you."

Here's a bold prediction. Tiger won't be the one, either. His past littered with infidelity scandals and boorish behavior, he's been on the other side of these apologies, had the cocoon he and his late father built so methodically collapse on top of him.

There was a point even, when his balky knee and shoulder ganged up on him, that we thought he might go the way Tyson and Lindros did, with too much unused talent still left on the table. Concussions and injuries got Lindros. Vice got Tyson. It took a cocktail of both to mortalize Woods, and if he was more like them and less like Kobe, maybe we wouldn't be talking again about him chasing history and re-establishing his legacy.

But he is, and his resurgence is a thing to root for, even for a flawed character who makes the adulation feel awkward at times and whose peers acknowledge his greatness almost reluctantly. Tuesday, as he slopped through the muddy grass for a practice round, Woods was chased like a messiah by much of the already sizable crowd attending. They screamed at him incessantly as he walked the course, and every now and then, there was a wave or nod.

But the acknowledgements, like the man himself, were distant and uninviting. Moments before Woods walked past me on the fifth fairway, Padraig Harrington not only waved consistently back at the shouting crowd but stared at them for long stretches with the bemused interest of a sociologist. This was, after all, a practice round, played on mucky grounds that made the Irishman's native soil seem like dry country in comparison. Men and women, some in pricey golf outfits, looked as if they had gone a round mud wrestling John Candy.

Harrington seemed to think this was funny. Woods seemed not to notice at all. As he said when asked about the "pressure or responsibility" in these events, "I think I just enter events to win, and that's it, whether there's a lot of people following or there's nobody out there ... It's still the same. It's still about winning the event. That's why I played as a junior, all the way through to now. Just to try to kick everyone's butt. That to me is the rush. That's the fun. That's the thrill."

Not the crowd. Not the camaraderie. Recently, Jack Nicklaus, whose record of 18 majors is Woods' remaining Holy Grail, disclosed that he had never had a conversation of more than a minute or two with Woods, never delved beyond the superficial. For Woods, now 37, the job has no time for making buddies or nurturing fans.

It's probably why he has so many great golfing conquests.

And so few great golfing friends.



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