Masters talk brightens Tiger Woods' day

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- And to think, he used to be asked about slumps, when Tiger Woods had gone a mere handful of tournaments without winning.

Or wayward drives, when he was capturing more tournaments in a year than most won in a career. Even the occasional poor putting round, when Woods buried more clutch putts than anyone since Jack Nicklaus, would occasionally be the subject of consternation.

Woods would answer those questions through gritted teeth and forced smiles, knowing nobody else in the game endured the same kind of scrutiny.

Now it must be a relief to get questions about why he can't get an important putt to drop.

Woods doesn't like those either, but it beats queries (pretty rare now) about the scandal that derailed his career, and more recently swing coaches, injuries and caddies.

Now it's a book that is about to be released by his former coach, Hank Haney, who taught Woods for six years in which the former No. 1 golfer in the world won six major championships and 31 PGA Tour titles while also piling up a slew of top-10 finishes.

Woods made it clear in January soon after the book's publication date was announced that he was less than thrilled with the idea. He described it as "disappointing'' and felt Haney was "unprofessional.'' He also said he wouldn't read the book, nor would he discuss it.

But his agent, Mark Steinberg, didn't just crack open the door to further questions. He blew it open with a statement blasting Haney, especially for his reference to Woods' fondness for the Navy SEALs.

Haney wrote in his book, which was excerpted by GolfDigest, that he was concerned about the type of training Woods was doing and how it would affect his surgically repaired knee and his overall golf game. And he suggested that Woods seriously considered giving up his top spot in the game for life in the military.

Given Woods' previously stated stance about the book, questions about it during Wednesday's news conference at the Honda Classic were unlikely -- until Steinberg's statement that at the very least suggested Haney was off base.

Everybody gets the idea that Woods feels a trust was breached, that a coach he confided in over several years might reveal proprietary secrets or even off-the-cuff conversations.

But the reaction from his agent this week suggested that perhaps the record needed to be set straight. Asked where his disappointment level is now that some excerpts have been released, Woods would not bite.

"It's still the same. Nothing has changed in that regard at all,'' he said.

A later follow-up question on the same subject: "Well, I've already talked about it, so sorry.''

Then things got a bit testy when a question was asked specifically about the Navy SEALs comments. "I've already commented on everything,'' Woods said. Pressed, Woods said: "I've already commented on the book.''

The exchange ended testily as Woods told the questioner, "You're a beauty,'' and added, "Have a nice day.''

Safe to say, Nicklaus had few media sessions, if any, like that over the years.

There were no injuries that disrupted his major championship career, as Nicklaus never missed one from 1962 through the 1998 U.S. Open. Woods has now missed four majors due to injury. There was no personal crisis for Nicklaus as there was for Woods, who most certainly suffered with his game when he returned to golf at the Masters in 2010.

Nicklaus, undoubtedly, had his share of media scrutiny -- few can remember a time he didn't talk to the assembled masses after a tournament round -- but it is fair to say he'd have it tougher today.

"It's part of who I am and what I've accomplished,'' Woods said in regards to a question about the frequent analysis of all aspects of his game. "I think it would have been probably similar if Jack was in my generation. Didn't quite have the media scrutiny that they do now. And it's just a different deal, and I know that a lot of players don't get the same analysis with their games that I do. But it's been like that since I turned pro.''

Nicklaus, now 72, many times has acknowledged that he did not have it as difficult as Woods when it comes to such analysis.

"I've said the hardest thing he's got to overcome is you guys [the media],'' Nicklaus said. "Being in the limelight, being continually asked questions, totally being put on the spot, under pressure, under a microscope. ... And that's all right, but that's what he's got to live with. I never had to live with that.

"The attention was always different. There was a little bit of focus, but not the focus that's given today to this. And the level of importance that you guys put on it.''

Nicklaus said that ... in 1998, when Woods had six PGA Tour titles, including one major.

Now he has 71 and 14, although his last official victory came some 28 months ago.

Hence, the quest to learn the nuances of his game, and when it will yield that elusive first official victory since 2009.

A majority of Wednesday's media session concerned topics other than the book, including Woods' first visit to the Honda Classic as a pro, the work he's put in on his golf swing, the struggles he had putting recently, his confidence, the Masters, his goals, the pursuit of Nicklaus' major record of 18 titles.

Of course, it is stuff about Haney's book that will garner the short-term headlines, and it is impossible to tell if Woods views any of this as a distraction.

He's had his share of distractions, including the return from injuries that kept him out for four months, the questions about work with new swing coach Sean Foley, the drama surrounding his former caddie, Steve Williams, not once, but twice, and now the Haney book.

Perhaps that is why the mood was decidedly different when a question came about the Masters. Woods managed to tie for fourth there two years ago in his first tournament back after his self-imposed break. Last year, despite the growing pains of swing changes, he tied for fourth again after briefly sharing the lead during the final round.

"I'm excited,'' he said. "I'm excited to have a full schedule leading into it, and on top of that being healthy enough to prepare. Very pleased at some of the progress I've made, and it's getting better each and every week, which is good.

"That's what we want to have happen, and ultimately try and peak four times a year, and that's what I'm trying to do.''

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.