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Tiger's Brain

March 31, 2008
March 31, 2008

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March 31, 2008

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Tiger's Brain

New audio technology lets us listen and learn from a veteran pair

DOWN THE STRETCH, with a tournament on the line, here was a first: the dominant golfer of all time talking with his caddie, Steve Williams, about clubs, wind direction, target lines and shot shape, the entire conversation for all of us to hear. Tiger Woods, the most reserved of men—owner of a 155-foot yacht named Privacy—was unwittingly letting us into his head, courtesy of an NBC mike. This was at Bay Hill, at Arnold Palmer's tournament, with the King, the alltimer for accessibility, watching. For those of us on the Tiger beat, and there are millions, the snippets offered further proof that Tiger is a golfing genius.

This is an article from the March 31, 2008 issue

Over the years, but only now and again, we've heard delicious exchanges between Phil Mickelson and his caddie, Jim (Bones) Mackay: Bones preaching prudence to his man or Lefty calling some crazy-assed boomerang pinball shot. Phil has some Palmer in him—both showmen, both people people. Mickelson is comfortable having a network audio man, microphone in hand, a step away from him.

For years, the Woods-Williams discussions were off-limits. But late last year, NBC producer Tommy Roy started to notice a change. During the FedEx Cup playoffs, he had two sound men, Andre Carabajal and Frank Ricciardi, take turns working Tiger's group. Each carried a new model microphone—the Sennheiser 816, replacing the Sennheiser Mke2, for you audiophiles—that permitted them to pick up conversation from about four or five feet away, instead of three. When it comes to Tiger's personal space, every foot counts. Steve Williams wasn't moving them out.

The payoff came at Bay Hill. Carabajal, tall and lanky but unobtrusive, was assigned to the Woods--Sean O'Hair group. On the 16th fairway on Sunday, Woods and Williams were throwing grass and analyzing a make-or-break shot when Roy said into the earpieces of all his announcers, "Let's listen." Johnny Miller stopped talking, and we heard Tiger say to Stevie, "If that flag changes, let me know." It was an insight, among other things, into how much Tiger trusts his caddie. Then on 18 Williams threw grass and told Woods to add 13 yards to a 167-yard shot. Tiger didn't say a thing. We watched him process the information and then play a low, fading five-iron from a place another golfer might have smashed a seven.

At the Masters next month, on the CBS broadcast, when Tiger is standing in the middle of the 13th fairway, you'll have to go back to lipreading. Augusta National doesn't allow roving audio people. There are mikes on the tees, but they are typically too far from the players to pick up their conversations. That's fine. Mystery is part of Augusta's charm.

If Tiger wins at Augusta, he'll pass Arnold's mark for green coats. (They're both at four.) Tiger's already ahead of the King in Tour wins, 64 to 62. Listening to Woods over the years, you can tell how fond he is of Palmer. In public they couldn't be more different. Arnold, to this day, feeds off people, while Tiger looks right through us. But when Tiger lets us in, we're glued.

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PHOTODAVID WALBERG (WOODS)TEAM COVERAGE Woods and Williams talked their way around Doral.PHOTOMATTHIEU SPOHN GETTY IMAGES/PHOTOALTO (PRINCESS)PHOTOABC/PHOTOFEST (LINDSAY WAGNER)PHOTOROBERT BECK (RANGE)PHOTOERICK W. RASCO (ROUGH)PHOTOTIM GRAHAM/GETTY IMAGES (DUCK)PHOTOTOD PHOTOFEST D BIGELOW/AURORA (WIE)