AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The first clue that something was going to be different about the 38th annual Golf Writers Association of America awards ceremony was the no-nonsense security guards checking the guest list at the front door of the Savannah Rapids Pavilion.
Security at a golf writers' dinner?
Oh, yeah. Tiger Woods was in the house.
He'd shown up Wednesday night to accept his 2009 GWAA player of the year award. Before the dinner started, he was seated at his table, looking . . . well, I've never used the word "vulnerable" to describe Tiger Woods, but that's the first word that came to mind.
The room was filled with titans of the game. Jim Remy, president of the PGA of America. Herbert V. Kohler Jr. Pete Dye. Padraig Harrington. Tom Watson. John Solheim. Cindy Davis, president of Nike Golf. Representatives from Augusta National and the PGA Tour.
Woods had attended this dinner in past years, but there were ground rules. He was not to be approached. He was not to be bothered with idle chit-chat or by people who just wanted to shake his hand. He and his entourage left immediately after his award presentation, which was always the first item on the agenda.
He never even touched his salad.
But Woods seems to be making a sincere effort to change. During practice rounds at Augusta National this week, he acknowledged fans' shout-outs with tips of his cap and smiles. He gave golf balls to kids. He signed autographs. It was a startling about-face for an icon who largely ignored the paying customers for years.
Whether it's too little, too late is open for debate.
Now, however, as he sat at his table waiting for the awards dinner to begin, I felt compelled to do something I never would have considered a year ago. After 14 years of covering Woods, after writing dozens of stories and thousands of words about him, it was time to finally meet him.
I had never shaken his hand, never said a word to him -- or him to me -- except in news conferences.
So I got up, walked over to his table, tapped him on the shoulder and introduced myself. Told him I was there at the beginning, at Brown Deer Park in 1996. Woods gave me his undivided attention. He looked me in the eyes, smiled and nodded.
"I just wanted to say good luck," I concluded. "Hope you have a good week."
"Thank you," Woods said. "Thanks a lot."
Do I detect eyeballs rolling? Yeah, I know. Woods messed up, big time. He betrayed his wife, broke his marriage vows, hurt his family, embarrassed his sponsors. Feel free to call him a snake, a weasel or whatever. You're entitled.
But when is enough, enough?
He's apologized publicly and that's good enough for me. The rest is between him and Elin. It's none of our business. As Steve Stricker so eloquently put it in a TV interview the other day, "Who am I to talk about Tiger Woods' personal life? Who are you to talk about it?"
It's often said that golf is a game of misses, of managing your mistakes. There's even a statistic on the PGA Tour called "bounce-back," which tracks how often players bounce back from a bogey with a birdie. Woods is among the leaders every year.
Now he's facing the biggest bounce-back of his life. Early indications are that he's going about it the right way.
When it was time to receive his player of the year award, Woods rose to a standing ovation, walked to the podium, gulped hard a couple times and gave a nice speech. It couldn't have been easy.
He talked about his early memories of playing in the Masters. He talked about his first practice round with Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, when Palmer suggested they play a little skins game and Woods, then a 19-year-old amateur, confessed he didn't have any money.
He talked about his 2009 season, when he won six times thanks to a putter that "for some reason stayed hot all year." He talked about the Presidents Cup, where he went 4-0 with Stricker in the team formats.
"I was never a bigger cheerleader than I was at the Presidents Cup," Woods said. "Stricker made everything."
After his speech, Woods didn't bolt. He stayed for an hour and joined standing ovations for Loren Roberts, the senior player of the year, and for Jiyai Shin, the female player of the year. I don't think Woods could have picked out Shin if she was standing between Annika Sorenstam and Nancy Lopez, but he seemed more than happy to pose for pictures with the golfer and her family.
I think he even ate his salad.
Feel free to pull for Woods, or to hope he's miserable for the rest of his life.
Me? I just want to see him play golf.