Now they know better.
Tom Watson, who won five British Opens himself, watched Woods carve up St. Andrews nearly a decade ago and called him "supernatural."
The past month proved otherwise.
As another PGA Tour season starts without Woods, one question stands out:
Did anyone really know him?
Recollections point to a player who craved control inside his world of golf, only to test his limits outside of it.
During a trip to New Zealand for his caddie's wedding, Woods went bungee jumping off a cable car suspended 440 feet over a river valley. On the same trip, he climbed behind the wheel of a race car and traded paint with the competition on a dirt track.
Woods spent a week at Fort Bragg going through Special Forces training with the Marines and became a master scuba diver, capable of holding his breath for four minutes at a time while exploring the ocean.
It was one of his tales from under the sea that first gave his colleagues pause.
Woods was having lunch at Firestone Country Club in 2003, regaling Darren Clarke and Thomas Bjorn with stories about diving and spearfishing. He could stay on the ocean floor even longer, Woods explained, when he used a regulator. But the scenery was so much better without one.
"You don't want any bubbles because that scares the fish off," he said. "The only problem is that when you don't make any bubbles, the sharks come around, too."
Bjorn stiffened, raised a bushy eyebrow and said, "Just be careful down there. Our future earnings depend on you."
That story seems appropriate now, since Woods hasn't surfaced in public since Nov. 27, when he ran his SUV over a fire hydrant and into a tree at about 2:30 a.m., the opening chapter of an expose of his private life -- a second life, really -- that few imagined could exist.
He was never without flaws, displaying a nasty temper at times, a foul mouth on occasion, and routinely blowing by autograph seekers. Yet those sins were forgiven soon enough, or at the very least forgotten, once Woods began conjuring magic from his clubs. Maybe that's why he rarely felt a need to apologize.
At his last tournament, the Australian Masters, Woods hit a poor drive on the 13th at Kingston Heath, then flipped his driver to the ground and watched it bounce sideways into the gallery. The crowd turned into a mosh pit -- albeit a polite one -- passing the driver toward the front and back into Woods' grip. He took it without explanation or embarrassment, quickly turned away and barely acknowledged the episode after the round.
"That was my mistake," was all Woods said.
Then there was the famous tirade on the 18th at Pebble Beach on Saturday morning at the 2000 U.S. Open. Wrapping up a second round delayed by fog, Woods hooked his tee shot into the ocean and followed it with a few curses picked up by a boom mike on the tee box -- during cartoon hour, no less.
A year later, returning to Pebble Beach for the first time since that historic 15-shot victory, Woods reached the 18th tee during a practice round and tried to recall his choice of words. Finally, a reporter recounted them for him, adding, "At least that's what my kids told me."
The warm smile was replaced by a cold stare.
"I am who I am," Woods said.
Now, tabloid-fueled reports have linked him to almost as many women as he has major championships.
In a matter of weeks, he went from being on top of the world to the butt of jokes on the late-night talk-show circuit.
Will anyone ever look at Woods the same way again?
Much depends on what happens to the marriage, but the jokes likely won't end until he returns to golf, and no one -- perhaps not even Woods -- knows when that will be.
The Masters Tournament seems the most logical choice, because it's both a major and the game's most buttoned-down event.
Woods' last public appearance was Nov. 21 during halftime at the Stanford-Cal football game, announcing Woods' induction into Stanford's athletics hall of fame.
As Woods began speaking, he was interrupted by scattered boos from the Cal section.
He appeared genuinely rattled, for a moment. And that was before all those sordid stories began piling up, one after another -- enough anyway, to make a person wonder how Woods will react when it comes time to make his return.