I will never forget the sound.
It was the 2001 PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club, and I had media access inside the ropes on a sweltering hot first day. Tiger Woods had just barely missed the fairway to the right on the par-4 second hole, and I managed to position myself next to the ball as he prepared to hit an 8-iron from about 175 yards to the green. The crowd settled down, Woods assessed his shot, and I noticed the incredibly fine micro-fabric of his slacks, wishing that I were wearing something as light and comfortable as those seemed to be in the torrid weather. Then a stillness, a waggle, and all of a sudden this sizzle of air – ssshhhwwwooo – as the ball took flight and rocketed towards the green. I had been covering golf for a long time, and had seen a lot of professional shots, but had never heard a sound like that. It’s still seared into my brain.
That was his magic back then, the year he finished a streak of winning four consecutive majors to become the first professional to hold all four championships at once in a row. He could do anything he needed to win. And he did, repeatedly. It seemed inhuman at the time.
The authors of this compelling, thoroughly researched biography of Woods explain how all of that on-course triumph was, in effect, more than human. Or, to put it differently, less than human, if we mean by being a whole person a capacity for empathy and the ability to acknowledge fear and weakness. There was a bionic quality to his golf that separated Woods from everyone else in golf. It also took its toll on his body, his marriage, and many of his associates. And now, 21 years after he shook the golf world with his thunderous first major at the Masters, there’s a good chance he'll be back. Only this time considerably chastened.
That’s certainly how he has come off recently in press conferences and post-round comments – humbled, more self-effacing, and more honest about his limitations and his still-considerable strengths. He enters the 82nd Masters in revived form, with top-five finishes in each of his last three starts, just months after he was virtually written off as a golfer whose competitive career was all but over.
The professional loyalists in the Woods camp are not going to like this book. They are already claiming that it got enough things wrong that the whole of it needs to be discredited. It’s the kind of argument a defense lawyer might use in seeking to negate damaging testimony. But the art of biography isn’t susceptible to the same line of counterfactual reasoning. The craft on display here is more like portraiture, where a few skittish brush strokes don’t ruin what thousands of other strokes produce: a convincing picture.
Veteran investigative sports journalists Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian have mined the public record for court documents, press transcripts and published articles as the basis of their research. They’ve also interviewed some 250 people. Among those missing from the witness docket is Woods himself. The authors opted to break off negotiations with him and his camp rather than submit to the conditions that were being attached to access.
Loyalty runs deep the Woods camp, and the price for perceived slights and betrayal is banishment. Some former employees were held back by signed non-disclosure agreements. Among them was caddie Steve Williams, who is reported to have earned $12 million during his eleven years when Woods won 72 tournaments, including 13 of his 14 total majors. Curiously, Woods' instructor, Hank Haney, was not bound by an NDA governing the six years (March 2004-April 2010) that saw Woods win 31 PGA Tour events, including six majors. At $50,000 per year, he was a bargain for Woods.
Thankfully, the authors’ spare us more than fleeting snippets of Woods’ on-course exploits. Their interest is more on the human drama of Woods’ career, even though that runs the risk of over-interpretation. At the same time they bypass some of Woods’ more prosaic engagements. Surely his course design work and the accomplishments of the Tiger Woods Foundation and the Tiger Woods Learning Center merit more than two and a half sentences.
The stories of how Earl Woods relentlessly trained his son into golfing greatness are for the most part well-known. His Green Beret background in Vietnam seem to have infiltrated his child-rearing strategies to a point verging on parental abuse. Of course the young Woods internalized the discipline and never seems to have rebelled openly.
The result was a kind of skewed childhood, in which relentlessly training replaced genuine affection and in which external achievement became the measure of self-worth. The level of involvement by Woods mother, Kultida, in that disciplining, gets a lot of attention here. Woods grew up and matured in a protective cocoon that spared him any of the normal responsibilities of maturation – no chores, no work expectations, nothing but golf, golf, golf, and in which everyone around him was supposed to facilitate his career.
Outside of golf he was something of a nerd – insecure, a stutterer in his youth, uncomfortable with schoolmates. From early on there was a sharp disjuncture between his lonely interior life and the pride, achievement and recognition he enjoyed on the golf course. Once he turned professional this gulf widened, and he seems to have filled the emotional gap with deep dives into military-style training, hanging out with fellow sports celebrities and reckless affairs outside his marriage.
Throughout his career Woods has endured – or indulged in? – an extraordinary level of publicity about his life. The scandal of serial infidelity that made news around the world in November 2009 included 21 consecutive cover stories on the tabloid “New York Post” - one more than the 9/11 tragedy evoked. The contradictory nature of life in such a bubble is expressed more subtly in a post on his website from March 2013 when Woods publicly acknowledged for the first time his burgeoning relationship with world-class skier Lindsey Vonn. “Over the last few months we have become very close and are now dating,” writes Woods. “We thank you for respecting our privacy.”
We’re accustomed to the idea of the flawed genius. A whole popular literature has emerged about the way character flaws accompany the highly gifted savant. The virtue of this biography is that instead of falling back on such homilies, we take a deep dive into the details of his personal story, both tragic and heroic. At the same tie, we are privy to the development of Woods’ remarkable capacity for recovery. And now, at the age of 42, he seems to have figured out that that the path to redemption is not just about achievement between the ropes but off the course as well. Listening to him these days, he certainly sounds humbled and self-effacing. That’s a long way from the days when he wouldn’t even begrudge his friends a moment of recognition – skipping, for example, his one-time friend and neighbor Mark O’Meara’s induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2010.
Lately, a new Woods has emerged. He seems to be having fun on the golf course. He’s enjoying the challenge of a comeback and not giving inquiring questioners in the media the famous death stare that was part of his arsenal of control. He is emerging as a more complete person from a succession of injuries, domestic scandal, painkillers and scar tissue from borderline parental abuse.
He’s already proven to be a remarkably resilient, determined athlete whose accomplishments have exceeded all known limitations of a notoriously finicky sport. Nothing about him has been normal. Least of all the sound of his golf shots.
By Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian
New York: Simon & Schuster