In early 2010, after Tiger Woods had just given a press conference apologizing to the world for his serial adultery, he made a vow to his then-coach and friend Hank Haney.
“When I play golf again, I’m going to play for myself,” he said. “I’m not going to play for my dad, or my mom, or [agent] Mark Steinberg, or [caddie] Steve Williams, or Nike, or my foundation, or you, or the fans. Only for myself.”
“Up to that moment,” authors Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian write in their rich, thorough, and depressing new biography, Tiger Woods, “Woods had never acknowledged that he played for his parents or anyone else.”
“Golf was his vehicle. His victories were the only things that brought out hugs and tears from his father,” they write. “Golf was the one thing that kept his parents together. But now with his own family in ruins and his personal reputation in tatters, Tiger was finally asking himself some difficult questions about his upbringing and his motivations.”
In the eight years since, Woods hasn’t played much for himself or anyone else. Aside from two sharp seasons in 2012 and 2013, after which the world’s strongest-willed athlete couldn’t will away the nerve problems plaguing his lower back, he barely made it to the course.
Only this year has Woods, at 42, and following spinal fusion surgery, shown signs of a lasting recovery. In five official starts in 2018, he’s gone from hacking the ball from rough to bunker to looking like a decent facsimile of the Tiger of old, nearly hoisting a pair of trophies in March. More importantly, his back hasn’t split in half during any of these events. He neither winces after lashing a 129-mile-per-hour swing—the fastest on tour this year—nor bows gingerly when retrieving his ball from the cup. Woods’ quick progression has made this year’s Masters, which begins Thursday, perhaps the most anticipated major championship since the 2001 Masters, when Woods was vying for, and achieved, the historic feat of winning all four majors in a row.
In 2013, when Woods reclaimed the No. 1 spot in the world rankings, Nike released an ad overlaid with a quote from Tiger: “Winning takes care of everything.” Does he still believe that?
Earl and Kultida Woods raised the best athlete of his generation at the expense of raising a fully developed human being.
They recognized that he was gifted and sold him, from a very early age, as “the Chosen One” to coaches, television producers, and talent scouts. Benedict and Keteyian cite the work of childhood psychologist Alice Miller, who says, “the gifted child can be more attuned to his parents’ expectations and will do whatever it takes to meet them, even if that means ignoring his own feelings and needs.” Tiger’s worth, in the eyes of his father, was tied to his abilities on the golf course.
His father, an infantry officer in the U.S. Army, would put young Tiger through psychological drills to toughen him mentally. When the golf prodigy was hitting balls, as Tiger has recalled fondly, Earl would call him a “little piece of shit,” tell him to “fuck off,” or ask him, “How do you feel being a little nigger?” Tiger and Earl had a code word—enough—the child could use if his father was going too far. Tiger is proud that he never used the word. It was his mother, meanwhile, who urged Tiger to be a “cold-blooded assassin” on the course. “In sport, you have to go for the throat,” Kultida would tell him. “Because if all friendly, they come back and beat your ass. So you kill them. Take their heart.”
One downside of getting hard-wired to measure your worth based on your performance on the golf course is that you might come to believe that, once you’ve met those performance expectations, you’re allowed to treat everyone else like shit. And Tiger Woods treated so, so many people like shit.
It began early, in college, when he—perhaps at the insistence of his parents—dumped his girlfriend of several years by leaving a note and her suitcase at her hotel door. Over the years, assistants, lawyers, caddies, coaches, and friends were excommunicated in a heartbeat, with no explanations, and never spoken to again. In one especially cold incident, Woods trashed the rental home he used during Masters week and never apologized to or acknowledged the owner. His people took care of it.
“Tiger learned early and often that his needs were all that mattered,” Benedict and Keteyian write. “His unapologetically self-centered attitude was critical to his success in golf, but it had an utterly devastating impact on the way people perceived him. Sadly, Woods didn’t seem to care about the latter part.” All along, those whose worth was quite directly tied to Woods’ success on the golf course, like longtime agent Mark Steinberg, enabled him, covered for him, or bullied on his behalf.
The most depressing episodes of the book are those that follow the revelations about his adultery, when it becomes clear he didn’t learn much from hitting rock bottom. One of Woods’ best friends and mentors when he started on the PGA Tour, Mark O’Meara, offered friendly words to Tiger even after the sex scandal but never heard anything back. Years later, when O’Meara ran into Woods at the 2015 Masters, he tried to “let bygones be bygones” and asked him to come to his induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame later that summer. Tiger, despite being in the same town where the ceremony was taking place, didn’t show.
“Sooner or later, you have to be a human being,” O’Meara said later.
Much of the golf media believes now is the proper time to declare Tiger Woods a fully formed, “changed” human being—at the precise moment, coincidentally, that he’s sent ratings soaring by playing well for the first time in five years. As if the two things, by the laws of nature, must somehow be connected. (As the authors note, Tiger played some of the best golf of his career from 2006–2009, when his life was spinning out of control and he was at his most manipulative.)
Woods’ on-course behavior is different now. He actually interacts with fellow golfers, rather than giving them the silent treatment. And before this year, I had never seen him reciprocate any of the fist bumps or high-fives that children in the gallery offer him when he’s walking between holes. He’s also somewhat looser with the media in press conferences. In the past, when someone would ask him a question he wouldn’t like, he would give them the same treatment that Tom Cruise’s character, Frank T.J. Mackey, gave his interviewer in the movie Magnolia: an icy death stare, implying consequences.
And yet one can’t help but question whether these changes too are a product of the same old carefully constructed PR operation—feeding the press corps just enough morsels to launch the narrative that he’s become a better person. It’s a temptation that even Tiger Woods, a book that so rigorously avoids convenient narratives for its first 403 pages, succumbs to in its final paragraph.
“Given the depth of his descent into a dark, cavernous hole that has swallowed so many child stars—actors, musicians, athletes—Tiger’s greatest victory was not in golf but rather in his journey back into the light and, for the first time in many years, into life,” Benedict and Keteyian write. “A changed man, he stood poised to show his children—and a fresh generation of golf pros and fans—just what a living legend looked like.”
Well, this “changed man” and his team haven’t taken kindly to the book’s release. Tiger’s spokespeople, including Steinberg, have followed the tiresome playbook of picking out a couple discrepancies in a 400-page book and using them to discredit the entire work. Steinberg argues that Woods was not allowed to “fact-check” the book, even though the conditions that Woods’ spokesman set for an interview, such as giving him questions in advance and disclosing who else the authors spoke to, were too blatantly anti-journalistic for the authors to accept.
During a press conference at the Masters this week, Woods charmed the golf media once again with his marginally friendlier demeanor and looseness. There was no reason for him to become agitated, after all, when asked about how the course was setting up, how his back felt, or whether he enjoyed playing a practice round with Phil Mickelson. But then a reporter asked him a question that referenced his sex scandal of eight years earlier, albeit in the friendliest way possible. “I’m wondering now,” the reporter asked, “when you look at the political climate and where we are as a country, if that was harsh or unfair, that maybe you were treated too harshly?”
“Yeah, I’m really excited to play the Masters this week,” Woods said.
And who isn’t excited to watch him? Casual fans and golf obsessives alike crave the same thing: the best player ever, Tiger Woods, playing his best. As a member of the latter group, I’ve missed the technical, geeky things. I’m awed by his shotmaking, whether it’s the low-bullet 2-iron “stinger,” the soft fade that he can hold pin-high on a firm green, or the long-iron sand shot that he can lift at impact, just enough, to clear the lip of the bunker. That’s just the physical stuff. He is the smartest golfer ever too. At his best, he would do what he needed to take the lead and then hit approach after approach to a safe, 20-foot birdie putt, maybe making one here or there, daring others to come catch him. His chasers would become more reckless, and more often than not, they’d fall further behind.
This is what I want. It is what all sports fans, except those who happen to be competing against him, want. This is what Tiger Woods wants. But does he know, now, that his ability to give us what we want has nothing to do with his value as a human being? Or will another rise to the top trigger the same wiring that brought him, and those around him, such pain?
Tiger Woods by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian. Simon & Schuster.
Read the rest of the pieces in the Slate Book Review.