The skill and inscrutability of Tiger Woods.
It’s hard to know whether to give the co-authors of “Tiger Woods” an approving review or a consoling hug. Their task was intimidating: to illuminate a subject who spent decades plying his considerable intelligence into relentless opacity and manufactured dullness. One might picture these two superlative reporters, Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian, crawling across vast badlands of blandness, writhing for morsels of insight. Someone should have handed them a canteen.
They even apparently — this is almost unspeakable — read through years and years of Woods’s news conference transcripts, volumes of the least-descriptive, least-informative English yet uttered. You hope they never did this while operating heavy machinery.
Their account of this sports giant thus is a storytelling feat born of unfathomable toil. Benedict and Keteyian culled crumbs from numerous journalists and from a heap of Woods books by Earl Woods (Tiger’s father), Hank Haney (former swing coach), Steve Williams (former caddy), Woods himself and others, and they performed their own excellent reporting for what feels like a book of record.
Staring down high hurdles, the authors deliver lush detail, from a depiction of the walls of Woods’s kindergarten to his “dimly lit” room on the eve of the magical 2000 U.S. Open. They check Mexican divorce records early in the story to surmise how Earl Woods’s first wife came to accuse him of bigamy; they tell of the fantastic chicken dish Tiger Woods’s mother created when the teenage golfer’s first girlfriend visited, and the beaming face of his mother at his very private wedding in 2004 in Barbados. The authors describe how Los Angeles sportscaster Jim Hill reacted at his first sight of a 2-year-old with a gorgeous swing, how Woods drove hastily to a first dinner with Arnold Palmer and how he connected as a collegian with the great football coach Bill Walsh. We are reintroduced to the song he played in the car after winning the Masters at 21 in 1997: Quad City DJ’s “C’mon N’ Ride It (the Train).”
Benedict and Keteyian provide a capable explanation of an enduring puzzle: Why did Woods get married, anyway? They offer an enthralling description of when Woods switched golf ball brands: his sudden call from Texas to Oregon that prompted a Nike honcho to contact Japan to get balls to a first tee in Germany. It is an achievement to captivate readers with a story about something as stultifying as golf equipment.
The book also excels at debunking, including the long-accepted notion that Woods long ago set himself the goal of exceeding Jack Nicklaus’s 18 major titles, which wasn’t exactly true, and a story Woods and his father used to tell about a racist attack Woods suffered at a tree during kindergarten, which the authors found was probably concocted.
Many details will be illuminating, except to the most knowledgeable of Woods students: his kindergarten shyness, his stutter except when talking to the family retriever, his semi-geeky teenage self-image, his coldly inept breakup with his first girlfriend during college, his staggering hand-eye coordination that allowed him immediate mastery of spearfishing, the puerile humor he carried well into his womanizing days, his disgusting mistreatment of a Masters rental house, his taking of the call in the wee hours about his father’s death while with one of his abundant other women (first revealed in Mark Seal’s two-part Vanity Fair story in 2010).
The authors don’t shy from big questions, either. For instance, what constitutes successful parenting? “While Earl’s methods for instilling extreme mental toughness in his child prodigy are open to questioning,” Benedict and Keteyian write, “Tiger did end up with an indefatigable will.” How much should the social mores Woods wouldn’t or couldn’t master, such as saying hello or thank you, or sending condolences, matter vs. the contributions so many of us admired? “As a human being,” the authors observe, “he might not have been lovable — or even likable — but as a performer, he possessed unsurpassed talents that he honed through a lifetime of practice. On Sunday afternoons he shared his gifts with millions, enabling them to fight reality and vicariously experience thrills that were more exhilarating than anything felt in a church pew.”
Then there’s the Rhode Island story. That’s the one in which Woods won his second straight U.S. Amateur in 1995 in Newport, and Earl Woods, libations roaming his bloodstream, said of one of golf ’s Rushmore figures: “How do you like this, Bobby Jones? A black man is the best golfer who ever lived,” and then, “Bobby Jones can kiss my son’s black ass.” A reporter heard the remarks at the time but found them too potentially damaging to publicize, given that the 19-year-old amateur hadn’t uttered them himself. Yet some of us might observe the racial history of the Masters that Jones co-founded and think: Say it, Earl.
The book more than recovers from a first-chapter clunk — “The best place to start is the beginning” — with beautiful passages such as this, from Woods’s first PGA Tour drive at age 16 in Los Angeles: “He held his form until the ball dropped from the sky 280 yards away. A collective roar echoed from the crowd.” The book manages the hard art of infusing suspense into tales with known outcomes, such as the merry, harrowing trip of Woods’s 15-foot putt on the 72nd hole of the 2008 U.S. Open. The authors chart Woods’s implausible mastery of a precise sport alongside dire physical pain, particularly in 2007-08, when he won at unimaginable rates (including two major tournaments) with a withered knee ligament and two tibial stress fractures.
Despite its occasional blips, Benedict and Keteyian have turned out a book of surpassing quality against untold odds. One might wish the authors applause but, above all, a nap.
Tiger Woods plays in the first round of the Wells Fargo Championship at the Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte this month.