The Chosen Oneby David Owen
Earl Woods, the father of young Eldrick "Tiger" Woods, was widely ridiculed in 1996 when, in an article anointing his son as Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year, he likened Tiger's potential impact to that of a messiah. This unseemly proclamation appeared to embody all the worst elements of the dreaded sports-parent who seeks financial windfall and personal validation by pushing his child to excel on the diamond, the gridiron, the court, or the fairways. But in light of all we know now about Tiger Woods, David Owen asks in The Chosen One, who is to say that it wasn't Tiger's transcendent greatness all along that induced his father to guide him, rather than the father pushing the son?
Not since the dawn of competitive tournament golf has anyone distanced himself from the rest of the world the way Tiger has. He is the best there is at nearly every aspect of the game: the longest driver, the strongest iron player, the most creative around the greens, and so sharp a clutch putter that when he putts well the tournament is over, and when he putts badly he often wins anyway. He is a breakthrough athlete in a sport remarkably resistant to them; in every tournament, Tiger has to beat a hundred-plus competitors, any of whom can take away a title with a four-day hot streak. When Michael Jordan won all his back-to-back championships, each night he only had to beat one team.
Tiger is also a breakthrough athlete as one of the first true multicultural icons. There are African-American, Asian, Native American, and Caucasian elements to his roots; he carries with him parts of so many ethnicities that he not only shatters stereotypes but renders the whole notion of racial classification irrelevant. It is ironic that such an athlete would emerge in golf, America's most tradition-bound and racially insensitive sport.
In The Chosen One, gifted essayist David Owen ponders the social, economic, and athletic implications of this amazing young man. We are only beginning to see all the ways that Tiger Woods might reshape the world. Owen's thoughtful, incisive, elegant, and provocative work examines this phenomenon unlike any the fields of play have ever seen, in a book that will stand alongside John McPhee's A Sense of Where You Are (about Princeton forward Bill Bradley) among the classic works of sports philosophy.
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Chapter One: Oklahoma City
Tiger woods conducted a golf exhibition in Oklahoma City on a hot Sunday afternoon in May 2000. During the hour before he appeared, while a large crowd baked in the bleachers, a member of his entourage held a trivia contest, with T-shirts for prizes. One of the questions: In what year was Tiger Woods born? The first guess, by a very young fan, was 1925. That's off by half a century, but the error is understandable; Woods has accomplished so much as a golfer that it's easy to forget how young he is. In a sport in which good players seldom peak before their thirties, and often remain competitive at the highest levels well into their forties, Woods is off to a mind-boggling start. He is the youngest player (by two years) to have won all four of modern golf's so-called major tournaments -- the Masters, the United States Open, the British Open, and the PGA Championship. He is the only player in history to have won all four in succession. And, as if all that weren't enough, he holds the all-time scoring record in three of them and shares it in the other. After Woods blew out the rest of the field in the 2000 British Open, which he won by eight strokes, Ernie Els, a terrific young South African player and the winner of two U.S. Opens, said with a resigned smile, "We'll have to go to the drawing board again, and maybe make the holes bigger for us and a little smaller for him."
When Woods finally appeared for his Oklahoma exhibition, his entrance was appropriately dramatic. A small convoy of golf carts bore down on the bleachers from the far end of the driving range, while martial-sounding rock music blasted from the public address system. The exhibition was the final event in a two-day program put on by the Tiger Woods Foundation, a charitable organization whose goal is to inspire children -- especially underprivileged children -- and "to make golf look more like America," as Woods himself says. Forty-two cities had applied for visits by Woods and his team in 2000, and Oklahoma City was the first of just four cities to be chosen. Among the reasons for its selection was the existence of this particular facility: a low-fee public golf course, with free lessions for children on weekends, situated in an unprepossessing neighborhood not far from Oklahoma City's unprepossessing downtown.
Before stepping up to the practice tee, Woods answered questions from the audience, whose members differed from golf's principal constituency in that many of them were neither middle-aged nor white. One of the first questions came from a junior-high-school-aged fan, who asked, "How do you maintain your personal life and your golf career at the same time?"
Woods, who was leaning on his pitching wedge, said, "That's a great question. When I'm off the golf course, I like to get away from everything, and I like to keep everything private, because I feel that I have a right to that. I have a right to my own private life, and things I like to do." There was heavy applause from the crowd. "But there are exceptions to that, where the press likes to make up a few stories here and there. That's just the way it goes. Sensationalism tends to sell now."
When he said that, I shifted uneasily on the small, roped-off patch of ground from which I and other members of the press had been asked to view the proceedings. Woods doesn't think highly of reporters. Particular journalists have annoyed him repeatedly over the years, and he had a couple of memorably unpleasant experiences early in his career. The best known incident occurred in 1997, when a writer for GQ quoted Woods telling off-color jokes and making a variety of indiscreet remarks, all of which Woods had assumed to be off the record. There was nothing truly scandalous about anything that Woods was quoted as saying, and in the long run the writer (whose article is inevitably mentioned in paragraphs like this one) has probably suffered more than his subject has. But the experience was a transforming one for Woods: A certain air of tension -- like background radiation -- remains detectable in almost all of his media encounters, even though openly chilly exchanges between him and the press have become less frequent as he has resigned himself to the public relations side of his job. (He now knows many of the press tent regulars by name -- even by nickname -- and he sometimes goes out of his way to be courteous and helpful.) He has always been impatient with people who don't work as hard as he does, and no one in the press tent works as hard as he does. Woods also often seems annoyed that writers who have no contractual business relationship with him are able to profit from his achievements by writing about them. (Sportswriters, for their part, have a tendency to believe that the most telling aspect of any athlete's character is the way in which that athlete treats sportswriters.)
Many very famous people become very famous because, for some compelling and probably unwholesome reason, they crave the approval of the rest of us. That's why they put up with the media, among other things. Even the ones who vigorously defend their privacy do so in a way that attracts an awful lot of publicity, suggesting that their aversion to celebrity is more complicated than they let on. With Woods, though, you get the feeling that his fame mostly gets in his way. We intrude on his golf when he's playing golf, and we intrude on his private life when he's not. He can be a dazzlingly emotional and telegenic performer, and he surely finds it thrilling to walk down fairways lined with thousands of deliriously happy admirers who are shouting his name (or bowing to the ground, as a group of his fans did on the final hole at the 2000 U.S. Open), but he conveys the impression that he would play every bit as hard if the cameras and the microphones and the galleries all went away. His goals are entirely public ones -- he wants to be universally recognized as the best in the world, not to exorcise some merely personal demon -- but, unlike most celebrities, he shows no sign of needing or desiring or depending on help from any of us.
That's an awe-inspiring character trait, but it's also a chilling one. Part of the fun of being a sports fan is harboring the delusion that great athletic achievements are in a sense collaborations between athletes and their rooting sections. We ourselves may not throw the game-winning touchdown pass, but at some level we believe that our boisterous enthusiasm intimidated the free safety and helped generate the adrenaline that powered the quarterback's arm. Woods's accomplishments are so outsized, though, that it's hard to conceive of them as belonging to anyone but himself. We may cheer him on, but he is clearly measuring his achievements by a standard so high that none of us would have dared to dream it up. The script is his, not ours. As Tom Watson said of him after the 2000 British Open, "He is something supernatural."
Between the mid-1970s and just a year or two ago, sportswriters viewed Jack Nicklaus's remarkable career (which was crowned by eighteen victories in the four major tournaments) as the permanent benchmark of greatness in golf; the new consensus is that Woods has already outdone Nicklaus in several categories, and that eventually he will probably break all of Nicklaus's records unless he loses interest in the game or injures himself or decides to run for President instead. That sportswriters have come to this opinion is no surprise to Woods himself, because he reached the same conclusion back in junior high school: before he turned thirteen, he had researched and memorized Nicklaus's main competitive accomplishments because he already intended to exceed them. He views Nicklaus as the best player in the history of the game, and his goal is, with all due respect, to give the master a run for that title. Nicklaus himself was similarly unabashed in his ambitions as his own career was beginning to unfold. Speaking, in 1960, of Robert Tyre "Bobby" Jones, Jr. -- who at that time held the same patriarchal position in the golf world that Nicklaus now commands -- Nicklaus said, "Jones is the greatest golfer who ever lived and probably ever will live. That's my goal: Bobby Jones. It's the only goal." The same year, Nicklaus also said, "Ben Hogan is the greatest hitter of the ball that ever played the game. But I should hit the ball as well as Hogan someday. Maybe better."
Nicklaus has always been one of Woods's most enthusiastic cheerleaders, just as Bobby Jones was one of Nicklaus's. (Jones's best-known compliment, which he made after watching Nicklaus, at the age of twenty-five, win the 1965 Masters, was, "He plays a game with which I am not familiar." Nicklaus, in a nod to Jones, made precisely the same remark about Woods after playing with Woods during the first round of the 2000 PGA Championship, which Woods would go on to win. Nicklaus, who shot 77 that day, added, "Of course, I played a game today I wasn't familiar with either.") Woods may be the first player to arise during Nicklaus's lifetime who is good enough to comprehend the true dimensions of Nicklaus's achievements -- just as Nicklaus was probably the first player who could truly look eye-to-eye at Jones. "I don't know if anybody can play the way he plays," Nicklaus said in 1999. "He has the ability to do things that nobody else can do." Three years before, after playing a practice round with Woods before the 1996 Masters, when Woods was a twenty-year-old college student and still an amateur, Nicklaus said that Woods could ultimately win the Masters more times than he and Arnold Palmer combined -- more than ten times, in other words. "This kid is the most fundamentally sound golfer I've ever seen at almost any age," Nicklaus continued. "I don't know if he's ready to win yet or not. But he will be your favorite for the next twenty years. If he isn't, there's something wrong." Those remarks seemed like hyperbole at the time; now, they don't. (There was nothing spectacular about Woods's showing in Augusta that week; he shot 75-75 and missed the cut, a performance explained in part, perhaps, by the fact that he was in the thick of spring term at Stanford, and had to bring homework with him to Augusta National. But a year later Woods broke Nicklaus's Masters scoring record, and when he won his second Masters, in 2001, he was still younger than Palmer was when Palmer played in his first, in 1955.)
Unlike tennis, golf is not a game of prodigies. Good golf swings are cruelly evanescent, and success on tour depends as much on experience and mental fortitude as on physical skill; the pressures of high-level competition often incapacitate novices, especially during the closing rounds of important tournaments. Even very good players tend to undergo demoralizing apprenticeships. Ben Hogan didn't become the Ben Hogan of myth until he was in his thirties; Tom Watson suffered an early reputation as a choker and didn't win his first tournament until he was nearly twenty-five (by which age Woods had won almost two dozen tour events); David Duval, who is four years older than Woods and briefly supplanted him at the top of the world rankings in 1999, played in eighty-six PGA Tour events as a professional before winning his first. Woods's apprenticeship, in contrast, lasted all of a month: After turning pro in the fall of 1996, he finished third in the fourth tournament he entered, won the next, finished third in the next, and won again the week after that. At the age of twenty-one, he became the youngest player in history (by eight years) to be ranked No. 1 in the world. He has far more career victories than any other active member of the tour, and if his career is of even average duration no player now living has a chance of catching up. In February 2000, he became the tour's leading money winner of all time -- a distinction he will surely retain for as long as he plays the game. Sportswriters sometimes define golf's elite as those players who succeed in winning at least one tournament annually for several years in a row. Since turning pro, Woods has averaged one victory every few weeks, despite the fact that he enters fewer events than almost any other of the leading players on tour. In his entire career as a professional he has missed just two cuts (both during weeks when he was ill or exhausted); sportswriters and television commentators now wring their hands and search for hidden causes -- swing glitch? overwork? equipment change? romantic setback? -- on those rare occasions when he finishes out of a tournament's top ten. He was uncharacteristically winless during the first six tournaments he entered in 2001, prompting some observers to wonder whether he wasn't suffering a slump; he responded by winning five of the next six, including the Masters, the Players Championship, and the Memorial.
Standing on the practice tee in Oklahoma, Woods took another question from the grandstands. A young fan asked if he ever felt nervous in golf tournaments. "Oh, my goodness," Woods said, "do I ever get nervous. I get nervous every single time I tee it up in a tournament. That is the honest-to-God truth. And the reason why I say that is because I care. I care about how I play, how I do. Now, if I didn't care, obviously I wouldn't be nervous. But since I'm nervous, that also means I care and I'm trying to do my very best."
He had addressed this same issue earlier in the day, saying, "When I really get nervous is when I have to tee that ball up and hit that first tee shot. Just like anybody, you get a little nervous starting out with your first shot of the day. You may have hit the ball either terrible or great on the driving range, but that's irrelevant. The most important thing is that first shot, and you've got to focus on that shot. What I've found to be the best way to handle pressure is something I took from Harvey Penick, the person who taught Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw how to play the game. He says you have to make sure that at that moment in time, when you're over that ball, that your shot is the most important thing in your life. That is the kind of focus and dedication you must have to hit a golf shot the way you want to."
No nervousness was evident in Woods's swing that day. He began his exhibition by going through his normal pre-tournament warm-up routine. He said that he likes to arrive at a golf course an hour and a half early and spend ten or fifteen minutes putting. Then he moves to the driving range and hits some shots with his sand wedge, "to get the butterflies out." He said that Nicklaus's warm-up routine had always been to hit pitching wedge, then eight-iron, then four-iron, then three-wood, and then driver, and that he had adopted the same routine except that he substituted sand wedge for pitching wedge. "And then I like to go back to my eight-iron," he said, explaining that he did that in order to reestablish the proper rhythm for his swing. Then, he said, as his tee time approached he envisioned the shot he would have to hit from the first tee and worked on that until he got it right, so that he would feel less nervous when the time came to hit the real thing.
"Notice how easy these swings are," he said, as he hit more balls with his sand wedge. "Balance is the key to these shots. You never hit a wedge shot full." His shots clicked like the arm of a metronome. "These are your scoring irons. This is where you want to have control and precision."
There was some fidgeting in the grandstands at this point. Some of the spectators had been sitting in the hot sun for a couple of hours or more, and perfectly modulated, feather-soft wedge shots were not what they had been waiting to watch. Woods must have sensed their impatience, because he said, "Now I'm going to try to land this ball on the cart path at the hundred-yard sign." The cart path crossed the range diagonally. He took one shot to get a feel for the distance, then nailed the path with his second. The ball bounced high off the concrete and disappeared down the range. The crowd cheered.
A fierce wind was blowing from right to left across the range, perpendicular to the line of Woods's shots. When he hit a draw -- a shot that begins to the right of the target line and bends back to the left -- the wind caught the ball and made it curve even more. "That's a lot of hook, isn't it?" he asked. "That just means I have to start the ball a little more at the gallery." There were gasps. He aimed at the far corner of the grandstand to his right and hit a soaring shot that vanished momentarily against the sky before returning to earth in the middle of the range. There were cheers. Then he took a four-iron and hit a shot that had just enough fade -- left-to-right curve -- to hold it dead straight against the wind.
Controlling a ball in the wind is one of the enduring challenges of golf. The dimples pressed into the surface of a golf ball make it a briskly aerodynamic object -- a spherical wing. (If golf balls were smooth, golfers wouldn't be able to bend their shots, and they would have trouble hitting their drives more than a few yards above the ground -- as I proved to myself at the driving range one day with an old ball whose skin had been worn nearly featureless. Golf balls without dimples wouldn't fly, just as stitch-less baseballs wouldn't curve.) Good golfers learn how to take advantage of a golf ball's aerial instability by applying English in ways that cause the ball to bend, turn, soar, skid, and perform other useful tricks. Amateur players tend to be most impressed by the ability of the pros to make their balls back up after landing -- an effect caused by backspin imparted when a fast-moving clubface makes crisp contact with a ball. But spin has other effects as well, and moving air accentuates or interferes with all of them (as it also does with the flight paths of airplanes); the best golfers learn how to capitalize. Dexterous players who are able to gauge the strength and direction of the wind can often turn it to their advantage. Woods has enough control over his swing to make a shot curve precisely enough in one direction to cancel out a gale blowing in the other.
Woods may have the most extensive arsenal of useful shots in golf, and he is always working on new tricks, often with a particular tournament in mind. Before the 2001 Masters, he spent weeks perfecting a particular soaring three-wood draw, which he had designed specifically for his tee shot on the thirteenth hole at Augusta National. He executed that shot brilliantly during the tournament, and played the thirteenth hole in a cumulative score of three strokes under par over the course of the tournament's four rounds. In Oklahoma, he demonstrated a shot that he had been working on for more than a year, primarily for use in the British Open, which is always held on a seaside course where high winds are common. "It's a new shot for me," he explained, "but it's not a new shot in golf." The shot, he said, had been invented by the great Ben Hogan, whom Woods (like Nicklaus before him) described as "probably the best ball striker who ever lived." Hogan, in turn, had taught it to Claude Harmon, who won the Masters in 1948, and Harmon taught it to his son Butch, who has been Woods's teacher since Woods was seventeen. "So it's one of those things that's not a new shot in the history of golf," he continued, "but it's just a new shot for most players nowadays, because, obviously, they are not privy to that knowledge of the past."
The shot he demonstrated was a low, arrow-straight three-wood shot -- which he produced by hitting down on the ball with his club rather than sweeping it off the ground, the conventional technique with fairway woods. In fact, Woods hit down on the ball so crisply that he actually took a substantial divot, something good players almost never do on purpose with their woods. Hitting down on the ball sharply limited its backspin and side spin, causing it to fly straight and low. Reducing the ball's spin reduced its lift, enabling it to cut through the wind without flaring upward and stalling, or veering off to the side. (All golfers quickly learn that low balls travel farther into the wind, but most golfers erroneously assume that the extra distance is caused by "keeping the ball out of the wind" -- an impossibility, since the wind blows at ground level, too. Low balls travel farther into the wind because they are spinning less -- that's what keeps them low -- and balls that spin less are less vulnerable to moving air.)
"Now, how do you hit the low shot -- and why would you hit it?" he asked. "Well, why I would hit it is because, one, I'm going to be nervous out there. The longer the ball is in the air, the more time it has to go off line -- simple fact. Now, when I'm nervous out there, my ball flight comes down, because I'm trying to keep the ball down on the ground and run it, so it can't get into too much trouble. Another reason is that we play in a lot of wind. People here in Oklahoma understand that. Keeping the ball down is going to help your game, help you shoot lower scores." He teed up a ball. "So I learned this shot last year at the British Open, at Carnoustie, but I didn't have the guts to put it in play. Butch shows it to me that day on the range, in our practice rounds, and I'm hitting it great." Thwack. "Get on the golf course -- no chance, not putting it in play yet. I go home and practice it, get it in my repertoire of shots, and now I can hit it pretty good." Thwack. "What I do is I put the ball back in my stance, toward my right heel. Hands ahead. Then, this is the tricky part: go ahead and hit down on it. That's the key -- to have the trust to go ahead and take a divot -- to punch this three-wood down, take a divot, and drive right through this ball, nice and low." Thwack.
Now Woods pulled out his driver, the club for which he is best known. Woods doesn't lead the tour in driving distance -- John Daly has held that title for years -- and, in fact, he is often out of the top ten. But few doubt that he could be No. 1 if he wanted to be. (At a press conference before the 1997 Masters, Arnold Palmer said that he had asked another young touring pro how far he thought Woods could hit the ball if he swung all out, and that the young touring pro had said, "Just as far as he wants to.") The tour's driving statistics are based on just two measured drives per tournament round, and Woods doesn't always hit his driver on those holes. If he hit every tee shot as hard as he is capable of hitting it, there is no one in the world who could keep up with him.
"My average drive on tour, I think, is somewhere around 292," he said. "Now, there are times, obviously, when I can hit it a little farther than that, and get a little more out of it. But what I've found is that the harder I hit the ball, the less accuracy I have. The only times I really hit it hard are when I have big fairways, or par-fives that I can possibly reach in two shots, or on holes where it might be an advantage in lengthening one out there and getting over a bunker or getting close enough to go for it."
The PGA Tour's number crunchers place Woods near the middle of the tour ranking in driving accuracy, but that statistic -- which is based on the percentage of fairways hit -- doesn't reflect what Woods actually does with his tee shots. If, let's say, a pin placement on a particular green is best approached from the farthest left quarter of the fairway, Woods will typically play for that spot (aiming, for all we can tell, at a particular blade of grass). There are many times, in other words, where the middle of the fairway is not his target. If he misses his tee shot by five yards on the left he may end up hitting his approach from the second cut or from the rough, but he has still positioned himself very close to what he believed to be the ideal landing zone. If you have watched him play over an extended period of time -- and by this point anyone who consumes a significant amount of televised golf has watched Woods play over an extended period of time -- you surely have been struck again and again by his remarkable ability to set himself up for the shot to come. Despite what the tour's statistics sometimes seem to say, no one in golf today exerts as much meaningful control over a driver as Woods does.
He now hit a couple of standard, off-the-shelf drives. They were impressive shots, of course, but his swing was so balanced and seemingly effortless that the crowd remained subdued -- he didn't look like he was trying. A young fan shouted something that I couldn't quite hear.
"Over the fence, huh?" Woods said. "What fence are you talking about?" We all turned our eyes to the hazy horizon, perhaps three hundred yards away.
"Oh, my goodness," Woods said.
But he obliged. He aimed for the outside world and launched another drive. I couldn't see far enough to follow the ball all the way back to earth, but I assume it cleared the fence. Even so, Woods hadn't really swung very hard.
"Now, all these drives I've hit so far are about seventy-five or eighty percent of my power," he said. "The problem with stepping on one, and cranking up the juice a little bit, is that it's hard to keep the ball accurate. I can crank it up, if I need to, to ninety percent, but that's as far as I'll go, because once I go beyond that threshold I start losing my accuracy pretty quickly. So, now I'll crank one up to ninety percent, and you will notice immediately the difference in the speed of the ball as it comes off this club."
He teed up another ball, widened his stance a little bit, and really ripped one. The ball took off like a missile. There were Oohs and Ahs from the crowd. Woods contentedly followed the flight of his shot. "There you go," he said. He teed up another ball. "Now, I'll crank one a little bit beyond ninety, and you'll notice the speed, but, I promise you, I don't really know where it's going besides forward." He teed up another ball, and unleashed another explosion. The crowd cheered.
"Now, there are times when you're going to have to hit a safety shot," Woods continued. "Every single pro who plays on tour has a shot that they will go to on a seventeenth or eighteenth hole -- whenever they need to get the ball in the fairway absolutely, at all costs. Now, the safety shot for most players is a cut." A cut is a fade -- a shot that, for a right-handed player, starts left and turns right. "Jack Nicklaus, the greatest player of all time, used to hit the ball off the heel on purpose, because he knew that shot would be a low fade every time. I'm not quite that good. He hit the ball off the heel because he knew that if he did the shot was going to be a fade every time, a low fade. The ball wouldn't go very far, that wasn't important. What was important was to get the ball into the fairway. So what I've found is that I like to stand a little bit closer to my golf ball -- move in about an inch and a half -- and then I try to swing so that the emblem on the back of my glove goes right at the target as long as I possibly can, with more arm speed. The key for me is that I feel my arms are swinging down faster."
The attention of his audience was drifting again; Woods's low fade may be the only shot he hits that even vaguely resembles the shots that most of his fans usually hit: the dreaded screaming banana. (Of course, the average player's screaming banana is nowhere near as straight as Woods's, and it doesn't travel three hundred yards.) Woods turned to a different topic.
"Now I'll hit one like my dad used to, when he used to try and keep up with me, once he started getting older," he said. He teed up another ball, took a loopy swing, and brought the head of the club down almost directly on top of the ball, which squirted off the front edge of the practice tee. The crowd laughed and applauded -- and his father, Earl, who was sitting in a golf cart in front of the grandstand, looked on with no discernible change in his expression.
"I love giving him grief," Woods said. "It's so much fun. Especially when he doesn't have the mike."
Woods then demonstrated what he said was one of his favorite drills, taking four or five different clubs and using each one to hit balls to the same target. "It's a great way to learn speed control of your body and of your arms, and to learn control of the golf ball, because when the wind blows like this you're not going to be hitting the ball very hard. You're going to be trying to keep the ball down." He hit a full nine-iron to the 150-yard marker, then an eight-iron, then a seven, then a six, then a five. With each club, he made the ball land soft enough to "stop on the green" -- although there was no actual green for the balls to stop on.
"This is a wonderful way for everyone here who plays golf to get a better understanding of your game," he said. "It's all predicated on understanding how hard you need to hit the ball for it to go that distance. It's a wonderful way to learn about your game and keep your practices interesting, because, quite frankly, I can't stand out here for four or five hours and hit the same shot every time. It's going to get boring."
Well, this was getting a little boring, too, and the crowd was now truly restless. What almost all the spectators in the stands really wanted to see was a trick they had watched Woods perform in a hugely popular Nike television commercial: bouncing a golf ball on the face of his wedge while passing the club from hand to hand and between his legs and behind his back, and then hitting the ball right out of the air as easily as if it were teed up on the ground. That commercial arose by accident when Woods, feeling bored between takes on a shoot for another Nike commercial, began amusing himself with this stunt, one he had taught himself as a kid. The director, entranced, asked him if he could do that again, and he did so on cue and nearly flawlessly.
Woods now explained how he had taught himself the trick. "I first learned how to play golf on a par-three golf course," he said. "And on a par-three golf course there are a lot of people out there, and it's always slow. There can be two or three groups on every tee, so there's always about a ten- or fifteen-minute wait on every shot. I was absolutely bored. To kill the time, some of the guys and I started playing with hacky sacks, kicking them around, and then we started bouncing balls on our golf clubs. Next thing you know, we started doing tricks and playing catch and running on the tee boxes and just having a whole bunch of fun playing catch. From there, I've learned how to do it left-handed, and I've learned a few more tricks, too. Just out of pure boredom."
Now the time had come for him to demonstrate. "I heard a rumor that this thing I did on TV was all computerized," he said as he began bouncing the ball on the face of his wedge. "It's kind of a vicious rumor." He passed the club between his legs. "Now, I don't know where that rumor started, whether it was the public or the press, but they obviously hadn't seen me do this before." He bounced the ball up high. "And catch it like this." He stopped the ball, frozen, on the face of his club, let it sit there a moment, then began bouncing it again. "Or I can start out doing it left-handed, if you want me to." Bounce, bounce, bounce. "Or go back to the right." He bounced the ball up over his shoulder from behind, and caught it on the clubface in front. "Now, I didn't put this one in the commercial, because it's the hardest one -- it's when you hit the ball off the butt end of the club." He bounced the ball high again, twirled the club so that its shaft was perpendicular to the ground, bounced the ball straight up off the top of the rubber grip, twirled the club back to its former position, and resumed bouncing the ball on the face. "Let's see -- it took me four takes to do the Nike spot. Let's see if I can do this out here." He bounced the ball high, took his regular grip on the club, planted his feet, and, just before the ball had fallen all the way back to earth, smacked it more than a third of the way down the range.
Earlier in the day, Woods had worked one-on-one with twenty-five young local golfers, most of whom were members of ethnic minorities. One of the kids had a striped orange-and-black tiger headcover on his driver; another had rolled up the left sleeve of his golf shirt, as Woods sometimes does to keep the sleeve from binding and interfering with the motion of his left arm during his swing. A large number of the golfers used an interlocking grip, in which (on a right-handed golfer) the pinkie of the right hand hooks under the index finger of the left. The interlocking grip is fairly rare in golf -- the so-called overlapping, or Vardon, grip is far more popular -- but Woods interlocks, and so does Jack Nicklaus. (So, for that matter, does John Daly.) And so did many of the kids.
The clinic's participants, who had been divided into two groups, hit practice balls and looked nervous as Woods worked his way down the line, spending five minutes or so with each child. The quality of the kids' golf swings often deteriorated as he drew near: their nervousness caused them to hurry their tempo, or shorten their backswings, or forget about following through. One panicked-looking youngster, as Woods approached, suddenly seemed unable to make more than glancing contact with a ball. But most of the kids relaxed after Woods had actually stepped up, shaken hands, introduced himself, and said hello. He was friendly and attentive, and he watched the children swing, teed up balls for them, adjusted the positions of their hands or feet, asked questions, made them laugh. "Good swing," he'd say. "Nice shot!" By the time he moved on, almost all of them were smiling. (And -- frustrating for the kids -- some of them hit their best shots of the day as soon as he had turned his back.) They were also enjoying a small taste of life the way Woods lives it: on the inside of the ropes, with spectators and reporters corralled on the outside.
One of the young golfers was Treas Nelson, a high school junior from Lawton, Oklahoma, who had just won the Class 5A Girls' State Championship by shooting a pair of 73s -- a thirty-stroke improvement over her performance in the same tournament the year before. Nelson is the first black golfer in Oklahoma to win a statewide high school title. After she finished her session with Woods, I violated the ban on over-the-rope media fraternization -- a ban that was enforced not only by various roving public relations personnel but also by Woods's cadre of Schwarzeneggeresque bodyguards, who were dressed identically in red golf shirts, black golf pants, and two-way-radio headsets, one of whom accompanied Woods even when he went to the bathroom -- and asked her what Woods had told her.
"He said I have the pizza man syndrome," she said. "I get my right hand too much like this." She lifted her right arm with her elbow bent, as though she were holding a pizza on a tray at shoulder height. "He said he has the same problem." She was beaming. Like almost all the kids who received individual instruction, she was wearing Nike shorts and a Nike shirt -- goodies provided by Woods's biggest commercial sponsor. (The bodyguards had been dressed by Nike, too.) She had supplemented this uniform with a pair of Nike earrings. "I don't know if he noticed that," she said. But she hoped he had.
Later, I caught up again with Nelson and with another young golfer, Laura Benedix, in an area where talking to them was not forbidden. Benedix, who is white, had won Oklahoma's Class 4A championship. She and Nelson hadn't known each other before, but now they were friends. Since I had seen them last, they had both managed to get the bills of their visors autographed by Woods. I asked Benedix how her lesson had gone.
"It was a blast," she said. "I was taking a long backswing, so he shortened that. And then I like to slide when I come through the ball, instead of turn, so he helped me turn. And I like to pull it, so he was trying to get me to release it more."
I asked them if they had been nervous.
"It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be," Benedix said. "I was trying to stay as calm as I could so that when it was my turn I wouldn't be topping the ball and he would tell me stupid stuff that I already knew."
"He's really nice and relaxed, too," Nelson said. "That's why I wasn't nervous."
A little later, Woods said, "I can relate to these kids. I'm not too far from their age. If these kids saw Jack Nicklaus, I don't think they would have an appreciation for what he's done in the game or what he has to offer, just because of the fact that it's hard for a person of Nicklaus's age to relate to a kid. But I'm not too far removed from my teens. I can say 'Dude,' and that's cool -- that's fine."
It's only because of Woods that most of these kids even know who Jack Nicklaus is. Woods spends almost as much time studying golf's history as he does making it, and he goes out of his way to put the game in a long-term context for the youngsters who idolize him. "When I was young, I looked up to a lot of different players for a lot of different reasons," he said. "Obviously, Jack Nicklaus, who was the greatest of all time. Ben Hogan was the greatest driver there ever was. Seve Ballesteros probably had the best short game. Ben Crenshaw putted the best. So what I did was analyze every different player's game and tried to pick the best out of each and every player and try to look up to that. I wasn't going to look up to just one person."
When the one-on-one instruction sessions were over, Woods took sanctuary in an open tent not far from the driving range. The tent's perimeter had been cordoned off -- it was being kept under close surveillance by Woods's bodyguards, whose sunglasses slowly swept back and forth across the crowd, like searchlights on a prison wall -- but interested onlookers could lean against the ropes and gape in wonder as Woods drank a Sprite, ate a strawberry, blew his nose, and chatted animatedly with his father. Woods is still impossibly youthful, but he looks much less like a little kid than he did just a couple of years ago; his hairline is ebbing steadily, his face has lost its adolescent angularity, and when he bends or turns you can see that his billowy golf clothes conceal what has gradually become an extraordinary physique. (Woods's musculature, which he has acquired by means of a rigorous but undisclosed weight-lifting program, is most obvious when he is wearing a coat and tie: a sport jacket hangs oddly from his shoulders, as if it weren't quite able to find a comfortable way to drape itself across the muscles in his back. He must be a tailor's nightmare.) He doesn't look overpowering -- he's just an inch over six feet tall, and he weighs a good bit less than two hundred pounds -- but there doesn't seem to be an ounce of flesh on his body that hasn't been groomed for golf. Nicklaus at the equivalent point in his career was as pudgy as Lumpy Rutherford. (Among Nicklaus's nicknames in his late teens and early twenties were Blob-O and Whaleman; Arnold Palmer and Barbara Nicklaus both called him Fat Boy.)
After Woods composed himself again, he and his father and various representatives of the Tiger Woods Foundation conducted a question-and-answer session in front of the tent. His father spoke first. "I happen to believe that the most important institution in the world is the family and the by-products of that family are the children....The most important thing that any adult will ever have in their entire life is their child....They have been systematically brainwashed so that they can't dream anymore, and if you don't dream you don't have any hope.... Golf is a game in which you learn about life." These are familiar themes from Earl, who views his son as proof that thoughtful parenting is worth the trouble.
Few people in the audience were eager to hear from Earl when Tiger was so close at hand. As soon as the father had said his piece, someone asked the son a question. The question had to do with golf's generally lowly public reputation, especially among nonplayers.
"Well, that's changing," he said. "Look how many athletes are picking up the game. You've got one of the biggest sports celebrities of all time, Michael Jordan, playing golf, and he absolutely loves it and wants to be a professional. You have a lot of different athletes from all different sports starting to play it now. Just imagine what it would be like if they had taken up the game at an early age, and golf was their main sport."
This is an intriguing subject for idle sports fan speculation. There has never been a great golfer who couldn't in some sense be considered a great athlete, especially in the category of eye-hand coordination; but conventional wisdom has usually held that golfers don't need the sort of raw physical aptitude that other athletes do, and that golf is as much a mental game as it is a physical one. (It would be hard to picture Craig Stadler, for example, setting a world record in the long jump or even chasing down a line drive deep in center field. But Stadler -- whose nickname, Walrus, refers both to his drooping mustache and his lumbering girth -- did win the Masters, in 1982.) In recent years, though, professional golfers have begun to pay much more attention to physical conditioning. They don't smoke nearly as many cigarettes as Hogan and Palmer used to, for example, and they don't drink anything like as much liquor as touring pros once routinely did, and they spend a lot more time not only on the driving range but also in the gym. Much of the recent gain in driving distance on tour is surely a reflection of the pros' newfound respect for robust health. The example of Woods's disciplined training is partly responsible for that, but his biggest impact may not be seen for years. By making golf seem not only extraordinarily exciting (and phenomenally remunerative) but also athletically respectable, Woods has increased the likelihood that the current crop of athletically gifted grade school athletes might take up golf as their principal sport rather than using the game merely to unwind between soccer or basketball seasons. Woods's allure is so strong that the tour twenty years from now could conceivably be filled with players who look and live and think like real athletes.
This is not to say that mere athleticism is necessarily an overwhelming advantage in golf. Michael Jordan and Ivan Lendl, two of the most monumentally gifted athletes of their generation, have had far less success as golfers than either expected when he took up the game, despite having made considerable expenditures of effort, time, and money in the hope of becoming good players. A nongolfer might think that a couple of athletic superstars like those two would be able to conquer a game like golf in a snap, but both men, while becoming adept country-club-level players, have nonetheless failed by far to live up to their own dreams. Lendl is officially a pro -- he has competed in the Czech Open and a handful of ultra-low-level professional events -- but there is next to no chance that you will ever see his name in the field at any of golf's Grand Slam events. (Lendl belongs to a nine-hole golf club that plays an annual two-day match with a nine-hole golf club that I belong to, and he is regularly beaten by a good golf buddy of mine, our club champion, who installs septic tanks for a living.) But athletic ability is not irrelevant in golf, and Woods has changed the way athletes think of the game. As he himself put it, a physically talented boy or girl is now far more likely to look beyond "your typical core sports in America" when dreaming of future athletic glory. That's brand new, and it's all because of Woods.
A young fan asked Woods if he had a favorite golf course.
"I really don't, to be honest with you," he said. "But I have a style that I love: I love links golf courses."
"Links," contrary to what many people believe, is not a synonym for "golf course"; it is a term for a particular type of terrain, found mainly in the British Isles -- sandy seaside dune land, which was deeply submerged under ice and ocean during the Ice Age, and rose above sea level when the huge ice cap retreated. The world's first golf courses were built on links land, which was available for recreation because it was so wind-wracked and desolate that it was of no conceivable commercial interest to anyone but sheep farmers, whose flocks were the world's first greens mowers. All modern golf courses can trace their genetic heritage to British links courses -- and especially to the great granddaddy of them all, the Old Course at St. Andrews, in Scotland. The sheltered valleys between grassy dunes became the first fairways; the first bunkers were just shallow sandy pits worn into the sides of dunes by sheep huddling to protect themselves from the wind. To love links courses is to love the ancient history of the game -- a mark of good taste in a golfer. Woods's love for links courses is also emblematic of his appetite for new challenges.
"We don't get to play links courses here in the States," he continued. "There are only a few -- only a handful. But over in Scotland and Ireland and England, those are the true links golf courses of the world, where wind like this" -- the gusts in Oklahoma City that day were measured at forty miles an hour -- "is considered a calm day, and it's usually raining and it's cold, and you're playing out in the elements, and everything changes from day to day. This year, the British Open is going to St. Andrews. I played in the Dunhill Cup there. The first hole is something like a three-hundred-and-seventy-yard par-four. One day, I hit three-iron from the tee, then sixty-degree sand wedge to the green, and the very next day, I hit a driver and a four-iron -- the same hole -- just because the wind and elements had changed."
Earl spoke up and told a story about Tiger, at the age of seventeen, playing in the British Open with Greg Norman.
"Nineteen," Tiger corrected. "You're having a senior moment again."
The crowd laughed, and Earl got about three quarters of the way to a smile. The onstage byplay between Earl and Tiger doesn't quite amount to a standup routine, but they pick on each other in a good-humored way. They seem to do it partly for comedic effect and partly out of their own profoundly competitive natures. The night before, at the fund-raising dinner, Earl had told a slightly rambling story about a match that Tiger had played when he was very young. Tiger had been paired with an older boy who was taller and heavier than he was, and who drove the green on the first hole of their match. When that match was over, Tiger confessed to his father than he had been afraid while he was playing, because his opponent had seemed so big and strong. "Did you beat him?" Earl asked. Tiger acknowledged that he had, and at that moment Tiger realized that he didn't need to be afraid of bigger or stronger kids -- a useful lesson, Earl said, for a ten-year-old world beater. "Eleven!" Tiger shouted from his table, correcting his father's estimate of his age at the time. (When Tiger took the podium himself, a little later, he said that Earl provided proof of his belief in the importance of dreaming big dreams: "He thinks he's better than I am.")
Here in front of the tent, Tiger fielded a question from a very young fan, who wanted to know how old he had been when he started playing.
"I believe it was eleven months," Tiger said, and he looked to Earl for confirmation.
"You've been correcting me so far," Earl said. "Correct yourself."
Copyright © 2001 by David Owen
Meet the Author
David Owen plays in a weekly foursome, takes mulligans off the first tee, practices intermittently at best, wore a copper wristband because Steve Ballesteros said so, and struggles for consistency even though his swing is consistent just mediocre. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker, a contributing editor to Golf Digest, and a frequent contributor to The Atlantic Monthly. His other books include The First National Bank of Dad, The Chosen One, The Making of the Masters, and My Usual Game. He lives in Washington, Connecticut.
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