The call came on a balmy September evening in 2008 as my wife and I were about to take our sons to a birthday dinner for the older one, who had turned twelve. My editor at The Australian, on whose dime I’d traveled the world as a foreign correspondent since the mid-1990s, informed me that a Los Angeles bureau was “a luxury the newspaper can no longer afford.” The economy was falling apart, advertisers were deserting, and News Corporation had ordered immediate and penetrating cuts to newspaper budgets. Foreign bureaus were suddenly indulgences; where there were almost twenty Australian newspaper correspondents in the United States in the halcyon days of the early 1990s, only three were left by 2010. And just like that, I was unemployed. A hefty buyout helped soften the blow, but I was on the wrong side of forty and had spent virtually my entire working life as an ink-stained newspaper reporter.
What was I going to do with my life? Newspapers were busily sacking, not hiring, as the insanity of giving away their product online for free took its inevitable toll. Readers were canceling subscriptions and advertisers were looking elsewhere as longstanding media models were no longer relevant. I felt like a blacksmith as the first mass-produced Oldsmobile came chugging down the road; the market for newspaper journalism, just like horseshoes a century before, wouldn’t be bouncing back.
Of the many assignments I’d carried out for The Australian—spanning every continent except Africa and Antartica and ranging from World Cup soccer finals to civil unrest in Argentina—those I’d grown to most enjoy involved golf, a maddening pursuit to which I myself had become addicted. Specifically, I looked forward to tournaments that featured Tiger Woods. Woods is one of those sporting supernovas who come along once in a generation, if we’re lucky. He transcends his sport, which others had before, but none in quite the same way. Roger Federer, whom I’d watched win Wimbledon from a courtside seat, is just as celestial and more graceful, but he had to grow into the champion he’d become; Woods was twenty years ahead of him in evolution and, by the nature of his sport, could remain relevant for twenty years after Federer had retired. It took a perfect storm—parents, upbringing, the sport he chose, the strength of his mind and determination and, of course, a stratospheric talent—to produce Woods. And what is remarkable about him is that he has generated such widespread global appeal in a sport much of the world’s population can never hope to play. Golf isn’t like soccer or basketball or even tennis, games that require relatively few props or, more to the point, money. Woods’s branding has been a tribute to his excellence and, it has to be said, the omnipotence of the Nike Swoosh. Many of my colleagues were cynical about the way Woods’s handlers had manipulated his image, but for whatever reasons—and I hope naïveté wasn’t one of them—I found it hard to be cynical when it came to Tiger Woods.
Not that I couldn’t see the flaws. The stubborn refusal to give up any control, the temper, the cold way he could have with people, the selfishness, the way he was pampered and indulged by those around him, how he was unable to accept any criticism no matter how well-intentioned, and how his true opinions—expressed only to those he could trust—were constantly being suppressed in favor of carefully inoffensive public views. I knew, for instance, that he feels more Asian than black, despite his skin tone, but he would only hint at it, saying things like it’d be insulting to his mother to be called African American. But, really, he doesn’t want to open that can of worms. Most remarkably, Woods really did believe he could arrive at a tournament, bask in the glory of sinking the winning putt, then disappear to live a private life, interrupted only by filming the advertising campaigns that put perhaps $100 million a year in his pocket.
But I’ve been around many prominent athletes, and their flaws are, by and large, worse. There are a few exceptions, like U.S. Open tennis champion Patrick Rafter, who is a saint—he once told me that he’d “tried to be an arsehole but I just couldn’t do it”—but most are more like Pete Sampras and Barry Bonds in that they didn’t have to try very hard; it came naturally. And in golf, with its tradition of gentlemanliness, the realities of private lives hardly gell with the cultivated public personae. I ran into a well-known player at an airport once, who told me he’d flown in to work with an instructor on his short game, which I had no reason to disbelieve until an attractive young woman who wasn’t his wife embraced him intimately as he’d barely finished saying the words. Greg Norman and Arnold Palmer both had a great appreciation for the beauty of the female form, but they reigned in different times. “The times have changed,” even Woods acknowledged in 2010. “With twenty-four-hour news, you’re looking for any kind of news to get out there.” But it was also true that the media looked the other way in years past. Golf writers back then were friendly with the players they covered, and some of them were even chasing the same women. But Woods, with very few exceptions, was estranged from the media that covers him, and when he needed their restraint at the end of 2009, he instead got their revenge.
My view of Woods—admittedly from observations made at the distance of press conferences or media scrums after rounds but also interspersed with the occasional brief off-the-record conversation—was that even though he is flawed, he is essentially a good guy. And, beyond that, it is the beauty of his playing that always won the day with me. In 2000 I asked him, not for the first time, how much better he thought he could get. “Why do you always ask me that?” he said. I asked because in him I saw something different. I was fascinated by the way he could make life conform to his wishes, as if the universe’s many powerful and complex forces could be made to obey him the way a golf ball obeyed him.
Taking advantage of my newfound freedom to think more deeply about what my future might hold, it occurred to me that this was the perfect opportunity to write a book about Tiger Woods.
If I’d had any doubts how compelling a story Woods is, they were eradicated by five unforgettable days in June 2008 at Torrey Pines in San Diego. That was the last time I’d seen him, hobbling in obvious pain but unable to wipe the smile from his face after leaving the U.S. Open media center on a gorgeous Monday afternoon. Woods had called that playoff win over Rocco Mediate his greatest majors triumph, and he may have undersold what he’d accomplished. Had there ever been a greater one? He’d won the U.S. Open on one leg. He knew each swing would bring a shooting pain up his left leg, but he swung anyway. He is not a man short on courage. Woods had been told by his doctors that he couldn’t play after the Masters, not with a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament and two stress fractures of the left shinbone. He told them that not only would he play, but he would win.
Woods’s longtime caddie, Steve Williams, a straight-shooting New Zealander who’s been carrying golfers’ bags all his life, told me later that the tournament meant everything to Woods. Not so much because it represented a fourteenth major, but because he won on a course to which he was spiritually attached. Torrey Pines, the famous municipal track cut into the bluffs overlooking the Pacifc Ocean, had been the holy grail for Woods as a boy growing up in Orange County. His father, Earl, had promised him that one day, when he was good enough, he’d take his little Tiger to Torrey and they would play together. The boy dreamed of that day, just as years later the man dreamed of returning to win the U.S. Open on Father’s Day 2008, for his “Pops,” who’d passed away two years before. Golfers are often asked for their fantasy foursome, the three players—alive or deceased—they’d share one last round with if they could. Woods always had the same reply: it wouldn’t be a foursome, but a twosome: just him and Pops, the way they used to be.
“We knew after Augusta that he couldn’t go on,” said Williams of Woods’s busted knee. The knee had been a source of pain and discomfort for more than a decade. Woods had a third surgery after the Masters, to remove floating cartilage from the knee, but his surgeons were merely rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The ACL, a sort of rubber band that stabilizes the knee, had snapped, probably a year before. Williams could literally hear a crunching sound—bone grinding against bone—when Woods swung. The knee needed to be rebuilt, but it would mean missing the U.S. Open. “The doctors told him 100 percent that he couldn’t play, but of course I knew he was going to play. In all the years I’ve caddied for Tiger, I’ve never heard him talk about one tournament more than the Open at Torrey Pines. From the day they announced that it was going to be the venue, he talked about it all the time. Every time we played the [Tour stop at Torrey Pines], he was always asking, ‘Hey, Stevie, what are they going to do with this hole? Where do you think they’ll put the pin here?’ I mean, he never stopped. Even away from the tournament, he was always talking about it, which is intriguing to me because when he had the chance to hold all four major championships at one time, so you had from the end of the PGA in August 2000 until Augusta next April, so you’ve got seven months, he never talked about it. It was never mentioned. Okay, when we got closer to Augusta he started talking about what kinds of shots he needed, but otherwise he never talked about it. But jeez, he never shut up about Torrey Pines. His absolute resolve to win that tournament was just incredible. And [during the tournament] he was hitting it fucking awful, but he had it in his mind that he was going to win and nothing was going to stop him. I could caddie for the rest of my life and there will never be another tournament like that. That’ll be the biggest highlight for me, ever.”
Woods rode off into the sunset, forced to spend nine months away from golf to recuperate from his surgery, and without him the sport fell into darkness. Ratings were down, interest was waning and, worse, the world was soon left teetering in a deep recession that threatened golf more than any other sport. Wall Street’s credit default swaps scam had unraveled by late 2008, triggering a real estate crisis in the United States that soon cast a pall across the global economy. Golf had relied on Detroit and Wall Street for its sponsorship dollars, and those sectors were blowing up; the government had to print money to keep them afloat.
Against this backdrop, I wondered if Woods wouldn’t return in 2009 as something like a modern-day Seabiscuit, winning majors against the odds and inspiring a nation down on its luck. And that was to be the tone of my book. I had assumed Woods’s agent, Mark Steinberg, would have loved the idea. But, as it turned out, I thought too much like a storyteller and not enough like an agent. “You will be making a profit off an unauthorized book about Tiger,” he replied. And in case I wasn’t convinced, my colleague John Feinstein recalled Woods’s reaction when a bad television movie was made about his life in the late ’90s. “To be honest, it pisses me off,” the twenty-two-year-old Woods had said at a pre-Masters press conference. Pissed him off because it was bad? No. “It pisses me off that people I don’t even know are making money off my life. I wish there was some way to stop them.”
For better and for worse, much changed during the year I shadowed Woods. To my benefit and that of this book, FoxSports.com hired me to cover every PGA Tour event he played and—unlike Steinberg—Woods was both kind and generous with me, offering insight into the man beneath the Nike hat. But as he did with every one in his life except for a select few accomplices—not including Williams—and a handful of famous friends, he drew the line at revealing his dalliances with Las Vegas cocktail waitresses and porn queens. It was difficult for me to reconcile the fact that no one outside a very small group had the slightest clue of the secret life one of the most instantly recognizable men on the planet had been living. “He used to go back to his hotel room very early, leave the golf course early,” Padraig Harrington said. “I just assumed he was playing video games, you know? I thought his life was quite boring.” Tour caddie Ron “Bambi” Levin, whose finger was always on the pulse of the world of professional golf, admitted, “Dude, I had no idea.” “You ever want to know what’s going on out here, ask Bambi,” said caddie Corby Segal. Yet even when a Tour player tried to tell Levin in September 2009 that Woods had been seen boarding his plane with different women, Levin rationalized that there had to have been an innocent explanation. “I’m thinking it was probably a woman from Nike or someone from Gatorade or something like that because you never heard any stories about that guy,” he said. “You hear things about lots of guys out here, but no one even whispered things like that about him.”
This book was, obviously, reshaped after the events of Thanksgiving and the subsequent shocking revelations of Woods’s reckless sexual exploits. It had to be because he’d gone from a god of the sports pages to a devil of the tabloids. “He’s scum,” wrote New York gossip columnist Cindy Adams. And on what did she base her conclusion? The same information many did: widespread reporting of often unsubstantiated stories by outlets like the National Enquirer and TMZ.com. Woods’s camp, Steinberg in particular, bore much responsibility for the way the gossipistas trampled all over Woods. “Mark was in way over his head,” said a member of Team Tiger who disagreed with Steinberg’s stonewall strategy. With no credible public relations crisis management plan in place, Team Tiger fell back on what had always worked in the past: build higher the walls of the fortress and say nothing. But they were no longer dealing with the domesticated animals of the golf press; they were being mauled every day by the wild animals of the tabloids, who’d stop at nothing. In writing this book, I was determined to not make it a salacious tell-all, but neither could a portrait of Tiger Woods be complete without examining his infidelities, and so they are addressed as I piece together the story behind the story. But, to me, what the adultery most spoke to was a fault Woods himself acknowledged in his televised public apology of February 2010: that he’d felt entitled; that the rules did not apply to him. It turned out the world avoided another depression, and Seabiscuit, Woods wasn’t. But he remains a unique and deeply fascinating character and, perhaps a little like Nick Carraway and Gatsby, I’ve told his story. All of it.
© 2010 Robert Lusetich