Friday, July 27, 2018

Carefully Crafted: Benedict & Keteyian's Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods. (Photo: Getty)

I love the game of golf. When I play, which isn’t often enough, it’s my time to focus and to stay present with every shot. Golf is the only sport where the player hits a stationary object. Every other popular sport features a moving target such as a baseball or hockey puck. But golf is more than “a good walk spoiled,” as Mark Twain characterized it, at least for me. For Tiger Woods, the single most popular player in the world, it’s not just a game, it’s a mission  and winning, according to authors Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian in their new biography of Woods published by Simon & Schuster, is what makes Woods tick. It’s not the money or the fame; it’s the “hardware” or trophies that really matter to him, and his love of the game.

Benedict and Keteyian’s book is more than a flaky biography of an athlete who rises to fame and fortune based solely on talent and good timing. As they explain in the introduction the co-authors wanted to write “a 360-degree look at Tiger’s entire life to date . . . a complete human portrait of a true, albeit reluctant, American idol.” It’s a laudable goal, one that succeeds, for the most part, in its 400-plus pages. I was impressed by their extensive research and detailed notes, which tell a story in themselves.

It took the two writers three years to complete, gathering as much factual information about Woods as possible in order to tell his story as accurately as possible. Consequently the book is loaded with primary sources including eyewitness accounts, public records, personal letters and court documents. The authors also watched hundreds of hours of tournament broadcasts, press conferences and news items about Tiger. Their dedication to putting as many facts into their biography is commendable, but unfortunately Tiger Woods is more of a study of an exceptional athlete than a portrait of an American idol. Halfway through the book I felt I was reading a clinical examination of the man in chronological order. Stylistically, it was like reading someone’s surveillance notes. Nevertheless, Benedict and Keteyian have done a remarkable job revealing much about Woods and his reckless behaviour.

Biographers Keteyian and Benedict. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The story of Tiger Woods is not unfamiliar to golfers like me. From the time he could walk he was nurtured to play golf by an obsessive father, Earl, and a controlling mother, Kultida, both of whom come off badly in the book. But their relentless pressure to make sure he was physically and psychologically prepared to win gave the world one its stellar players. In his prime his very appearance on a course made the best golfers cower in fear. For Tiger the cost of that success, physically and psychologically, is really what this book is about.

That said, I did feel empathy rather than consternation for Woods, one of the most engaging golfers I’ve ever seen hit a little white ball. Although his best years are behind him, Woods remains a stoic and iconic athlete with presence. His remarkable victory at the 1997 Masters was a sight to see: a 21-year-old black kid beating the best in the world to win his first major championship, on his first attempt. He not only won it in style with the lowest score; he blew the competition away with a four-round score of 270, twelve shots better than the nearest competitor. Woods established a new record and was the youngest player to win the tournament. Earl, an ex-G.I., wanted his son to be the great black hope of mankind  greater than Gandhi, Mandela and Buddha combined. To the elder Woods, winning the Masters made that possible. Earl gets the brunt of criticism from the authors; as a man who took Tiger on the road like a carnival barker, asking him to display his agility with a golf club in front of anyone who wanted to see him.

Woods is described as a gifted child who would have been happy studying physics, except for his parents’ insistence that he play golf instead. Their expectations were over the top until the time Tiger was 20, when he turned pro. His life seemed overwhelming at times, but he found solace, albeit falsely, by playing golf and playing it well. Over time the psychological weight of his parents’ obsessiondeeply affected his mental state. He suffered from anxiety and a lack of self-control, finally admitting that he was a sex addict in 2009. The authors called this dark chapter in Woods’s life “Crash,” which is what happened when his wife discovered he was having an affair with another woman. In fact, as the book reveals, Woods had at least 14 women around the world at the time and nobody knew about it, including his caddie Steve Williams and his swing coach Hank Haney. It was a secret life that eventually caught up to Woods after a highly publicized altercation with his wife outside their Florida home. He crashed his SUV in a neighbour’s tree trying to escape from his wife who, ironically, was yielding a golf club. It was a really bad time for the world’s number one- ranked player. Woods later checked himself into a clinic and received therapeutic counseling.

In recent years Woods has been finding his way back to the golf course while enduring chronic back pain. This past year, after some risky yet successful back surgeries, he seems to have his swing back. At age 42 he certainly had some game at last weekend’s British Open and plans to play more often in 2018. But the question on everyone’s lips is: will he ever win again? Yes, but it will be difficult. There are too many younger, more agile players on the PGA Tour. Unlike his past successes, Woods doesn’t intimidate the new generation of players, such as Jordan Speith, because he’s not of their era. Sadly, as a golfer he’s yesterday’s man who once “possessed unsurpassed talents,” as Benedict and Keteyian point out. But they add that his “personal struggles . . . humanized him in ways that had never been possible during his single-mined ascent to the top of the golf world.” This past Sunday at Carnoustie was cause for celebration as Woods took the lead, almost winning his fourth British Open, but he couldn’t close it out like he used to. When he came off the course he hugged his kids, from whom he’s been estranged, but who now accompany him when he plays. It probably meant more to him than winning. If that’s so, then he’s already a champion.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. He's the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That's Left To Know About The Father of Invention (Backbeat Books).

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