Thursday 23 May 2019

Paul Kimmage on Tiger Woods: 'He may be back on top, but there's little reason to believe that he has changed'

Tiger Woods celebrates his historic Masters victory at Augusta last Sunday. Photo: Curtis Compton
Tiger Woods celebrates his historic Masters victory at Augusta last Sunday. Photo: Curtis Compton
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

The problem with being there was finding a place to watch. Every blade of grass was covered by a witness and the chanting had reached fever pitch as the Comeback King marched from the 18th green:

"Ti-ger."

"Ti-ger."

"Ti-ger."

Two attendants stood at the entrance to the clubhouse, staring at the swarm beyond the giant oak tree and breathless with excitement.

"Oh lord!"

"He did it!"

"He's back!

"Praise heaven!"

Inside, groups of well-heeled guests sat gathered around TVs as Jim Nantz and Nick Faldo put the pictures into words. "I never thought we'd see anything that could rival the hug with his father in 1997," Nantz observed. "But we just did."

"That will be the greatest scene in golf forever, Jim Nantz," Faldo replied.

"That hug with his children . . . if that doesn't bring a tear to your eye if you're a parent, you're not human."

But what if you felt nothing, Jim?

Blame Faldo. It was his defeat of Greg Norman at Augusta in '96 that sparked my love for the sport and a year later, when I travelled to my first Masters, he was paired in the opening round with a 21-year-old American being hailed as 'The Phenom'.

It wasn't hard to get excited about Tiger Woods. On the 15th, he hit one of the longest drives ever seen at Augusta and played a brilliant wedge to the green. And more than the roar when he holed the putt, or the joy when he went on to win, it was that moment that stayed with you. The elation of the crowd as the miracle swept across the golf course:

"Tiger hit a wedge to 15!"

"Tiger hit a wedge to 15!"

"Tiger hit a wedge to 15!"

Two months later, we followed him to Congressional for the US Open, Troon for the Open, Winged Foot for the PGA and Sotogrande for the Ryder Cup. We were there when he came to Waterville in '99, there for his 10-shot win at Pebble Beach a year later, and there when he completed the 'Tiger Slam' at Augusta in 2001. And the more we saw of him, the less there was to cheer.

His contract with Nike was worth $100m that year. He was getting $30m from Buick, $26.5m from American Express, and had signed multi-million deals with Rolex, EA Sports, Wheaties, and Golf Digest, but you would rarely see him signing autographs or engaging with kids:

"Tiger!"

"Hey Tiger!"

"Please Mister Woods!"

In interviews, he played his cards close to his chest:

Q: Somebody said when you won the PGA, you lifted weights before every round, is that right?

A: Maybe.

Q: Why are you being coy?

A: Why not?

Q: Can you not talk about your regime?

A: No.

Q: Trade secret?

A: No, it's just what I do. What I do is what I do.

And his stinginess was legendary.

In the book, The Pro, his former coach, Butch Harmon, tells a story about their first professional win together: "After his play-off victory in Las Vegas, Tiger sat in the press room answering questions while I went into the locker room to gather up the few things he had left behind.

"The staff congratulated me, which brought on another laugh. There was no need to congratulate me. I hadn't struck a shot all week. But I thanked them anyway. That's when it dawned on me that Tiger hadn't tipped the locker-room staff. He was 20, and even though he had signed contracts north of $40m, he still lived and acted like a college student.

"Tipping, an appropriate and expected practice on tour, hadn't occurred to him. So I gave the head locker-room attendant $300, not enough by any stretch, but all the cash I had on me at the time. A few minutes later I climbed into the back of the limo for the short trip back to the MGM Grand. 'Tiger,' I said, 'you owe me three hundred bucks.'

"'What for?' he asks. 'I tipped the locker room staff.' 'You gave them three hundred dollars!' 'Yeah, I would have given them more but that's all I had. I emptied my pockets.' 'For what?' 'Tiger, those guys took care of your stuff all week. They busted their butts in there.'

"'Yeah?' he said, not quite believing me. That's when I realised just how much Tiger had to learn, not about golf but about how the world worked."

Eight years passed. Woods kept winning and chasing greatness until eventually, inevitably, it almost destroyed him. His marriage imploded. He was shamed and humiliated but he kept pushing. It still wasn't enough. At the 2013 Masters, he incurred a two-stroke penalty for a rules violation in the second round and was savaged by critics for failing to withdraw.

A month later, there was another controversy at the Players Championships and another problem, five months after that, when he failed to call a penalty on himself at the BMW Championship in Illinois. Then his back started creaking and he started reaching for painkillers and soon the game - just playing - was extracting a terrible price.

But what did we know? What did we really know?

It was May 2016 when 'The Secret History of Tiger Woods', an extraordinary profile by the brilliant Wright Thompson was published by ESPN. Then, last April, Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian brought us their astonishing biography, Tiger Woods.

That they start in the same place - a small graveyard in Kansas in May 2006 - is no real surprise for Tiger's devotion to his father was/is the key to everything he achieved. But try making sense of this (from the biography):

"Days later, when word got out that Earl Woods had been interred, the local business that produced headstones and gravestones - an outfit called Manhattan Monuments - anticipated an order for a large granite monument. They called Mohler (the gravedigger), but he had no information. Neither Tiger nor his mother had left any instructions for a headstone.

"At first, Mohler thought the family just needed time to figure out what they wanted. Everyone grieves differently, he knew. But five and then ten years passed, and the family still had not ordered a grave marker . . . In the end, Earl Dennison Woods was buried in the Kansas dirt in an unmarked grave. No stone. No inscription. Nothing. 'It's like he's not even there,' said Mohler."

And here's Thompson on Woods' obsession with the Navy SEALS: "Then there's the story of the lunch, which spread throughout the Naval Special Warfare community. Guys still tell it, almost a decade later. Tiger and a group of five or six went to a diner in La Posta. The waitress brought the check and the table went silent, according to two people there that day. Nobody said anything, and neither did Tiger, and the other guys sort of looked at one another.

"Finally one of the SEALs said, 'Separate checks, please.' The waitress walked away. 'We were all baffled,' says one SEAL, a veteran of numerous combat deployments. 'We are sitting there with Tiger fucking Woods, who probably makes more than all of us combined in a day. He's shooting our ammo, taking our time. He's a weird fucking guy. That's weird shit. Something's wrong with you.'"

It was business as usual for Woods last week after his extraordinary win at Augusta. It meant the world, he said, that his kids had seen him win, just as his "Pops" had seen him win, but he did not expand on the journey, or the lessons he had learned.

Maybe that's for later, when Jack's record has been smashed, but it was an itch I couldn't scratch when the press conference had ended.

I went outside and the buzz in the media centre was palpable. Champagne was being served but I opted for coffee, and was beginning to think there was something wrong with me when I happened upon one of the best writers in the US. "Well, what do you think?" I asked.

He face was a portrait of confusion and despair.

"I feel nothing," he said.

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