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Paul Kimmage on Tiger Woods - 'He was set to win 25 Majors, but life got in the way'

Tiger Woods' character flaws helped make him a great golfer, then destroyed him . . . so has he changed?

Tiger Woods walks across the 17th green during the second round of the 2018 Masters Tournament at Augusta, Georgia. Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Tiger Woods walks across the 17th green during the second round of the 2018 Masters Tournament at Augusta, Georgia. Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

Twenty-one years ago. It was a hot Thursday afternoon on my first visit to the Masters and the late Cecil Whelan, a great Dubliner and devoted golf fan, was guiding me around. There were plenty of names I wanted to see: Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, obviously; Tom Watson and Bernard Langer, naturally; Greg Norman and his return to Amen Corner 12 months after his dramatic collapse. But Cecil wouldn't hear of it.

When Tiger was 4, Earl and Kultida took him to Kansas to visit Earl's family. The oldest sister, Hattie Belle, who raised the siblings after their parents died, stood in the yard tossing a football to Tiger. "I'll watch him," she told Earl and Tida as they headed off to the store. But the moment they were out of sight, she dropped the football and picked up Tiger. "They don't touch him enough," she told her sister Mae. "Look at those sad eyes."

That's what I thought when I saw the mug shot.

Look at those sad eyes

Tiger Woods a Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office booking photo after his arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence in 2017. Photo: Getty Images
Tiger Woods a Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office booking photo after his arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence in 2017. Photo: Getty Images

Tom Callahan, 'Golf Digest'

 

"No, follow me."

He led me down the right of the 15th fairway where a crowd had gathered on the mound that looked down on the green. "There's a lot of people here," I moaned. "Could we not find a place in the shade?" But Cecil wasn't for turning. "The approach to the 15th is one of the iconic shots in golf. Do you see the green?"

"Yes, Cecil."

"Jack Nicklaus maintains it's like trying to stop a ball on the bonnet of a Volkswagen."

"Yes Cecil, but . . ."

"This is where Seve hit the four-iron into the water in '86 and was never the same! This is where Chip Beck was chasing Langer in '93 and was slaughtered for laying up!"

"Yes Cecil but it's only Thursday, and the sweat is running down my crack! We can come back tomorrow."

"Just wait," he said. "Just wait."

It was 10 minutes later when the 21-year-old American they were calling 'The Phenom' arrived on the tee. I'd read a lot about Tiger Woods before travelling to Augusta and had followed him for nine holes but he had played poorly and turned in four over par. Then he had hit his straps - birdie, par, birdie, birdie - and put himself back in the game.

There was a cry, "FORE! RIGHT!" as he launched the ball from the tee. We threw our arms over our heads and ducked but Cecil was almost cheering: "Here it comes," he said. "Here it comes." It soared over our heads into the crowd further down and was kicked through the sea of legs and feet to the edge of the fairway.

It was the longest drive Cecil had seen at the Masters. Woods had outdriven his playing partner, the defending champion Nick Faldo, by about 90 yards. Cecil was astonished. "You know," he said, "Gene Sarazen hit a four-wood to this green in 1935! Nicklaus needed a three-iron to get home when he won in '86. This kid will be hitting a pitching wedge!"

A moment later, Woods arrived 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 when he played the shot; the volume of noise that swept across the golf course.

"Tiger hit a wedge to 15!"

"Tiger hit a wedge to 15!"

"Tiger hit a wedge to 15!"

 

 

Eleven months ago. Two officers from the Jupiter Police Department in Florida have noticed a Mercedes Benz-AMG 65 stopped by the side of a road in the early hours. The engine is running. The brake lights and indicator are on. Two tyres have blown and the rims are damaged. Tiger Woods is sitting motionless at the wheel. He seems dazed and is slurring his words.

"How you doing today?" the officer inquires.

"Huh?"

"Where you coming from?"

"What?"

"Where you coming from?"

"LA."

"From where?"

"LA."

"Where you coming from right now?"

"Heading back down from Orange County."

'You're heading down to Orange County?"

"Yes."

"Okay, do you know where you're at right now?"

"No, I really don't know."

"You have no idea?"

"No."

"Have you been drinking today?"

"No."

Woods is invited to step from the car for a series of roadside sobriety tests.

He is wearing shorts, a baseball cap and a long-sleeved Nike shirt. His shoes are undone but he stumbles when he tries to tie them. "You can kick them off if you want," the officer says. A dashcam in the patrol car records what happens next. It's one of the cruellest things you will ever see.

The officer raises a small torch and directs him to follow the beam with his eyes.

Woods is unable.

The officer directs him to walk heel-to-toe along the white line that marks the bike lane.

He keeps stepping off.

"Do you know the English alphabet from A to Z?"

"Yes." Woods replies.

"You do? What's your highest level of education?"

"Sophomore in college."

"Okay, with your feet together and your arms by your side, I want you to close your eyes and tilt your head backwards and you're going to recite the English alphabet in a slow, not-rhythmic manner, meaning you're not going to sing it okay? Do you understand the instructions?"

"Yeah."

"Okay, what are your instructions?"

"Not to sing the national anthem backwards."

"Okay sir, what I want you to do is place your hands behind your back. Right now, I am placing you under arrest for driving under the influence."

He spends the night in Palm Beach County Jail and is released the next day as his mug-shot is splashed across the papers. Woods issues a statement: "I understand the severity of what I did, and I take full responsibility for my actions. I want the public to know that alcohol was not involved. What happened was an unexpected reaction to prescribed medications. I didn't realise the mix of medications had affected me so strongly."

The prescribed medications include two opiate-based painkillers (Vicodin and Dilaudid), two sleeping drugs (Ambien and Xanax) and the active ingredient for marijuana (delta9-carboxy THC). Five months later, on October 27, he pleads guilty to reckless driving. He is given probation for 12 months, submits to regular drug testing and commits to 50 hours of community service.

But it's the humiliation that scars.

 

 

Two weeks ago. A new biography, Tiger Woods, by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian, is published by Simon & Schuster. We join the story a short time after Woods' first Masters win in 1997, as he drives with Michael Jordan in his Porsche to a luxury casino boat on Lake Michigan.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Tiger would turn to Jordan. There was no other athlete alive who had experienced the same level of fame. The two of them essentially belonged to their own exclusive club. As a result, Jordan exercised considerable influence over Tiger's attitude toward fame, women, and power.

"We call each other brothers because Michael is like a big brother," Woods said. "I'm like the little brother. To be able to go to a person like that who has been through it all - and has come out of it just as clean as can be - that's the person you want to talk to. And on top of that, he's one great guy."

Tiger's view of Jordan wasn't universally shared by the working class in Vegas. They found him to be an aloof, arrogant star who embraced the word 'entitled' with a capital E. You didn't have to travel far to find stories of Jordan's barely tipping or altogether stiffing caddies, locker-room attendants, card dealers, and bartenders, or of his driving his tricked-out North Carolina-blue golf cart down the middle of the fairway at Shadow Creek, music blaring as he blew by one foursome after another while yelling, 'Hurry the fuck up! You guys are slow as fuck!"

In the words of one Vegas insider, "A complete fucking asshole."

But Vegas being Vegas, Jordan's boorish behaviour never leaked out. "Everybody protected Michael back then because he was the best ever," said one Vegas source. "Nobody ever talked about Michael. Nobody ever told on Michael. Everybody was scared of Michael. And Tiger learned from him."

By the time Jordan entered the picture, Tiger's attitudes toward money and people were already well ingrained. Even when a meal was free - and it almost always was - Tiger rarely left a decent tip. And as far as tipping doormen, bellmen, and valets? It got to the point where PGA Tour representatives were often quietly leaving $100 tips on Tiger's behalf with locker-room attendants at Tour stops to keep his parsimonious ways out of the press. For Tiger, even the most basic human civilities - a simple hello or thank you - routinely went missing from his vocabulary. A nod was too much to expect. Tiger didn't learn all of his behaviour from Jordan. If anything, this sense of entitlement had been originally authored by Earl. Tiger's relationship with Jordan simply provided re-enforcement.

"When Tiger got famous, he got mean," said a former nightclub owner.

 

 

Five days ago. Brandel Chamblee is making notes for another Live from the Masters in the Golf Channel studio that looks out on the driving range. His notes are worth reading but are not to everyone's taste. Tiger Woods' handlers have described his work as "deplorable" and "disgusting". Golfweek have heralded him as the best announcer on TV.

He has earned his stripes.

In 1999, on his first and only visit to the Masters as a PGA pro, he was tied for the lead with Jose Maria Olazabal after the opening round. Four days later, he finished in a tie for 18th with Tiger Woods. "I don't know if it's true now," he laughs, "but for a very long time I was the only person that had played in a Masters with Tiger Woods who Tiger had never beaten."

A voracious reader who prepares his work meticulously, it was no great surprise that he was one of the few at Augusta to have read the just-published Woods biography. "It's hard to escape how you were raised," he says, when asked what he made of it. "Tiger Woods is a product of his upbringing, he has physical gifts but he also has mental gifts. When I read that book - and my wife felt the same - I thought: 'No wonder he kicked everybody's ass. He was engineered to be different, to step on your throat.

"I read a lot of books on the mind and I read something recently that resonated with me (about Tiger) and it was that the amount of willpower that any one person has is like the battery in your phone. It takes incredible willpower to get up and play practice rounds at 6.30am . . . trust me. That means you're up at 4.30; that means you're going to bed at 8.30. It takes incredible willpower and discipline to do that and then go work out . . . to do this every single day. And the willpower that it would take to do all of the things that he would do - the workout, the practice, the grinding, having to deal with the media - leaves the battery completely dead when the sun goes down.

"And I've always said this: the hardest part about playing the Tour was not the bit between the ropes, it was from sun-down to sun-up - that was the easiest place to get off track and get things wrong. What do you do with those lonely hours when the sun goes down? How do you spend that time? You're out on the road, you're making a lot of money, you're in beautiful places, you've got people giving you the keys to every restaurant and the best seats at every sports event - even for me they did! I can't imagine what it was like for Tiger Woods.

"Every single door is open to you; anything you want you can have - anything! And you rationalise it. The battery is flat. You've worked hard. You've been disciplined all day. You feel like you deserve it. You feel like you're just letting off steam. And the problem with golf, when you're good at it, is that nobody holds you in check.

"You have a coach? You can fire him. You have a caddie? You can fire him. You don't have a boss. You tell the Tour when you're not going to play. PGA Tour players are about the only athletes I can think of who don't answer to anybody. They are notoriously late for everything - meetings, interviews - and they're late because there is nobody to tell them to be on time. There is no accountability. So it's very easy to get astray.

"Another big moment in the book was (Tiger) trying to strong-arm John Feinstein (the author and journalist). Feinstein is a very reasonable man, and he thinks Tiger Woods is smart, all Tiger had to do was be civil. 'Season on the Brink was a hell-of-a-book, John. Now, what do you want to know? Why am I hard to deal with? Why am I arrogant and selfish? Because that's what I need to be right now to be the best.'

"I think if he had done that, Feinstein would have said, 'Right, I get you. Thank you for looking me in the eye.' He had this combative relationship out on the road (with the media) that I always felt he could have diffused in five minutes: 'All right everybody, take a deep breath. I'm a great golfer, I don't always get this stuff right in here. Ask me a question and I'll give you an answer.' That would have solved it. Done. Over."

 

 

Something Ernie said seven years ago, unlike almost everything that has been said since, has stayed true.

"What'll he do in the Masters?" I asked.

"Contend," he said.

"Really?"

"He'll be fifth."

(He was fourth.)

"But win it?" Ernie said.

"No chance."

"Ernie, if he can finish fifth, he can win it."

"No, there's a guilt. There's a conscience. You can't play your best without self-respect. I don't know what's going to happen from here on out, but I know one thing: It's never going to be the same."

It's never going to be the same.

Tom Callahan, 'Golf Digest'

 

 

Two days ago. The second coming of Tiger Woods has reached the 15th fairway. We have returned to the place where he performed his first miracle. They've planted a small forest of trees where the mound used to be. The droves that have followed him since Monday have dwindled when he arrives on the tee. Eleven shots behind the leader, Patrick Reed, he is flirting with the cut.

He smokes a driver down the left side and I think of Cecil.

"Here it comes! Here it comes!"

It's the unspoken joy of travelling to Augusta, I guess. There's the winning and the losing for sure, but it's a lot about where you stood and those you were with.

He's striding towards us now, 20 paces behind his caddie, Joe LaCava. There's a long delay as they wait for the green to clear and I'd pay a lot of money for his thoughts as he stares down the hill. What happened Big Cat? That's no pitching wedge in your hands? And there's a look in your eyes we have not seen before?

Is it doubt?

For Chamblee it's a lot like Superman. "When Superman first came out in the '60s," he says, "you couldn't keep the comic books on the shelves. There was nothing he couldn't solve - he could jump tall buildings in a single leap; he could change the orbit and stop planets. The writers kept giving him these extra powers but the comic books quit selling. So they introduced the idea of kryptonite and the comics started flying off the shelves again.

"And that's pretty much the story of Tiger Woods. Initially, there was no problem he couldn't solve: 'Give me a lead and I'll win. I'll blow them away!' But everybody has kryptonite and now we've seen his. The before and after with Tiger Woods is what happened in 2009, and that's evidenced by his scoring average on Thursday and Friday.

"Look it up - it's night and day. In 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, he would be first or second or third (in scoring average) on Thursday and Friday, first or second or third on Saturday and Sunday. He was the same player on Saturday and Sunday as he was on Thursday and Friday - you couldn't beat him.

"In 2012/'13 he was first in scoring average on Thursday and Friday, and 35th or 45th on Saturday and Sunday. He was no longer immune to the pressure of winning Major championships. He was a completely different person with the lead! He was forever scarred by the event of 2009."

"How does that make you feel?" I ask.

"There's something much more relatable to what Tiger Woods is doing now, and it's very un-relatable to what he did before. We all have kryptonite. We're all dealing with demons, and I find myself - and I don't want to - pulling for him. Because he's making it a hell of a lot easier for us to pull for him, he really is.

"If there is one misconception that people have of me it's that I'm a Tiger hater - it's the opposite, I'm a Tiger lover. I think if the species survives and they're playing golf 300 years from now, they will be talking about Tiger Woods the way we talk about Shakespeare. In my mind he was writing Hamlet. He was in the middle of one perfect note and was interrupted and it's like . . . Ahhhhh!

"I wanted to see him finish. I wanted to see where it was going to go because he was going to win 25 Majors . . . but life got in the way."

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