Sunday 19 January 2020

Vincent Hogan: You can't help but see Tiger Woods as a victim too, a man denied a childhood, a social incompetent who grew up mistaking success for living

Tiger Woods hugs his father, Earl, after winning the Target World Golf Challenge in 2004. Photo: Doug Benc/Getty Images
Tiger Woods hugs his father, Earl, after winning the Target World Golf Challenge in 2004. Photo: Doug Benc/Getty Images
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

He buried his father in an unmarked grave. Read that line and it surely activates one stark, solitary question about Tiger Woods. Is anything worth a lost childhood? Really?

Wright Thompson has written a remarkable story for ESPN about Woods' tumble from greatness into a warped place where the memory of the man who made him is now destroying him.

You don't necessarily end up liking Woods when you read it. But you do feel more forgiving.

Because he seems to have both loved and hated his father, Earl, with the desperation of a child denied time or space to grow. He became a project before he was a boy. His only 'friends' were Earl's old military buddies. And Tiger's dismay at his father's casual infidelities almost certainly retarded him emotionally.

Earl was his only real sounding-board, you see. His mentor, his creator.

So he became the world's greatest golfer in answer to a father's obsession. A black man ripping up white men's records. A palpable star for whom Corporate America was family. Sure, he could be surly and obstreperous, a photographer's rustle often detonating an excessive tantrum. But when Tiger won, he became a one-man Colgate commercial. And winning was the only contract he felt obliged to honour.

Then Earl died. And something snapped inside the lost boy.

Thompson's story takes us to rural Kansas in May '06 where his father's ashes are buried in a clipped family procedure that takes 77 minutes between private jet landing and taking off again. Nobody knows for sure if Tiger has ever gone back again. But, ten years on, there is still no headstone above Earl's grave.

Tiger was 30 back then and the world's No 1 golfer. He was also a big kid slipping into crisis.

Two years before his death, Earl, a Vietnam veteran, had taken his son to Fort Bragg where he'd been stationed with the Green Berets. There, Tiger was given the full VIP tour, including a parachute jump strapped to a Navy SEAL. As they prepared to leave, Earl gave Tiger a big hug, declaring "Now you understand my world!".

Already dying, Earl needed an oxygen tank on that trip.

The Fort Bragg experience seems to have softened Tiger's attitude to his father. The way people talked of Earl as a soldier, about his dead-of-night parachute jumps into combat situations, offered glimpses of a more formidable figure than the casual philanderer now separated from Tiger's mum, Tida.

And, as Earl's condition deteriorated, a son became more and more preoccupied with the old man's past.

Three days before his first competitive round of '06 at the Buick Invitational, Tiger visited a Navy SEAL training compound, telling students that, if not for golf, he would have been in uniform with them.


Four months later, shortly after Earl's passing, he was back with the SEALs at a hidden mountain training facility, taking part in a high-stress combat simulator called the 'Kill House'.

He had become obsessed with military, watching documentaries, reading endless Navy books, playing Call of Duty into the early hours at home.

Tiger would even spend his 30th birthday sky-diving with SEALs, by which point his coach Hank Haney was scolding about the risk of injury. But the military trips just kept intensifying.

If the outside world fixated upon his chances of breaking Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 Majors, Tiger never even mentioned it. He seemed too busy chasing his father's ghost.

Despite becoming a dad himself in June '08, his marriage was now a lie (on Tiger's side at least). He was seeing other women with increasing recklessness and, that July, flew a porn star to be with him during the AT&T National. Inevitably, such recklessness caught up with him.

The National Enquirer contacted his camp to say they had evidence of an affair with a waitress and, to kill the story, he agreed to a cover interview with Men's Fitness, a publication from the same stable. The net had begun to close.

So what exactly was Tiger chasing?

Some of the women secretly consorting with the most famous sportsman on the planet talked of a man who often just wanted to sit, cuddle up and watch movies. Plagued by insomnia, he seemed desperate to simulate some kind of bogus domestic normality.

His military obsession was all the time deepening, Tiger hooking up with a controversial martial arts expert in Maryland who specialised in training SEALs at a form of combat called 'Close Quarters Defense'.

He'd taken to doing timed four-mile runs in combat boots at home and had become a gym rat, often working out at 3am when sleep was elusive. He grew muscle a pro golfer didn't need; accumulated injuries he could not wisely sustain.

Yet, astonishingly, with so much of his life a spook-house groan, Woods kept on winning.

He claimed The Open and USPGA Championships (both for the third time) in '06 and retained the PGA again in '07. Though his body was creaking increasingly from SEAL training and aggressive weight-lifting, he was still better than anyone else around. When he won the US Open in '08, Woods had two stress fractures in his knee and a torn ACL.

He told the media that the ACL injury had occurred while out jogging. Haney wrote in his book that it happened in the 'Kill House'.

So Tiger's life was spiralling for quite a while before he drove into that fire hydrant. His body was slowly breaking down too, eventually requiring three back operations, two knee surgeries. Today, he can't even run.

Those closest to him believe that Woods knows his days of winning big golf tournaments are over now.

He shares custody of his two children, but lives alone (except for staff) in a house like a vast old theatre without customers. A plush sanitarium almost. His friend Michael Jordan believes Tiger to be "tired", that "he really wishes he could retire, but doesn't know how to do it yet."

Golf, palpably, is moving on without him. What chance a 40-year-old with a largely ruined body ever wrestling the balance of power back from a herd of 20-somethings who strike a golf ball with the velocity (and accuracy) of pistol fire?

In any event, what is there to miss? The value police will always prefer the politesse and deference of a Jordan Spieth or Matt Kuchar to the volatility of Woods railing against the dying of the light. They will choose winners with the charisma of actuaries ahead of a sometimes foul-mouthed man who routinely refuses to sign autographs for kids, who spits on a green.

That's fair enough too. When Tiger's manners fail him, he becomes ugly.

But, reading Thompson's story, you can't help but see Woods as a victim too. A man denied a childhood. A social incompetent. Someone programmed to believe that happiness could only be achieved within the strict confines of global sporting dominance. Who grew up mistaking success for living.

A kid never really taught to communicate with the world in anything but corporate soundbyte, who still loves comic book heroes, who believes in ghosts.


Thompson writes: "People who meet him for 30 seconds love him and people who spend hours with him think he's aloof and weird, while people who hang around long enough to know him end up loving him and being oddly protective. His truest self is shy, awkward and basically well-intentioned, as unsuited for life in public as he is suited for hitting a ball."

Earl's death seemed to plunge Tiger into some kind of identity crisis out of which he most likely will never fully emerge now.

And golf's boast today is that its marquee stars - Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day - are superior gentlemen, as note-perfect off the course as when drawing smoke from fairway landing-zones. And it's true. The game is profoundly well stocked in good manners.

But could Augusta not have done with Woods, stalking the leaders around Amen Corner this year, however sullen and adversarial his bearing? Would it not have been enlivened by a glimpse of that red shirt breaking through water like a shark's fin?

Tiger's curse was to love a man who thought childhood should be by-passed. Someone who lies, today, in un-marked Kansas dirt.

Irish Independent

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