February 22, 2019

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Opinion | Tiger Woods, Nearly Human

Opinion | Tiger Woods, Nearly Human
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In retrospect, it’s not clear how closely the two disasters — the marital blowup and then the golf meltdown — were related. Tiger actually played pretty well for a while after his life started unraveling — though his last major victory, at the U.S. Open, was in 2008 — and a lot of his golf woes were probably physical rather than psychological.

Yet it’s hard not to read a moral dimension into the Tiger story, and the forthcoming biography by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian (“Tiger Woods”) only deepens your sense that all along this was a tragedy in the making. Tiger’s success, if you believe the authors — and they make a persuasive, if sometimes overstated, case — came at enormous cost. That Tiger’s father, Earl, was a sort of blowhard Svengali we already knew; especially after he had had a few drinks, he was always going on about how his son was the “Chosen One” who would “change the course of humanity.” The new revelation here is that his Thai mother, Kultida, was just as ruthless, a tiger mom urging her son to be an “assassin” on the course.

“You have to go for the throat,” she told him. “because if all friendly, they come back and beat your ass. So you kill them. Take their heart.” Together Earl and Kultida raised their son in what amounted to a golf-themed isolation chamber. He was allowed no friends or other interests; starting in kindergarten, he went straight from school every day to the practice range, where Mr. Benedict and Mr. Keteyian estimate he put in something like 10,000 hours by the time he was 12. This regimen produced arguably the greatest golfer ever but also, and not surprisingly, a less than fully formed human being. The strippers and sleazy girlfriends are the least of it. Tiger in this biography emerges as almost robotically cold and distant, someone who never picks up a check if he can help it, who cuts off his friends suddenly and without explanation, who doesn’t even apologize after trashing the house he rents every year in Augusta. He’d be loathsome if he weren’t so pathetic.

Or if he hadn’t seemed to turn a new leaf. Mr. Benedict and Mr. Keteyian claim that, having hit bottom, Tiger has now rediscovered his humanity, so that his story is really one of redemption. What they couldn’t have predicted is how quickly, after another back operation just a year ago, his game has also rebounded. Lately he has been playing almost like the Tiger of old — better, certainly, than many of us ever imagined.

Is he really a different, better person? It seems doubtful: the damage was probably too severe, the kind you never really recover from. But he’s a different, better golfer, at least, and not just in his swing, which is tighter, more compact, but in the way he conducts himself. The old Tiger didn’t seem to notice or care if we were watching, unless it was to dart a death glance at some moron snapping a picture during his backswing. The new one actually smiles and seems to feed off the huge crowds that have gathered to welcome him back.

We missed him, it turns out — even the fans, like me, who thought they didn’t — and who knows, maybe he missed us. What happened in his absence, of course, was that a whole new generation of very appealing, un-Tigerish golfers emerged: Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, et al. Spieth, the first-round leader at Augusta, seems practically an anti-Woods in his decency, modesty and wholesomeness.

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