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The sports world once more believes in Tiger Woods. Why wouldn’t it?
The greatest golfer of the last 40 years, Woods won 14 majors between 1997 and 2008. And his downfall was just as spectacular as his ascent. So spectacular I only have to say, the crash, the injuries, the affairs and you know the events to which I refer. But last month, Tiger finished 6th at the British Open. This week, he’s among the top 50 golfers in the world, playing in the WGC Bridgestone Invitational. So is Tiger back? It’s hard not to wonder. And want.
Steven A. Smith of ESPN, as always, speaks for so many of us when he says, "I want Tiger to succeed. I truly, truly do!"
But Tiger’s body, and age, and his competitors might confound the yearning to see the once-great golfer sitting atop the leader board again. It’s a storyline we crave, but what I’ve been asking myself is, should we? What are the implications of a Tiger Woods comeback? What are we saying when we wish for golf’s greatest sensation to once again be sensational, besides a concern for the TV networks?
"I swear to God, just as a sports fan and a golf fan, if he could give us one weekend where the Tiger of old shows up and competes against these young guns, you will see television ratings like you have never seen before in golf," says author Armen Keteyian.
Keteyian, unlike the rest of the world with an opinion and a microphone, has some standing in this matter. He and Jeff Benedict coauthored a biography of Woods, which is the most comprehensive assessment of the man who won the most Majors at the youngest age, and then was responsible for the most salacious and ceaseless sex scandal the world of sports, nay celebrity, has ever known. Keteyian and Benedict conducted over 400 interviews during three years of research and constructed a picture of a genius–slash-monster. Tiger Woods seemed destined to be either history’s most perfect golfer or...sociopath. And the case could be made that he became both.
"Tiger Woods seemed destined to be either history’s most perfect golfer...or sociopath. And the case could be made that he became both."
Jeff Benedict says Tiger’s father, Earl Woods, all but guaranteed that outcome.
"Earl, who is a former soldier from Vietnam, a Green Beret, who is using these tactics that he taught in warfare school on his 14 year old son, building someone who is more like a machine than a man," Benedict says.
As a toddler, Tiger was seated in his high chair and made to watch Earl practice swinging a golf club again and again. The father believed the thousands of repetitive actions would imprint on the boy’s brain.
"You can see when he’s 2, that the way he swings a club, that’s not natural, that’s not normal. He has this regimen that’s instilled in him," Benedict says. "He has a practice schedule that’s like a young pro. But he’s a toddler who can’t even write his name yet."
It worked. It all worked. Tiger learned the lesson that his parents instilled in him that you don’t just beat, but remorselessly beat down the competition. Tiger was raised to be exactly what he became. Domineering, ruthless, ice cold. In sports, but also in life.
Which is why Keteyian asks, “What’s the price of that genius?”
Woods destroyed opponents and relationships.
"He has that same cold ability to shut people off, just like he would when he’s on the golf course," says Jeff Benedict. "He has that same approach to human relationships that he has to the competitive relationships inside the ropes."
The authors document how Woods broke up with his first love via a letter and hasn’t spoken to her since that day almost 25 years ago. He cut out business mentors and golfing mentors like Mark O’Meara without a look back. Maybe you remember images of Tiger chumming around with fellow superstar Charles Barkley? But after Tiger’s infamous one-car accident, Barkley was mildly critical of his friend. Afterward, Barkley tried to get in touch.
"Tried to reach out to Tiger as a friend, just to offer what friends do; sympathy, encouragement, a shoulder to cry on, whatever you needed," Keteyian says of Barkley. "He has not talked to Tiger since before Nov. 27, 2009."
So, yes. We all love a comeback story, but as a narrative, what would a Tiger second act say about exactly the question Keteyian raised? What is the price of genius? What if the price winds up being no more than a brief interregnum along a path of overall inhumanity? And what would the lesson be for every parent who ever wanted so badly for a child to excel? Or every kid who ever loved a sport but also prized their childhood?
I think of Todd Marinovich. Remember him? A first round pick of the Oakland Raiders who was raised by his domineering father, Marv, to be what Sports Illustrated called a “Robo Quarterback.” A strict diet barred Marinovich from tasting a slice of his birthday cake. He was assigned workout routines that would make an East German Olympian blanch. In an ESPN documentary, Marv Marinovich recounts one training method.
"I started from birth. When he was in the crib, I’d go through a whole series of stretching exercises. I would grab the foot and gradually bring it back and stretch the hamstrings. Quads the same way."
But Todd Marinovich flamed out. Spectacularly. Drugs played a role. Today, he admits the drugs were an escape from the relentless pressure. Brutal though that is, it does suggest a sort of rough order to the world. If parents push too hard, and if their progeny harden themselves, there will be costs. But what if Tiger Woods comes to dominate golf again? Won’t that turn the Earl Woods parenting book from a cautionary tale to a viable blueprint?
"This is a chemistry experiment that you do not want to repeat in terms of human beings," Keteyian says.
"There’s real cost to it," Benedict says. "There’s glory. There’s hair-raising feats and achievements that this guy has been responsible for that millions of people have watched and been motivated by. But with that has come a tremendous price. And you can’t look at one without the other."
But then Benedict talked about all that Tiger’s faced down over the last decade; his sex addiction, the string of injuries, the reliance on pain pills.
"When you see a guy dust himself off after all that and be back in his early 40s, it’s great to see him admitting things now like 'I’m not what I used to be. I can’t do certain things that I used to do.' He is, I think, easier to relate to now on a human level than he ever was when he was killing everybody on the golf course."
But doesn’t that say more about our humanity than Tiger’s? Keteyian and Benedict report that Woods seems to have genuinely grown. He’s been laid low, and for the first time stripped of his invincibility. And he’s showing, people close to him say, a bit more awareness and empathy. And maybe that’s enough to turn this particular hero’s journey into something truly redemptive. Or, as golf fans, maybe Tiger’s return to form on the golf course is thrill enough. As a job definition, we don’t need our entertainers to be more than entertaining. Though it seems, as a culture, we’ve been rethinking that, if not for our entertainers’ sakes, then for ours.
Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian's book is "Tiger Woods."
This segment aired on August 4, 2018.
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