News & Opinion

‘Tiger Woods’ biography plays it down middle

From an execution standpoint, many of the production elements involved in the new Tiger Woods biography were fundamentally basic. Do the research, buy the shovels, make the calls, vet some old facts, imbue it with some fresh color, run it past the lawyers, then count the money.

Somewhat disappointingly, the unimpressively titled “Tiger Woods” is presented in straight chronological order, with minimal slant or analysis regarding the frequently high life and disturbingly low times of the most polarizing figure in golf history.

Then again, whether by accident or editorial genius, that might represent the No. 1 asset of the new offering from nationally recognized co-authors Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian. Unlike so many of Woods’ drives lately, the pair mostly played it straight down the middle, which potentially represents the best bit of providence possible for a supremely charmed project.

The authors let readers form their own opinions about Woods, and how best to process his wins and his warts, which is why the latest Tiger tome (Simon & Schuster, $30) is sure to be worth its weight in trophy chrome to millions of golf fans. Not just the fanboys, either.

It has risen to 11th on Amazon's list of bestselling biographies, and is No. 1 in sports-related books. 

While underscoring the twisted duality of the most talented player ever to lace on spikes, Benedict and Keteyian managed to sprinkle in enough revelry and revulsion to ensure that haters and hat-tippers alike will churn through it.

Woods, almost certainly, will hate this book, which was published without his cooperation. Yet again, bandages will be ripped off of old wounds, and at this point, he’s so covered in gauze that he practically has been mummified. But it’s an important piece of work, because while Woods’ life frequently has been analyzed in piecemeal fashion, sometimes ad nauseam and in stomach-turning detail, this is the full exhumation that his career to this point deserves.

Woods’ agent, Mark Steinberg, quickly and predictably claimed the book was filled with “egregious errors,” which is an exaggeration. There are a few shanks, such as when the authors describe Woods as both the first African-American golfer and youngest player to win a major. No question, those gaffes are a huge kick in the credibility sack, but the book’s not intended to serve as a history book on any topic other than Woods’ life. Even then, any real perspective is left to the audience to discern.

Started three years ago when Woods’ game had begun to display the first signs of an apparent death spiral, what surely could have been presented as a career obituary is now anything but. This week, Woods is poised to play in the Masters for the first time in three years, and he is lighting up the Las Vegas betting parlors and briefly was listed as the favorite. This event marks the most anticipated Masters in decades, and Woods is smack in the middle of multiple plotlines. The book was released March 27. As they say in publishing circles, cha-ching.

To be clear, libraries are filled with books about Woods, generated from sources that include former swing coaches, his father and a few high-profile authors. None offers a truly comprehensive look at Woods from beginning to end, while the latest effort adds badly needed context to the explanatory mix.

Dozens of pages in the back of the book are required as citations for source material, gathered from previous books and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles. But while the authors include plenty of rehash, there’s enough amplification and explication to keep the truest-blue Tiger devotees engaged and his critics enraged.

Even the familiar signposts in Woods’ over-chronicled career have been vetted and eyeballed anew, and more than a few old assumptions have been detonated. Which brings us to the question most book buyers view as paramount, given that no athlete has generated more ink, virtual or actual, than the 14-time major champion.

Is there anything that I haven’t read before?

Most certainly, yes. An entire chapter devoted to his activities in a secretive Las Vegas hotel are filled with revelations. Moreover, several seminal events in Woods lore, long accepted as gospel dispensed from his spectacularly flawed father, Earl Woods, were all but dispelled as utter fiction.

Woods once claimed he was mugged at knifepoint while at Stanford. For decades, his entire family has said that Woods was tied to a tree during kindergarten, and left bloodied with rocks thrown by older bullies, who scrawled a racist epithet on him. Woods for years claimed he played baseball, ran track and cross-country, and rode bikes and skateboards as a kid or high-schooler. The authors found no evidence that any of the above transpired. The sad irony is that his life needed no embellishment.

For those who like to argue whether someone’s formative years are more affected by environment versus heredity, it’s clear that Woods experienced a dysfunctional double-whammy. His mother, Tida, who apparently married Earl before he was legally divorced from his first wife, is characterized as so bitter over her husband’s infidelities and verbal abuse that Earl’s remains, to this day, are interred in an unmarked grave in Kansas.

Mom’s advice to her only child: “In sport, you have to go for the throat. Because if all friendly, they come back and beat your ass. So you kill them. Take their heart.”

Earl Woods, celebrated with father-of-the-year honors by magazines such as Golfweek along the way, was hardly a role model. He solicited under-the-table payments from IMG and manipulated dozens of people to get what he wanted, a trait he passed along to his son. A heavy drinker, Earl Woods invited a parade of women into the family’s home, where dresser drawers were filled with sex toys and porn played on the television, the authors said.

Tiger got the best and worst of his father’s traits. On the way home from Tiger’s 17th birthday party at a SoCal restaurant, Earl stopped at a liquor store for a bottle of Colt 45 and a porno magazine. In one of the book’s most telling anecdotes, Tiger entered a convenience store moments after winning the 1995 U.S. Amateur title to find his inebriated father hitting on a female employee behind the counter and cruelly said, “Pop, come on. You can do better than that.”

The apple, rotten or otherwise, didn’t fall far from the addiction tree. Tiger’s reckless dalliances with more than 100 women, including porn stars and outcall professionals, often when his pregnant wife was at home, predictably occupy a large portion of the book. It’s discomfiting, but crucial, to the painting of Woods’ flawed, big picture.

Woods tried to apply bleach to the stains he has accrued along the way. The authors said that when Woods was contacted to discuss their findings, he demanded a list of who they had interviewed and what topics were discussed. The authors declined, then dug some more.

For two writers who spent little, if any, time around Woods at the peak of his powers, they surely have grasped the complexities of his life and the fan base that largely has excused (and to a degree, enabled) his missteps along the way. The fact that Woods’ supposedly perfect life was exposed as a serial charade was immaterial to them.

They wrote: “People didn’t really care what Tiger had to say about social issues or whether he considered himself black or Asian or Cablinasian. His athletic dominance was every bit as entertaining as Babe Ruth’s had been in the 1920s. They expected something magical to happen, and more often than not, it did. That was all that really mattered.”

Woods has a press session scheduled at the Masters today, when questions about sensitive elements contained in the book very likely will surface. Woods, if his form over three decades in the limelight holds true, will deflect and dissemble like a White House press secretary, refusing to look back. Rightly so, perhaps?

After all, for the first time in roughly five years, his game has been revitalized and he has good reason to gaze ahead. For the publishers of his unauthorized bio, regardless of whether he discusses the book’s revelations or steamy particulars, that’s spectacular news in its own right.

After all, there’s at least one more chapter left in Woods’ professional life.

The authors can add it when the paperback version is issued.

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling