From the new book, One on One: Behind the Scenes with the Greatest In the Game, reprinted by arrangement with Little, Brown and Company. Copyright ©2011 by John Feinstein, 544 pages, $27.99.
The first time I laid eyes on Tiger Woods was in March 1994 at Bay Hill for Arnold Palmer's tournament. I was standing on the range on Wednesday afternoon, talking to Peter Jacobsen, Davis Love III and Billy Andrade. Billy pointed down the range at a skinny kid hitting balls. "You know who that is?" he said.
"You should know," Billy continued. "That's Tiger Woods. He's the Next One."
I did know the name. A phenom from California. In fact, his father, Earl, was already on IMG's payroll as a "junior talent scout."
I hadn't paid that much attention. My focus was on the players who were on the tour at that moment, and I tended to be skeptical about Next Ones. I still remember Brent Musburger comparing Jeff Lebo to Jerry West when Lebo was a freshman basketball player at North Carolina. I had seen what being the Next One in tennis had done to Jennifer Capriati, and I remember reading a Rick Reilly piece in Sports Illustrated years earlier on how Love and Fred Couples were the Next Ones in golf.
"I thought you and Fred were the Next Ones," I said to Love.
"Not like this kid," Love said.
I shrugged, still skeptical. A few minutes later, I walked off the range. As luck would have it, Woods was walking a few steps in front of me. As he headed, I presumed, to the first tee to play a few holes, a small cadre of maybe 15 to 20 kids standing behind the ropes pushed pieces of paper in his direction for autographs. Woods put his head down, looked in neither direction and walked past them without slowing.
Most players will stop as they leave the range on practice days. Walking to the first tee for an actual round is different. In that situation most guys will say, "After the round," or "Gotta go to work." But this was a practice day, and before Woods had become such a big star that stopping to sign autographs could turn into an all-day affair.
Watching him put his head down and keep on going, I distinctly remember thinking, Just who the hell does that kid think he is?
Of course the answer, as it turned out, was simple: He thought he was Tiger Woods.
Woods won his first U.S. Amateur that summer and played in his first Masters the next April. That was the first time--in eight attempts--that he made a cut in a professional tournament, finishing tied for 41st. Even so, when he withdrew from the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills that summer after hurting his wrist while making a swing in thick rough, I thought, Oh, yeah, Next One, all right; he's not yet 20, and he's already getting hurt.
Of course by the time he turned pro in the summer of 1996 after winning the Amateur for a third straight time, Woods had become a true phenomenon, in part because he was so good, in part because he was African-American, in part because IMG and Nike were marketing him before he hit his first tee shot as a pro in Milwaukee.
It was after the tournament in Milwaukee that I first ran afoul of Team Tiger. I had been asked by Newsweek to do a story on Tiger-mania. In the article I talked about his vast potential, about how important it was for golf to finally have an African-American star, and about how the marketing machine was already playing on his status as a minority. Remember the first Nike commercial? "Hello world... Are you ready for me?"
I also mentioned that Earl Woods had already developed a reputation in golf as a pushy father, and that his avid pursuit of publicity for himself and every dollar possible reminded some people (me) of Stefano Capriati, the father of young tennis star Jennifer Capriati. That wasn't a compliment. Earl Woods knew it, and so did his son. The Newsweek people got several angry phone calls from Hughes Norton, who was then Tiger's agent. How dare I compare Earl Woods to Stefano Capriati?
Looking back, maybe I was unfair--to Stefano.
Having gotten off to a bad start with Team Eldrick, I made things worse in the fall of 1996. After finishing tied for 60th in Milwaukee, Tiger went on a roll. He had a chance to win his third time out, in Coal Valley, Ill., but got off to a bad start Sunday and finished tied for fifth. The winner that week was Ed Fiori, a roly-poly tour lifer who was known for years as the only man to ever catch Woods from behind on a Sunday. "I should write a book called How to Beat Tiger on Sunday," he once said. "Probably sell a million copies."
Woods followed that performance with a tie for third at the B.C. Open. His goal when he turned pro was to earn enough money in seven tournaments--the maximum number a nontour member could play in one year on sponsor exemptions--to avoid going to PGA Tour Qualifying School in the fall. He had all but wrapped that up. And so, even though he had a sponsor's exemption to play the Buick Challenge the next week, he decided to go home and get some rest.
Which sounds fine. Except it wasn't. To begin with, when you accept a sponsor's exemption you're expected to show up and play unless you're deathly ill or something catastrophic prevents you from appearing. When you are the game's Next One and you know your presence in a tournament has been promoted, you really should show up. And, when the sponsors of a major college golf award have scheduled their awards dinner at a time and place where you have told them you will be, you don't blow off the dinner and go home.
That's what Tiger did. A week later in Las Vegas, Woods won his first tournament, which Hughes Norton deemed proof he had done the right thing. I didn't agree, and said so. Then, two weeks later, Woods won again--at Disney. The finish was controversial because Tiger tied with a guy named Taylor Smith and should have been in a playoff. But it turned out Smith was disqualified after his putter was declared illegal. If winning that way bothered Tiger, he never said so in his press conference, and in fact he ducked questions about it.
Press conference over, he headed back to the locker room. As frequently happens at the end of a tournament, several reporters followed the champion back, hoping to get a few more quotes that weren't quite as banal as what they'd just heard in the press conference. Players understand this, and especially right after a win they're more than willing to talk while they clean out their locker.
Not Tiger. As he walked in, he told the security guards he didn't want any media in the locker room, so the guys trying to get in were told the locker room was closed. Except it wasn't--not under PGA Tour rules, just under Tiger's rules. I was sitting in the media room--I was writing about guys trying to keep their playing privileges for the next year at the last full-field event of the fall--when someone came in to say the locker room had been closed, apparently by Tiger.
"If more people in golf had stood up to Tiger and his people early, maybe things wouldn't have turned out the way they did."
Wes Seeley was in charge of PR for the tour on site. He walked straight to the locker room (I followed, curious to see how all this would unfold) and told the security guards the locker room was open to the media. "The tour makes the rules, not this kid," Wes said. "Regardless of what he and his people may think, he's not the fifth Beatle."
Wes is a good friend, and every now and then I remind him of that day. "Turns out you were right," I say. "The kid wasn't the fifth Beatle--he's John Lennon."
Of course Wes was right to do what he did, and if more people in golf had stood up to Tiger and his people early, maybe things wouldn't have turned out the way they did. Or maybe they would have anyway. We'll never know.
Though there was plenty to question in Woods' behavior, there was nothing to question in his golf. Paul Goydos played in a group directly behind Tiger the first three days that week at Disney. Walking into the locker room one day he spotted me and said, "You know how you guys [the media] are always trying to figure out who the best player in the world is who hasn't won a major yet? I'm telling you right now it's Tiger Woods. You want to know why? Because he's the best player in the world--period."
He wasn't yet 21. Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Year before he'd won a major. "First time they've ever given that award out on spec," said columnist Mike Lupica.
Woods was so good that when he won the Masters the next April--the first major he played as a pro--no one was that shocked. The 12-stroke margin--12 strokes!--was a shock.
It was at that Masters that I had my first face-to-face confrontation with Tiger's people. After I had written a column in Golf Magazine about Tiger blowing off the Buick Challenge and the college dinner and about the scene at Disney, George Peper, the editor of the magazine at the time, had gotten a call from Hughes Norton demanding a meeting with me. I had no problem meeting with Norton and his deputy, a guy named Clarke Jones.
And so Peper, Mike Purkey (who was my editor at the magazine) and I met with Norton and Jones over breakfast at the Masters. There were two highlights to what turned out to be a short meeting. The first was when Jones, apparently the designated bad cop, demanded to know who my sources were on several things I had written. I looked at him and said, "Clarke, if I wanted you to know that, I'd have used their names in the magazine."
"Well, I want to know, right now!"
"Can't have everything you want in life, Clarke."
Norton, the designated good cop, jumped in to say that he really didn't want to see Tiger's anger at me result in him deciding not to sign a contract with Golf as a "playing editor." At that moment Golf and Golf Digest were trying to get Tiger under contract. In fact, Golf had no chance because Golf Digest had a bigger circulation and it had Pete McDaniel--who would write one of Earl Woods' books. But Norton was using Golf to up the ante in his negotiations with Golf Digest.
I knew from talking to Peper that he was holding out hope that his magazine could somehow get Tiger, and I also knew it would be a big deal for Golf.
As soon as Norton started into his "I'd hate to see Tiger being upset with John affect our negotiations with Golf" speech, I stood up.
"Is that what this meeting is about?" I said. "So you can blackmail George?"
I turned to Peper. "Listen, if you need to fire me to get this deal done with Tiger, go ahead. My guess is Digest will hire me tomorrow. So, it's fine, although I don't think for a second they're going to sign with you. In fact, I'll bet the deal's already done. But you do what you have to do.
"Meanwhile, I have things to do. If you want to stay and eat with these two a--holes, go ahead. But I have better things to do than listen to this crap."
I stalked out. In June, Golf Digest announced it had signed a deal to make Tiger Woods a playing editor.
Norton and I did talk again before Masters week was over. We bumped into one another under the famous tree outside the clubhouse where about half the business that is done at the Masters takes place. I apologized for calling him an a--hole. He apologized for his tactics.
"How about if you and I just make a deal?" he said. "Tiger does something you think is wrong, you call me. I'll tell you his side of it."
"How about if you get Tiger to tell me his side of it?" I said.
"Can't promise that. But I can promise some kind of answer every time you call."
A week later I was on the phone to Norton. After winning the Masters, Woods had been invited by President Clinton to participate with him and Rachel Robinson in a ceremony in New York commemorating the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color line.
Tiger turned down the invitation, saying he was going on vacation with friends.
"Are you kidding me?" I said to Norton--who instantly took my phone call, as he had promised.
"He's tired," Norton said.
"He's always tired," I said, referring to the blowoffs at the Buick Challenge the previous fall. "This is the president of the United States and Jackie Robinson's widow. You go."
"He doesn't see it that way. He sees it as a last-second invitation, and he had plans."
"Last second? He only won the Masters on Sunday. Were they supposed to know in advance he was going to win?"
So I ripped Tiger again, this time for turning down the president and Rachel Robinson.
Which is why I was very surprised a few months later at the PGA Championship at Winged Foot when Lee Patterson, another of the tour's PR guys, said to me, "How would you feel about sitting down with Tiger?"
"He told me that if you'd do it, he would like to sit down and talk to you."
I was stunned. "Well, of course I'd do it," I said. "But why in the world does he want to talk to me?"
"I'm not sure. All I know is he asked me the other day what I thought about you. I told him I liked you and thought you were honest. That's when he asked me if I thought you would talk to him. I told him I was pretty sure you would, but I'd check."
It was later that I found out more about what had led Tiger to ask Patterson about me. One thing about Tiger is that he watches TV all the time, and he reads about golf all the time. He sees, hears and reads every word said about him. He'd been furious about what I had said about his father in the Newsweek story--"I wanted to kill you when I read that," he told me--and was baffled by the fact that I seemed to be the only person who covered golf on a regular basis who ever took him on for his behavior.
He also knew that I got along well with a lot of players, and that they trusted me. So he asked several guys about me.
"I told him he should sit down and talk to you," Jeff Sluman told me. "I said, 'Here's the deal with John: If you're honest with him, he'll be honest with you. If he thinks you're trying to b.s. him, he's not going to accept it. But if he thinks you're being fair to him, he'll be fair to you.' "
Tiger had that conversation--or something like that--with several guys. That's why he decided to talk to Patterson--whose judgment he trusted.
I give Tiger all the credit for making that effort. I first suspected something might be happening when I was standing on the putting green at Winged Foot talking to caddie Bruce Edwards. Tiger was crossing the putting green en route to the range, trailed by his usual coterie of security, photographers, shoe reps, agents and hangers-on.
As he crossed the green he veered in my direction. "Uh-oh," Bruce said. "He's coming after you."
"Will you defend me?" I asked.
"Absolutely not," he answered.
I didn't need defending. Tiger walked over, hand extended. "John, how's it going?" he said.
"Good, Tiger, how about you?" I said.
"Find out Thursday," he said, continuing his walk in the direction of the range.
"What do you think that was about?" Bruce asked as the group trailed after Tiger.
"No idea," I said.
It was the next day that Patterson told me Tiger might want to talk to me.
It took almost six months to set up the meeting. I was starting work on the book The Majors early in 1998 and going to San Diego to do some of the early interviews. Just before I flew west on Monday evening, I got a call from Woods' assistant. Could I meet Tiger for an early dinner at his tournament hotel on Wednesday night?
I told her I'd be there.
The hotel was one of those boutiques right on the ocean. I walked into the lobby five minutes early and found Tiger sitting in a chair waiting for me.
"Couldn't wait to see me, huh?" I said as we shook hands.
"Actually, I'm just hungry," he said, not quite picking up on my sarcasm--or choosing to ignore it.
We walked into the hotel restaurant, which was small and elegant with a view of the sea. Tiger asked for a table in the corner. There were no hangers-on or agents in sight. It was just the two of us. There wasn't a lot of small talk.
I would love to report that the two of us really hit it off, that we bonded and came away with a better understanding of one another. I do think we understood one another better.
We talked at length about our disagreements. He was upset that I had criticized him for not accepting the invitation from President Clinton. "They didn't invite me until I won the Masters," he said. "Why didn't they invite me before? I win the Masters, and all of a sudden they want me there."
"You're absolutely right," I said. "Because before you won, the guy who should have been invited was Lee Elder. He broke the color line at Augusta, not you. But when you won, you did something no minority had done before, and that put you in a different category, made you more of a symbol the way Jackie Robinson was a symbol--and is a symbol."
We argued that one for a while. I asked him if there was any truth to the rumor that his father hadn't wanted him to go because he didn't like the fact that President Clinton hadn't served in Vietnam. "No, that wasn't it at all," Tiger said. "It was my decision."
One thing I learned that night was that Tiger made almost all his own calls--for good and bad. In fact, looking back at how he has behaved since the accident that changed his image and his life forever, that night is instructional. People--including me--have said that he should fire everyone around him, and he probably should if only because new people might--might--be more willing to tell him when he's making a mistake. But in the end I'm not sure it would matter. No one tells Tiger Woods what to do.
We also talked at length about the things I'd written about his father. I told him why I'd made the comparison to Stefano Capriati.
"I really don't think your dad is different from any other pushy, grab-the-bucks father," I said, "except for one thing: You're his son. So, I give him some credit for your genes because you're smart enough and tough enough to deal with everything he's pushed on you and still be a great player. Most kids aren't that way. I think you've succeeded in spite of your father, not because of your father."
If the comment bothered him, it didn't show. He disagreed--which didn't surprise me--and objected when I pointed out that his father had written books bragging about how he had created Tiger.
"He just did that because so many people asked him, 'How did you do it?' that he figured it was easier to write a book than try to answer the question a million times," Tiger said.
"Really?" I said. "Then why did he write the second book?"
Tiger looked at me for a second and laughed--probably for the first time all night. "Good one," he said, the closest he came to conceding a point during four hours of conversation.
My one regret about the evening is that I didn't tape it. Later, back in my car, I wrote down everything I could remember--which I think was most of it. Back then my memory was still very good.
We didn't drink, in part because Tiger had an early tee time the next day, in part because it wasn't a social occasion. But the conversation did loosen up after a while. We talked about other sports and how we felt about different people. Tiger felt comfortable enough to take some shots at people, and that was educational for me--in terms of his attitude and some of the people in question.
He also brought up the Augusta breakfast when I had walked out on his agents.
"I have to admit you surprised them," he said. "I think they really figured going to your boss would get your attention."
I explained to him that George Peper was only one of my bosses because I didn't work full time for anyone, and that most of my income came from writing books. "I like writing for Golf," I said, "but if George had fired me that day my guess is I'd have gotten another golf-writing gig someplace, and if I didn't it wouldn't really have been that big a deal."
Tiger sat back in his chair as if he had genuinely learned something. "So that's it," he said. "You really don't need any one job."
"No, I don't."
"Makes it tougher to intimidate you, doesn't it?" he said, smiling.
"I would think so," I said.
This time he laughed. "Well, good for you then."
At the end of the evening we made an informal pact that wasn't that different from the deal I'd made with Norton at Augusta 10 months earlier: If I needed to get in touch with him I was to call, not Norton, but his assistant. She could get in touch with him anytime, anyplace. He would then call me back as long as I let her know what I was calling about.
"On that night in San Diego I came about as close to getting at least a sense of the real Tiger as anyone in the media ever has."
"If you don't hear from me, you'll know I don't want to talk about it," he said.
I'd have preferred dealing with him directly, but I knew he wasn't going to do that--at least not yet, and at the end of the evening I said something to him that I really meant.
"I think this was good for both of us. But you deserve the credit for it. You don't need me to like you or write or say good things about you. You're Tiger f------ Woods. I think it says a lot about you that you did this. And I learned a lot tonight, not just about why we disagree on things, but about who you are."
He looked at me and nodded his head. "Guys I respect like you," he said. "I can see why after this, even though we disagree on a lot of things. But what'd you learn about me?"
"That you're smarter than I thought you were," I said. "I knew you were bright. You're glib, and you're quick, but I know now you're smart--very smart. It makes me look forward to disagreeing with you in the future, because I know you won't make it easy for me."
"Me too," he said.
I also told him that night that I had a mini-book coming out in several weeks that was called Tiger Woods--Master or Martyr? The book probably wasn't more than 10,000 words. It was, not surprisingly, very critical of Earl.
"I'll get you a copy as soon as I have one," I said. "It basically says the same things about your dad that we discussed tonight."
"I probably shouldn't read it then," he said.
"Probably not. But I don't want you blind-sided by it. I'll stick it in your locker when I get it, and you can do whatever you want with it."
That was where we left it. For the next few months, Tiger and I were cordial--almost friendly--when we encountered one another. He started calling me Johnny because he's a big nickname guy. Sometimes I think he's a hockey player.
"Who you got today, Tiger?" (Meaning, who are your playing partners?)
"I've got Maggs [Jeff Maggert] and Cookie [John Cook]." His caddie was Stevie (Williams), his agent is Steiny (Mark Steinberg), and his best friend on tour was Marko (Mark O'Meara). His favorite reporters are Rosey (Tim Rosaforte), Verds (Bob Verdi) and Kell (Kelly Tilghman). Like I said, it's a hockey thing: The nicknames aren't clever, they're just prevalent.
I was often amused when I heard members of the media talk about how well they knew Tiger. Many started sentences by saying things like, "The Tiger Woods that I know..." Or, "I think I know Tiger pretty well..."
Really? Did any of us know about the secret life Tiger was living? Answer: No. Do any of these guys think Tiger has ever really opened up to them, shared what he really thinks and believes? I would make the case that on that night in San Diego I came about as close to getting at least a sense of the real Tiger as anyone in the media ever has. The exception to that would be Golf Digest's Jaime Diaz, who has known Tiger since he was very young. I also wouldn't claim for a second that I "know" Tiger. I'm not sure Tiger knows Tiger, but I'm damn sure no one on the outside knows him.
Our truce lasted into the summer. I gave the book to Tiger at Doral. We continued to be cordial, often talking casually on the range when he was hitting balls after a round. In fact, during the U.S. Open that year at Olympic I talked to him about sitting down at the end of the year to discuss his year in the majors for the next book I was writing.
"Can we do it in Atlanta?" he asked, meaning the Tour Championship. "There's no pro-am, so that's a good week for me."
"Perfect for me, too," I said.
So we planned it.
In August, I was sitting in the locker room at Sahalee during the PGA Championship talking to Payne Stewart. We were making plans for dinner that night so that I could talk to Payne about his loss to Lee Janzen at Olympic a couple of months earlier. While we were talking, a guy I recognized as being one of Tiger's IMG walk-around guys--honestly, I don't know if I ever knew his name--walked up and said, "John, there's no rush or anything, but Tiger wants to talk to you when you get a chance."
I remember Payne looking at me with his wise-guy grin. "Have you been a bad boy?" he said.
"Probably," I said. I then asked the guy if Tiger was around.
"He's on the putting green," he said.
The putting green at Sahalee is next to the first tee. Tiger was out there putting--this was Monday, so things were pretty relaxed--when I found him.
"Heard you were looking for me," I said.
He stopped what he was doing and nodded. "Look, I'm sorry about this because I feel like I made a commitment, but I just can't do the thing with you in Atlanta for your book," he said.
"OK," I said. "Is there a particular reason?"
"Yeah," he said. "I just can't get past what you've said and written about my father."
I was a little surprised. If this had come up in March at Doral I wouldn't have been. But this was five months later. My immediate thought was that Earl had told him not to do it. Of course that didn't really matter. So I just nodded.
"You know what, Tiger, I respect your feeling that way," I said. "He's your dad. My dad was a public figure [he had just retired as director of the Washington Opera], not like your dad, but he's a public figure, and I get pissed off when people criticize him. So I understand. I thought we had talked all that out in San Diego, but I understand."
"I thought we had, too," he said. "But I just can't get past it."
To this day I believe Earl convinced Tiger he shouldn't talk to me. I could be wrong, but why wouldn't we have had that conversation after I gave Tiger the mini-book in March? It was three months later that I talked to him about sitting down with me in the fall, and his initial response was to do it--without any strings or any of the IMG ifs and buts that were usually attached to a one-on-one with Tiger.
I remembered something Pete McDaniel said to me. Earl had been holding court with some media members under the tree at Augusta, and Pete had walked over to where I was watching the scene, sitting on a bench just outside the locker room.
"You going to go over and say hi to your pal?" he said, jokingly.
"You know, actually I was thinking I would do that," I said--because I thought I should. I always believe in putting myself in front of those I've criticized. If they want to vent, let them vent. If they want to talk specifics--the way Tiger and I had done that night in San Diego--I think that's all good. If they want to turn their back, that's fine, too. I gave them their shot. I can't stand people in my business--many of them radio talk-show hosts and bloggers--who lob bombs at people they never have to face.
Pete looked at me for a second, and, realizing I was serious, said, "Don't do it."
"Why not? I don't care if he yells at me. I'm a big boy."
"He might try to hit you. I mean it. He told me once if you ever tried to talk to him, he'd punch you in the nose."
I laughed. "My guess is I'm quick enough to duck him." Earl already had health problems at that point and wasn't terribly mobile.
"Yeah, and then he'll hurt himself trying to hit you, and you'll be the one in trouble. It'll look like you baited him. Don't do it."
Pete and I joked around a lot, especially about his friendship with Earl. I could see now he was completely serious.
"You think it's a mistake to just introduce myself?"
"A big one."
I took his advice, so I never found out if Earl was just talking--which I suspect he was. Either way, Pete's point was well taken. Earl would probably tell people I was baiting him. So I steered clear.
And so, on the putting green at Sahalee, I was convinced that Tiger had no problem talking to me. Earl had the problem. As I had said, I understood Tiger standing by his father.
I put out my hand. "I just want to tell you that even though I'm sorry we won't be talking, I really appreciate you telling me this yourself and not sending someone to do it for you."
He returned the handshake. "I owed you that."
The funny thing is, I don't think I ever liked him more than at that moment. I really believed that with his smarts he was going to grow into someone truly worthy of being admired. Several years after our dinner, he did write a letter to Rachel Robinson, apologizing for not showing up that night in New York to honor her husband. The potential to do good was very much there.
I also thought at some point Tiger would get past his anger about what I'd said and written about his father.
Sadly, I was wrong on both counts.