December 28, 2009

'What Happened?'

Tiger Woods needs a heart-to-heart with Tiger Woods

I will never forget the sound of Tida Woods' voice piercing through the recording of the 911 call of Nov. 27 at the start of her son's public nightmare.

As Tiger lay next to the SUV he had just crashed, his mother's throaty wail was demanding, disbelieving and, most unsettling from such a strong woman, scared.

Of course, the question she posed endures almost a month later, and will for many more to come: How could all that "what happened" have happened to Tiger Woods?

Weeks later, after Woods acknowledged his infidelity and announced he was taking an "indefinite break" from the game, I kept going back to the beginning. I first met Tiger in 1990 in the parking lot at Coto de Caza, a Southern California course not far from his family home. I was doing a profile for Golf Digest on Woods, then a 14-year-old prodigy, who in short order would win three consecutive U.S. Junior Amateurs. He arrived with his father, whom I had spoken with on the phone. Earl was friendly and informal. He called me "Stud," which seemed odd on several levels, but not after I got used to his chauvinistic Army humor. After shaking hands, Tiger hung back, barely saying a word.

In retrospect, he was the Tiger I still know: reserved and wary. I quickly sensed that he had gotten used to more than just media people wanting something from him, and he was already growing tired of it. Plus, he was focused on displaying his best for what would be his first big national magazine story. He had his game face on.

He was a bit tight at first, but he hit breathtaking shots, and when he saw how I "got" him as a golfer and student of the game, he became Tiger at his most charming: bright, curious, innocent and seemingly eager to connect in the way of an only child.

After the round, the three of us stopped at an all-you-can-eat buffet, Tiger's choice. He had many questions, a lot of them about the media. As I made the case for maintaining an open dialogue, he listened impassively. Then he asked, with a pained expression, "Why do they have to know everything?"

Tiger Woods had already figured out that they don't. He was already constructing a life apart -- certainly from the public, but also from anyone who inhibited him from the things he wanted to do. As close as he and Earl were, the father knew Tiger was a kid who by temperament and especially circumstance needed plenty of personal space. For as much as Earl tried to balance the myth-making of his son -- beginning with "The Mike Douglas Show" and "That's Incredible!" -- with an intimacy and openness that any father would envy, Tiger early on felt owned by the public, and in reaction became fiercely independent. The focus and drive that complemented his talent is what made him a transcendent genius. But those same qualities, employed in rebellion, would also foster a personal coldness and a dread of public scrutiny.

Although his wide smile and sheer joy in playing kept me from seeing it right away, he was a kid with a burden. For one, he was clearly the only source of his parents' happiness in an otherwise uneasy marriage. Both Earl, who had been distant from his first wife and their three children, and Tida, who grew up a lonely child of divorce, gave their all for Tiger, but it was the only place their lives intersected. By the time Tiger began playing the tour, his parents were living in separate houses.

Earl in particular couldn't refrain from portraying his son as perfect. The litany was long, with relatively small pronouncements, like Tiger never playing golf until he had completed his homework, to bigger ones, like Tiger being "incapable" of lying, to the supersized: Tiger would be more important than Gandhi. An oft-repeated phrase is one I heard at our first meeting: "I'm very proud that Tiger is a better person than he is a golfer."

Perhaps Tiger's greatest accomplishment is that by force of talent and will, and perhaps his attempt to enhance his parents' relationship, he continued to live up to the impossible claims. He won everything as a junior, became the only male to win three straight U.S. Amateur titles, was a good student at Stanford, then embarked on a professional career that soon had him tracking Jack Nicklaus' record for major championships. Tiger was special. Former cynics would sing in unison, "Earl was right."

Woods became golf's Atlas, carrying everything -- the PGA Tour, his near-flawless image as a role model, his foundation, his family; heck, the game itself -- on his shoulders, all on top of the unceasing pressure to perform.

But as much as he sought the glory, he resented the obligations that came with it, even if they made him incredibly rich. I remember Earl telling me that once he had tried to commiserate with his overwrought son by saying, "I understand how you feel."

But, Earl recalled, "Tiger turned on me and said, 'No, you don't. You have no idea how I feel.' And I realized that I had underestimated."

As Tiger's life in his 30s became more tangled, he turned more inward. His inner circle got smaller and tighter, and those who overstepped or didn't fit in were jettisoned. The best advice for those who are around Woods remains, "Don't get too close."

Those who were the closest saw the pressures and the toll. Out of sympathy, and the fact that he is their employer, they didn't call Woods on imperfect behavior like swearing, banging clubs and blowing by autograph lines. Within his camp, Tiger in a bad mood would be characterized in golf jargon: "Unplayable."


Woods was brought up with the idea that a player, especially one with aspirations for greatness, is entitled to be selfish. He never had a job or even many chores, so he could devote himself to schoolwork, golf and occasional diversions. "To live a sane life, I have to be ruthless sometimes," he told me in 2000. "Put up a wall, be cold, say no. If I didn't, I would never have my own time and space, which is vital to me to achieve what I want in life."

Tiger Woods: 'What Happened?'


The bottom line was getting the job done. As he often said, "Winning takes care of everything."

Last year was probably the most uncomfortable I've ever seen Woods. Coming off eight months of intense rehab for his left knee that didn't produce full healing, he was noticeably irritable. The fact that a witness in the police report after Tiger's accident said that Woods had been prescribed Vicodin, a strong prescription painkiller, gives pause. And it's not unreasonable to assume that his marriage was unhappy for quite some time.

Whatever the reasons, at times he was uncharacteristically rude. One of the telling images of the year came after he bounced his driver into the crowd in Australia. After fans retrieved the club, Woods took it without so much as a glance, let alone an apology.

It was also a year of impatience with the golf press. Angry about being criticized for his behavior and his game (no major-championship victories among his seven wins), he told me he was "pretty burned out on the media," and for the first time in eight years he declined to be interviewed in person for a year-end story for Golf Digest. "I always have to answer all the questions," he told me in an October phone conversation that he agreed to instead. "That's one of the reasons I've quit reading all articles. I don't watch golf on television unless my friends are playing. And if they're playing well, I still keep the volume on mute. A lot of these media guys are so opinionated, but they don't have all the information."

Woods was probably in more need of his own time and space than ever. His release valve of choice was, disastrously, outside his marriage. Though he had talked often about how his marriage of five years and his children have given him balance, obviously he was out of balance. Tiger Woods, always strong and sure, proved weak and lost.

Putting aside questions of infidelity, what's intriguing is why Woods -- always so calculating, detail-oriented and careful -- was so reckless. With so much to lose, how could he be heedless enough to leave an e-mail, voicemail and text-message trail to tabloid hell?

Only Woods knows the answers, and perhaps not at the moment. Although it has been nearly four years since Earl Woods died, Tiger might still be missing a mentor and motivator.

"I can sense and see stress in him and see that he's battling himself more than he should," Michael Jordan said before the Presidents Cup. "I think a lot of that's happened more as of late because his father's passed."

Intimates know that the anniversary of his father's death -- May 3 -- is an especially difficult one for Tiger, bringing home how much he misses their conversations.

"It's not uncommon for an adult son, after losing his father, to be particularly susceptible to reckless behavior," says Neil Chethik, author of the book FatherLoss. "The specter of death and mortality can leave a man feeling that you only go around once, and so how do you enjoy it the most? Men can give in to whatever excess they are most vulnerable to. It could be drinking, or gambling, or sex. It's more complicated for a megastar like Tiger because he can't really have a normal private life. Everything is so exposed. He can really only have a secret life."

It is also possible that on a deep level, Woods simply wanted out of an unsustainable life. As an architect of his destruction, his efficiency was on par with how he navigates a golf course.


If Woods was motivated by a self-destructive urge, he got more than he bargained for. The confluence of 24-hour cable news, blogs, websites and tabloids gave the information an immediacy and salaciousness that was depressingly irresistible. The details and the tone were so merciless that late-night comics felt tacit permission to pile on. Just like that, Woods had gone from one of the most revered and socially significant athletes in history to the most ridiculed.

It doesn't matter that Woods has never been comfortable on the pedestal of moral superiority. Doesn't matter that philandering has been part of pro golf since the Scots were stuffing featheries, or that it's pervasive in other sports. Woods was supposed to be the guy with the superhuman discipline to withstand temptation, the example that millions of parents held up to their children, our vicarious thrill ride to the outer limits of human potential. We had presumed him, above all others, to be special. Betraying all that exacted a commensurate public disgrace.

So will Woods react with determination or despair? It's possible the censure he's absorbing will destroy the champion in Tiger Woods. Weeks after the accident, he still had not shown his face publicly. Friends said he was not returning texts or e-mails. It was easy to imagine him a broken man. Though we know Tiger is tough on the golf course, he has never really had to be tough in life.

Now, though, I believe he will be. The stockpile of self-esteem provided by his upbringing could help him take an almost clinical approach to changing what was abhorrent in the person he had become. He'll have to look more deeply into himself than ever to understand the crucial "Why?"

It will be a lonely, humbling journey for a young man who has always hated showing vulnerability. As such, it will be the most needed and important gut check of his life. He will have to share the findings with his wife for his marriage to have a chance to survive.

There is no doubt that Tiger will always have the support and wisdom of his mother. Yes, her son disappointed her as he never had before. But Tida has long dealt with personal hardship from a Buddhist perspective that keenly recognizes human frailty and the possibility of atonement. In a phone conversation several days after the scandal broke, I found her unblinkingly positive.

Why was Woods -- always so calculating, detail-oriented and careful -- so reckless?'

Despite the advice of those who say Woods must deliver an outpouring from Oprah's couch, I believe he'll keep the findings of his exploration private. When he comes back to competition, he will say little. Like always, he'll depend on his clubs to provide eloquence. Indeed, what he does and knows best -- golf -- will provide the framework for his rehabilitation. He has to believe the exceptional attributes he exhibits on the course -- including sound judgment and discipline -- will overpower the selfishness and recklessness he has fallen prey to off it.

Being Woods, he will be determined to keep the gleeful haters from getting satisfaction. Compared to Jordan, who was maligned for his score-settling acceptance speech at the Basketball Hall of Fame, Woods will never have to gin up a grudge. And he has plenty of recent examples of once-shamed superstars who came back stronger, none more encouraging than Kobe Bryant. The two share the ethic of constant improvement. Woods has always taken his greatest satisfaction in losing himself in that pursuit, which suggests that more than ever, golf will be his refuge.

Woods' old mystique -- that of the chilly Chosen One immune to human weakness -- is gone. It might well be that his former domination or even his competitive desire goes with it. Still, he has a chance to attain something more human. When he re-emerges, Woods will have truly suffered. Not knee-injury suffering, not even loss-of-father suffering. Rather the kind of suffering that heroes who have ruined their charmed lives confront at the climax of Shakespearean tragedy.

Just as it isn't an overstatement to see the fallen Woods in such a context, so it is difficult to understate the potential scale of his redemption. Through all his folly, Woods has made passing Nicklaus' major record an even greater feat than it would have been without it. Because the ultimate measure of a man is not what he achieves, it's what he overcomes.

This is Jaime Diaz's eighth annual assessment of Tiger Woods' career. For past stories, click here.