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'Some people ask: "Is Tiger a nice guy?" It’s not even a relevant question'

Michael Bambeger chats to The42 about his new book on the US golf star.

Tiger Woods (file pic).
Tiger Woods (file pic).
Image: Richard Sellers

IT’S THREE YEARS since Tiger Woods was arrested for driving under the influence.

Woods was discovered by Matt Palladino, a local road-patrol officer, near the golf star’s home in Jupiter Island, Florida.

One of the most famous people in the world was sitting in a car, with a phone on his lap, the engine running and his eyes closed.

The incident seemed almost symbolic. How far the mighty had fallen. 

Having spent a significant portion of the previous 20 years as the dominant golfer on the planet, it seemed the 41-year-old was now in an irrevocable downward spiral.

The cracks first started to appear in 2009, when news of Woods’ extra-marital affairs broke. Despite a high-profile public apology and an extensive period spent in therapy, the ostensible psychological wounds from this saga, coupled with ongoing issues relating to his back and a number of surgeries, led many people to assert that the golf icon’s best days were behind him.

There were even significant doubts as to whether Woods would be seen competing again. Just weeks before the DUI arrest, the star himself told close friends his days of playing tournament golf could be over.

Improbably, rather than confirming his downfall, that incident in Florida and the infamous resulting mug shot proved to be the opening chapter of a late-career renaissance story.

Having played just one tournament between August 2015 and January 2018, and going from being the number-one ranked golfer in 2014 to outside the top 1,000 subsequently, Woods began what some commentators have dubbed the greatest sporting comeback ever.

In September 2018, he won the Tour Championship — his first tournament triumph in five years. The following April, he prevailed at the 2019 Masters — his first major in 11 years and 15th in total. At 43, he became the competition’s second oldest winner, after Jack Nicklaus, who won at 46.

This remarkable comeback following a dramatic fall from grace is documented in ‘The Second Life of Tiger Woods’ by renowned golf reporter Michael Bamberger.

Bamberger, a writer and columnist for GOLF Magazine, who previously spent 22 years at Sports Illustrated, draws on a deep network of sources to help tell this incredible tale.

The42 recently caught up with Bamberger to chat about ‘The Second Life of Tiger Woods’…

How did you get interested in writing the book?

I first saw Tiger Woods in person in 1995. I was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He was playing in the final of the US Amateur.

Not extensively, but I’ve pretty much covered his career since then. He’s won 15 major championships, I’ve been at 14 of them.

I have found him to be an extremely challenging figure to write about and to try to get to understand.

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You’ve written multiple books. How did you find the process of writing this one compared to others?

This was the biggest challenge of the ones I’ve written, because I’m trying to get inside the head of someone who does not want anyone inside his head. He doesn’t make himself available, and I’m not saying that critically. Of course, all of that is his prerogative, but it does make it challenging for the reporter.

But I appreciate the challenge and I was up for it.

Did you have any contact with Tiger’s people while writing it?

I had minimal contact with some of his people and a lot of contact with people close to his people, who would know Tiger well and have served Tiger from a very close range in ways that I would have not.

So it was like all reporting. If you can’t get it from one source, you go elsewhere. So I may not have gotten Tiger’s girlfriend, but I did get Nick Faldo. He’s seen a lot too. He was at the Master’s dinner with Tiger every year and various other places.

There’s been so much written already about Tiger Woods. Was this fact more a help or a hindrance when writing your book?

I’m not saying it in any way to be dismissive, but I just wanted to use what I knew first hand. I’m focusing particularly on a two-year period in the book from May 2017 through his Master’s win in April 2019. What he did in public I saw most of it. I didn’t use too much of what was already out there.

There was one landmark biography by Armen Keteyian and Jeff Benedict, and even that book I didn’t use very much.

John Hopkins, a long-time golf writer for The Times of London, did a write-up saying: ‘I’ve got 15 Tiger Woods books on my shelf. Do I really need a 16th?’ I thought it was a great question and I felt the same way when I was writing it.

In the book, you compare Tiger Woods to Mozart and Pablo Picasso. Do you think he is a genius and if so, are his well-documented flaws a by-product of that genius?

I think he’s an athletic genius, and part of his athletic ingeniousness is the type of intellectual superiority where he can figure out the problems that golf proposes in an extremely efficient way.

Genius often comes with all sorts of complications. Whether it’s Picasso, Da Vinci or anybody else, but when you’re really exceptional at something at that level, it’s unrealistic to think that you’re going to be ordinary in other aspects of your life. I just don’t think human nature is that way.

Some people ask: ‘Is Tiger a nice guy?’ It’s not even a relevant question. ‘Nice’ is for ordinary people. No matter who the person is, you expect them to treat others with respect and dignity, but ‘nice’ doesn’t really come to mind.

pga-charles-schwab-challenge-second-round Rory McIlroy recently said he probably would not play golf again with US President Donald Trump. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Rory McIlroy was recently in the news for saying he “probably” wouldn’t play golf with Donald Trump again. Would it be fair to say Tiger would be different in that regard, that he’d be respectful towards someone like Trump and wouldn’t necessarily view it as an endorsement by playing with him, and wouldn’t want to attract controversy by snubbing the invitation?

I think so. Covering Tiger as closely as I have and listening to him over the years, I really can’t tell you a thing about his politics. He has done an outstanding job separating his private life and his political views, his religious values and his relationships from his public life. So if Trump asks him to play golf, he’s going to say ‘yes’. And he would explain that as he has, as a sign of respect for the office of the presidency, without offering much of anything about his personal views on the man. So he’s very different from Rory that way.

How much impact do you suspect the rehab had on him? Did it make him more humble and change him?

You use the word ‘change’ and I note that because a lot of people do. I think the appropriate word is ‘changing’. I think he’s an evolving person, as a father. He’s much closer to the end of his athletic career than the beginning. He’s 44. So all the things he’s been through have added up to a person who is showing gratitude more so than he ever has before, and empathy. He’s slowing down gradually. He doesn’t move through crowds as quickly. So I would say that we’re seeing a changing, evolving Tiger Woods.

Was there an element of schadenfreude to the reaction of fans and the media, particularly in relation to his personal crisis in 2009. And is part of the reason he’s not particularly well liked in some quarters maybe because he’s an introvert and some of his resulting behaviour is mistaken for arrogance?

Your use of the word ‘schadenfreude’ is spot on. I totally agree with that, and I was perplexed by that. Because my feeling then and now is that’s his private life. It’s obviously life-changing in terms of his relationship with his children and his relationship with his wife, now ex-wife. How is that any of our business?

But because of his perceived arrogance, there was an element of schadenfreude from various quarters — among the press, among fans, among some other players. I find it perplexing and undeserving.

And yes, I think that his private nature, his shy nature — I know people have a hard time believing that, but I very much believe it that he is shy and he’s definitely secretive. So it played into that.

He’s not someone to get in front of a camera and say ‘back off’ or ‘this is what I was doing,’ or to be warm and cuddly, to be a showman, or be a playful entertainer like Phil Mickelson. Golf, to him, is a serious business. He can’t turn it into a comedy, because he doesn’t think it is in anyway.

So his private nature, his secret nature, his shy nature did [result in] the fact that we didn’t really get to know him. That got turned into ‘this guy’s arrogant’ in ways that may not have been fair to him.

ny-usta-foundation-opening-night-gala-arrivals Woods has a strained relationship with Greg Norman among others. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Does this also partially explain his tense relationships with the likes of Greg Norman and Tom Watson — the fact he is quite different from your typical golfer?

This is reading between the lines — I’ve talked to Greg Norman and Tom Watson and they have said they don’t feel Tiger has shown enough respect for the generation that preceded his own and for certain standards in the game that they hold dear. They both said that in different ways.

If you look at how Norman treats the generation before that generation — the Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus generation — he’s shown tremendous respect for that generation and they’re almost old enough to be his grandfather, or would be actually. 

You have a section on allegations that he used performance-enhancing drugs. Tell us about the challenges of writing on this and your overriding feelings on the matter?

I don’t want to get into it, because everything I know about that subject I put into the book and [anything else] would be speculative. There’s no smoking gun in the book. Tiger was around people who knew their way around performance-enhancing drugs. That doesn’t mean he did or didn’t [take them]. But with that question I would refer you to what I wrote in the book.

You put it succinctly in the book — those who come into it believing he used PEDs are unlikely to change their mind reading it and vice versa.

I have found that in every aspect of life. It’s really hard to turn people around. People have their opinions and they’re set on them typically. That might be less true in your country than mine, I don’t know.

How close do you suspect he was to ending his career as a result of the injury problems?

It was all but over and he said that. At the Masters in 2017, before he had this last-gasp spinal-fusion surgery, he told Gary Player that he was done as a player, and all he was really looking for out of the surgery was the prospect of being able to play in the backyard with his kids and maybe play recreational golf. He did not anticipate being able to play elite world-class golf as he is.

Do you think Woods’ 2019 Masters win amounted to the greatest sporting comeback ever?

Just in terms of golf, it’s probably the second most unlikely comeback ever. But to compare it to the other one that I have in mind is completely comparing apples and oranges.

The other one I have in mind is Ben Hogan returning to winning majors again after being nearly dead on the side of the road after his car was struck by a Greyhound Bus in February 1949, and then winning the 1950 US Open.

There are similarities in that both these comebacks started at the side of the road, but they’re dissimilar in that they were of course under totally different circumstances.

Source: The Masters/YouTube

Do you see him winning any more majors in future?

If he could win one more major, that would be extraordinary. As Nick Faldo says in the book, he needs everything to go his way in order to win a major. Warm weather, broad fairways, going in playing good golf, so if he could win one more major it would be an absolutely tremendous achievement.

As Jack Nicklaus says, never bet against this guy. Anything you think about this guy is probably wrong, because you’re using the standards of normal human behaviour to judge this guy. They’re not applicable. That’s one of Nicholson’s insights and I think it’s a very good one.

Do you believe he will continue playing for much longer, or do you see him quickly growing frustrated if he’s no longer the best and wanting to spend more time with family et cetera?

I don’t think he needs to be the best in the world in order to keep playing, because he’s not the best in the world now and he probably never will be the best in the world again.

I think he’ll continue to be a really serious competitive golfer as long as he knows his body is in good shape and he’s had time to prepare and his game is in good shape and he can contend in major championships. If that’s the scenario, he’ll play for it.

It’s a big ‘if,’ but if his body holds up, I don’t see why he can’t do it for another 10 years to get himself in shape where he can contend if he plays good golf.

He lives for competition. He can own a restaurant and he can do his philanthropic work and all this other stuff, but as Michael Jordan and others have found, there is no real substitute for doing that thing you do that nobody else in the world can do like you. What can be more exciting? So I think he’s going to ride it out for as long as he can.

Do you ever see anyone matching or surpassing the scope of his achievements in golf?

I don’t. It doesn’t mean that someone couldn’t come along and win 15 or more majors. But part of his story of course is public course golfer, black father, Thai mother, in that sense a first-generation American, or at least on his mother’s side he would be. It’s a game that had a long history of exclusion and not being welcoming to people who weren’t from a certain background. So all the circumstances of his life that made him who he is, on the day of his birth, for that person to do what he did, as quickly as he did, that part, I don’t see happening again.

This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.

The Second Life of Tiger Woods by Michael Bamberger is published by Simon & Schuster. More info here.  

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