Book review: The real Tiger Woods?

Tiger Woods during the third round of the 2010 Chevron World Challenge.

Tiger Woods during the third round of the 2010 Chevron World Challenge.

It was an ordinary shot, like so many others he made that year. But it was the kind of moment that etched forever in my mind what made Tiger Woods so special.

I had watched him play before, up close, but there was something special about this shot on the

second hole of the Atlanta Athletic Club’s Highlands Course during the first round of the 2001 PGA Championship. Woods’ drive had drifted right, into light Bermuda rough, and I was able (with my inside-the-ropes media access) to position myself right next to him as he stood over the approach shot from 180 yards.

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“His Father’s Son: Earl and Tiger Woods,” by Tom Callahan (Gotham Books, 2010. 304 pages, $27)

Woods’ conversation with his caddie, Steve Williams, was quick and simple. Tiger pulled an 8-iron from the bag, and I remember the look as his mind settled into place and his whole body followed. With a swing of intensity and power, he launched the ball so high and so fast that I felt as if I were at the end of a rocket engine. The air around the ball sizzled – ffwwiisshh.

Tiger’s brilliance was not simply in the great shots he hit under pressure: the winning birdie putts on the 18th green of the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 2008 and ’09. Nor was it the unimaginable shots he pulled off under pressure: the 6-iron from a fairway bunker over water to the 18th green to win the 2000 Canadian Open; or the mind-boggling series of shots he pulled off to win the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines while playing on a broken leg. It also was how he made even everyday shots special; how he’d cruise down the final holes protecting a lead by playing safe on 450-yard par 4s, hitting 3-wood/7-iron to 15 feet for tap-in pars. Or rocket those searing 8-irons from Bermuda rough.

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“Tiger: The Real Story,” by Steve Helling (Da Capo Press, 2010. 242 pages, $25)

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“Unplayable: An Inside Account of Tiger’s Most Tumultuous Season,” by Robert Lusetich (Atria Books, 2010. 269 pages, $26)

No wonder people flocked to watch him in person and on TV. Here was that rarest of sporting achievements, a child prodigy who would surpass his potential. In the process of becoming the greatest player of his era and arguably of all time, he also became a transcendent cultural figure. That’s what made his crash and burn of a year ago so amazing.

The public unraveling undid, in a matter of weeks, an image that his handlers at IMG and Nike had

cultivated for years. As Tom Callahan makes clear in his meticulously researched dual biography, the scandal also undid the years of myth-building by which Earl Woods created his son’s aura. According to Callahan, the irony is that the myth-builder himself, who died in 2006, was a crude, philandering, self-aggrandizer. Rather than moralize or take sides, Callahan lets the record speak for itself by piling on inside accounts of Earl’s upbringing, military career, and his “tough-love” version of child-rearing – or at least Tiger rearing, because, as Callahan writes, he seems to have all but neglected his three children from his first marriage and devoted himself to raising Tiger, his chosen one.

But Earl didn’t raise his son alone. Steve Helling’s “Tiger” makes a thoughtful case that much of Tiger’s competitive focus bears the legacy of his mother, Katilda, a Thai-born, educated woman from an upper-class family who was imbued with a deep sense of Buddhism. The peculiar cultural formation, famously described by Tiger as “Cablinasian” – Caucasian, black, Indian, Asian – allowed the young golfer to transcend racial stereotypes and emerge as a new kind of multicultural icon. In the 2008 election, Barack Obama no doubt benefited from this post-modern identity among many Americans. Woods didn’t swing the election, but he has shown that it’s possible to be judged on merit. Or, as we now know, on transgressions.

It would be easy to fault the golf media in having granted Tiger and Earl free passes in the name of protecting access. But as any writer who has covered Woods will attest, that access provided little substance.

From his early competitive days, Tiger internalized the lessons of his father and offered nothing of value through a news conference or interview. He stayed reclusive and profoundly insecure. Poor Robert Lusetich, who set out to write an account of Woods’ return in 2009 from leg surgery and followed him to every championship stop for the year, still never had an inkling of what he was up to beyond the ropes.

A year after his Escalade crashed, resulting in a spiraling sex scandal, battered image and eventual divorce, Woods is – at least for now – just another very talented golfer. It’s our loss as well as his. But those of us who were lucky enough to see it can attest to those 8-irons in his prime.

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