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14 Jul 2000 00:00
In just three years he has become the best sportsman on the planet. John Carlin charts the astounding progress of Tiger Woods from golfing prodigy to global phenomenon Tiger Woods was furious.
He had just missed a 3,6m putt at Pebble Beach.
Butchy and Tiger were bowed over the ball, staring at it reverently, as if they were priests at a religious rite. Butchy was whispering instructions. Tiger listened, nodded, drew himself up and putted again. This time using only his right hand. He missed. But this time he didn’t explode. Olazabal and Parnevik exchanged a quick glance. Tiger tried again. This time, with a thin sigh of satisfaction, he slid the ball into the hole. At a press conference 24 hours later, after he had shot a record-breaking 65 in the first round of the US Open, Woods explained what the problem had been. “My putting stroke hadn’t been as comfortable as I would like,” he said. “I was making putts, yeah, but there are certain ways of making putts. Either they go in properly or you just kind of scoot them in. I didn’t like the way I was rolling the ball. I found that my posture was a little off, my release wasn’t quite right. But, yes, today I putted beautifully.” He had. An American television commentator could not restrain himself, as the 3,5m, 6m, 9m putts kept dropping in, from exclaiming time and again: “No! No! You’ve got to be kidding!” The session with Butchy, madly intense as it had been, had paid off. He had gone out and played the most devastating golf ever, putting with a roll as impeccable as has ever been seen, crushing the field by a margin of 15 strokes, and beating by two shots the record victory margin in a major tournament of 13 set by Old Tom Morris at the British Open in Prestwick in 1862. Ernie Els, who was paired with Woods on the last round and came joint second with a total of three over par, said he was happy with the way he had played but couldn’t help feeling a little embarrassed to have been so comprehensively thrashed. Spain’s Miguel Angel Jimenez, who tied with Els for second place, had already warned after the third round that there were two tournaments under way at Pebble Beach: Tiger’s tournament, an entirely solitary sport, and the “real” competition, the race for second place. Tiger - an image from the wild that does very nicely - is more than merely the greatest golfer, by miles, alive today. He is the greatest sportsman in the world by miles, too. How can one measure these things? Surely to compare a golfer and a tennis player and a footballer is like comparing a painter, a novelist and a musician? Yes, but the way to make the evaluation is this. To ask the question, what other sportsman is so indisputably the best in his field? The answer is no one. Rivaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Andre Agassi, Shaquille O’Neal: they don’t come close. Not in basketball, not in tennis, not in football, not in boxing, not in anything. Like Shakespeare, like Mozart, like Picasso were, in their eras, the greatest creative geniuses alive, so today is Woods - at 24 years of age - the planet’s sporting colossus. To find comparisons within sport one has to reach into the past. To Michael Jordan, to Martina Navratilova and Rod Laver, to Maradona and Pele, to Muhammad Ali. That is the level Woods is at. Perhaps higher. Because what he did at the US Open was like winning a Wimbledon final, and all the matches leading up to the final, 6-0, 6-0, 6-0. Or knocking out the best boxers in the world, time and again, in the first round. Or scoring a goal in every game of a World Cup, with a hat-trick in the final. And now he prepares to go to St Andrews this month for the season’s next major, the Open, more clearly the favourite to win than any golfer ever has been. What sets Woods apart from other sportsmen is his almost robotic coldness of purpose. And his obsessive hunger to win, win and win again. His determination to do everything it takes to convert himself into a perfect golfing machine. Not to allow anything to stand in the way of his life’s mission, to become the greatest golfer ever. Pausing to smell the roses is completely out of the question. And he says as much himself. After the penultimate round of the US Open, at which point he held a nine- stroke lead, an NBC television interviewer cheerily asked him if he meant to enjoy himself on his last round, if he would savour the natural majesty of Pebble Beach, with its pine woods, its mountains and its vast ocean for a backdrop. The question might just as well have been directed at Star Trek’s Mr Spock. “Look,” Woods replied, as if battling to restrain the urge to call the NBC man a moron. “You might let go a little of the intensity as you walk down the fairways, so as not to burn off energy. But you don’t ever come out of your zone.” As if to prove his point, the next morning, to help zone himself for the last round, Woods was out on the practice range before dawn, hammering away at his drives.
How did he make it to this zone in the first place? Is it the genes? Well, certainly. But only in part. Examination of his brief life history suggests that nurture played a huge role. The case of Woods suggests that to be a genius you do not necessarily have to be born a genius. That genius can be manufactured. A manual is on the market that shows how it’s done. The author is Tiger’s father, Earl Woods, a former colonel in the US army who served in Vietnam. The book is called Training a Tiger: the Official Book on How to be the Best. The sport at which Earl decided that Tiger should excel happened to be golf, but one suspects the manual would serve equally well for the father who wishes his son to become Pele, Agassi or Jordan. Here is how Earl Woods - half infant psychologist, half General Patton - instructs over-ambitious parents to shape Mother Nature. The first step is to brainwash the child. When Tiger was six months old Earl would make a point of ensuring that his son would watch him practise his golf shots over and over, sitting the baby in his high chair at such an angle as to ensure that he could not resist falling under the hypnotic effect of his father’s pendulum swing. Sure enough, within days little Tiger was aping his father’s rhythmic arm movements. Tiger’s reward, aged seven months, was his first golf club, a putter. Step two is to familiarise the child with the tools of his future trade. Whether there was any choice involved we will never know. As Earl over-explains in his book, he started training his son “at an unthinkably early age”. Unthinkingly, Tiger took a liking to his putter. So much so that when he was 11 months old dad bought him his second club, an iron. Earl must have gone through a frustrating few months at this stage. The child would have been learning to walk but the act of hitting a golf ball requires a measure of balance difficult to achieve until you’ve made it to 18 months. Sure enough, when Tiger was 18 months Earl started taking him to the driving range on a daily basis, discovering, according to the legend Earl himself has constructed, that the prodigy was hitting the ball, with accuracy, a distance of 80m. It was a good thing for Earl that his wife shared his sense of mission. Tida Woods, a Thai lady Earl met while he was on one of his tours of Vietnam, decided after consultation with her husband that now was the time to start teaching Tiger about numbers. Knowing how to add and subtract was an important element of Tiger’s golfing apprenticeship. For two reasons, presumably. He had to be able to keep his score on the golf course and, later, he would require a gift for advanced arithmetic in order to keep track of his astronomical earnings. Of more immediate value, he memorised his father’s telephone number at work. Every afternoon the two- year-old Tiger would call his father and ask, “Daddy, can I practise with you today?” This is exactly what Earl wanted to hear. Never once did he turn Tiger down. Yet he always hesitated before answering, conning the infant into worrying that he might say no. Here is an important lesson for the father who worries his obsession might inspire rebellion in his child. “Through the use of guile and imagination,” Earl counsels, “... I always kept him wanting more.” The brainwashing was 100% successful. At two years old Tiger played golf with Bob Hope live on American TV. At three, improving on the average score of 50% of the world’s club golfers, he scored 48 over nine holes. When he was four Earl hired him a professional coach. (The coach, Rudy Duran, would say much later: “At five, he was basically an adult on the course.”) At eight, Tiger was going around 18 holes in under 80 shots, putting him in the top five per cent of all people who play golf. At 10, his dad found him a sports psychologist.
At 12, to toughen his prot’g’ mentally, his father would follow him around a golf course, making a point of coughing, or yawning, or dropping the golf bag at the precise moment when Tiger was about to make impact with the ball. Tiger’s challenge was to overcome his rage and frustration, and silently keep playing his game. Earl’s methods worked. At 15, Tiger became the youngest-ever winner of the US Junior Amateur championship; then he became the youngest winner of the adult US Amateur championship; then in 1997, at the age of 21, he became not only the youngest winner in 63 years of the US Masters at Augusta, the first of the four majors played each year, he won by the widest margin ever recorded, in the lowest number of shots.
Since then he has won the US PGA and now the US Open, accumulating $20-million in prize money and five times more in endorsements from Nike, Rolex, American Express - you name it. The president of American Express, congratulating himself on his investment, recently observed: “It is hard for me to visualise what audiences Tiger does not appeal to.” Indeed. The market that might be persuaded to purchase products sponsored by Tiger is limitless: young and old, rich and poor, black and white. And Asian-American. Even Native Ameri-can, as in the land of the free they politely call the descendants of the Cherokees, the Apaches and the Sioux.
Shortly after his first Masters victory, in April 1997, Tiger appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show. He told Oprah that it bothered him when people referred to him as “African-American”. He explained that, in truth, he was one quarter black, one quarter Thai, one quarter Chinese, one eighth white and one eighth American Indian. “Growing up,” he said, “I came up with this name: I’m a Cablinasian.” Deciphered, that meant he was Caucasian, black, Indian and Asian. That he should have been thinking in such terms when he was “growing up” revealed just how curious his thought processes had become during childhood. This, again, owed much to his parents, who taught him at their laboratory of human perfectibility that golf was only the beginning, that, as his mother has put it, he was “the Universal Child”, destined to transform the human species. If this sounds crazy, listen to Earl Woods’s words at a speech he gave during an event in honour of his 19-year-old son in 1996. As reported in Sports Illustrated, Earl’s voice trembled, his throat gulped down sobs, as he explained his vision of the role his son would play. “My heart . fills with so . much . joy . when I realise . that this young man . is going to be able . to help so many people . He will transcend this game . and bring to the world . a humanitarianism . which has never been known before. The world will be a better place to live in . by virtue of his existence.”
Asked later whether he was being serious, whether he saw his son as a sort of Messiah, Earl (John the Baptist to Tiger’s Christ) replied that, yes, he did. “Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity,” Earl said. More than Ali, more than Arthur Ashe? “More than any of them, because he is more charismatic, more educated.” More than Gandhi, Nelson Mandela? “Yes,” Earl replied, “because he has a larger forum than any of them. Because he’s playing a sport that’s international. Because he is qualified through his ethnicity to accomplish miracles. He’s the bridge between the East and the West. There is no limit . I don’t know yet exactly what form this will take. But he is the Chosen One. He’ll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations. The world is just getting a taste of his power.” Whether Earl had had a taste too much of alcohol that night, Sports Illustrated failed to record. But he had said much the same (“the Almighty entrusted this precocious child to me”) in his book. And, back in 1996 at any rate, Tiger himself seemed to believe his father’s megalomanic propaganda. “I don’t see any of this as scary or a burden,” he said, commenting on the awesome responsibilities his destiny supposedly had in wait for him. “I see it as fortunate. I’ve always known where I wanted to go in life. I’ve never let anything deter me. This is my purpose. It will unfold.” Having won the Masters in 1997, Woods’s life did not so much unfold as fall apart. However diligently his father had prepared him for the heavenly mission that lay ahead, he had not prepared him for Tigermania. For the mass adulation that came his way. For the relentless pursuit of the media hounds, eager to feed a hungry public not merely the details on the latest adjustment to his swing, but what he had for breakfast, what girls he was dating. Speculation ran that he was having a relationship with model Tyra Banks, while simultaneously conducting a liaison with, of all people, Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York. Pictures appeared in the press of him cavorting at a club with a topless dancer. At which point the messianic facade began to crumble and he was revealed, at heart, as just another boy of 20, who, reassuringly, said and did foolish things. Yes, he was almost super- naturally composed in public, on television, but during an interview with GQ magazine he made the sort of off-colour remarks that are entirely to be expected from men of that age. The public was shocked when he told jokes about lesbians and the reputed size of black men’s sexual organs, but they were only shocked because of the absurd expectations that the media, fuelled by his father, had generated. Christ did not mix with topless dancers, tell dirty jokes. Tiger did. Therefore - horrors - Tiger was not Christ! His occasional tendency to succumb to the sin of pride also came as a surprise to those of his admirers who fell prey to the confusion of assuming that his greatness as a sportsman extended to greatness as a man. His most spectacular act of arrogance came when he turned down an invitation to dinner from US President Bill Clinton. It turned out that Clinton had only put him on the invitation list after Tiger had won the Masters. Tiger, explaining himself, said he found it “a little curious” that the president had not considered him important enough to attend the dinner until after he had won the big golf tournament. In other words, the president had shown him a shocking lack of respect. Did he not realise, after all, that Tiger was going to save the world? Had he not been listening when his father said he would be more important than Mandela or Ghandi, never mind Clinton?
Tiger today, at 24, appears to have shaken off some of the more ham-fisted excesses of his father’s US army school of indoctrination. He appears to have reverted to the simpler role destiny had in mind for him. His “purpose” is merely to be a remarkable sportsman. The pressure of the mass media as well as the overweening pressure of expectation his father had built up combined to undermine the quality of his game for a while. He had won his first six tournaments as a professional, but between July 1997 and February last year he won only once. Halfway through last year he was not considered to be the world’s best player. There were doubts whether he would ever live up to his promise. But then the true Tiger was reborn. In May last year, following his victory in the Byron Nelson Classic, he set off on a winning streak that shows no sign of ending any time soon. He has won 13 tournaments in the Professional Golf Association circuit out of 22 starts, as well as three other tournaments outside the US.
What happened? He practised, practised and practised. Putting four hours at a stretch, hitting 800 balls in straight succession. Lifting weights. With his coach Harmon on hand, Tiger worked on reconstructing his swing until one day, as Harmon recalls, Tiger told him “it’s clicked”. And clicked it had. Today he is a more complete, more consistent player than he was before; a better driver of the ball, a better short-game player, a better putter than anyone in the game. But if Tiger has realised the vast promise of his childhood it is also because he has become, as his close friend golfer Mark O’Meara puts it, “more comfortable with himself in every respect”. This is perhaps because his father’s influence over him appears to have waned. Another factor of importance is Tiger’s friendship with Michael Jordan. Jordan, the greatest basketball player who ever lived, is a fanatical golfer. He likes to tell people, only half-jokingly, that Tiger is his “greatest hero on earth”. The value of Jordan to Tiger is that he has endured a similar level of adulation, has experienced the same shock of abrupt wealth. And Jordan has not wilted under the strain. He is the clean- living all-American hero, possessed in abundance of the defining all-American qualities: hard work, optimism and lust for money. His disciple is heading on much the same road: l Tiger has had a steady girlfriend for two years without a whiff of sexual scandal, or alcohol or drugs. Like Jordan, he comes across as a totally dedicated sporting monk. l With typically American earnestness Tiger likes to spout out the typically American lesson his father used to teach him: “Son, you get out of life what you put into it”. He also likes to say that he will be “forever grateful” to his father for imbuing him “with the work ethic early”. l His own private American dream, as Harmon says, is nourished by “an inward desire to be the best player the planet has ever seen”. Thus it is that after he won a tournament in Valderrama at the end of last year, he said there was still “a lot of room for improvement” in his game. l When it comes to money, it appears that he cannot have enough. Before he had signed his latest deal with Nike a reporter put it to him that it might be worth $90-million over five years. Woods replied, in the spirit of a Wall Street broker: “Those numbers are awfully nice ... That would definitely be very nice.”
Woods has become an icon in a culture that believes in utopia and worships success - success as defined by excellence and vast wealth. Tiger’s appeal has extended to parts of America other golfers cannot reach. Television’s advertising revenues from golf coverage, for instance, have sky-rocketed since he arrived on the scene. On February 13, when Tiger was going for his seventh straight win in the final round of the Buick International, the TV ratings exceeded those for the NBA All Star on that night by 15%. His appeal is wide, limitless, because he does not threaten anybody. Much has been made in the US of Tiger’s achievement in drawing “minorities” into the game of golf. Yes, certainly. Among the vast hordes that flock to see him in this least spectator-friendly of sports one does see a small sprinkling of black faces. But that is all. His fans are overwhelmingly white- faced, white bread, middle Americans. Among the many reasons why they like him is the fact that, like Jordan, Woods is not obsessive about his accident of race. Tiger is no militant for social change. He is so conservative, in fact, that he recently let out that he was against gun control, never mind the epidemic of school shooting recently to have assailed America. He is as likely to convert to Islam as Charlton Heston. A recent profile of him in an American magazine said he would be a good fit for a Republican presidential candidacy. Which may or may not be true, but is ultimately irrelevant. Politics is not the terrain where he chooses to be judged. The golf course is. What Tiger most aspires to is to break every record the game of golf has ever seen. Everybody, including Jack Nicklaus, who said after the US Open that he himself had never achieved Woods’s level of supremacy over his rivals, believes he can do it. And anyone who does not believe it should merely watch a television commercial he does for Nike, where he bounces a golf ball on the face of a club, between his legs and behind his back, for 30 seconds and then smashes it in mid- air, like a baseball player, into the distance. That is genius. That is what happens when you have a father who started teaching you to play at six months and ended up manufacturing, with obsessive attention to detail, a machine, a Rolls Royce, of golf. For the pleasure watching him play golf gives, the pleasure of knowing that one is in the presence of a talent that is absolutely unique, all people who love sport should be grateful to Earl Woods. As is Angelo Dundee, the legendary trainer of Ali. “I am not surprised that all these things are coming his way,” Dundee has said of Tiger. “He has those qualities that Ali had, the same supreme confidence and killer instinct. All the great ones have it. It is not an ego thing. They just know.” Tiger puts it differently. “If you truly love yourself,” he has said, “then obviously everything will be OK.” Yes, but Tiger has a problem. “For everything to be OK”, for him to find anything approaching peace of mind, he has to beat Nicklaus’s record of 18 victories in major championships. Which is to say that the enemy to beat is not a tangible rival in the here and now. The task Tiger has set himself is to defeat history and to do so he must conquer nature, which means conquering himself, and then the golf course. But what happens if the gloss falls off his game, as it has done in the case of many other ordinarily mortal greats - like Nick Faldo, Nick Price and Severiano Ballesteros - and he smells the appalling possibility of failure? Today that seems unlikely, but there may yet be many twists and turns ahead in the walking, talking drama that Woods has become. Hubris may yet strike. He has a good 30 years ahead of him in which to achieve, or not to achieve, his goal. The question may emerge whether he will be able to sustain that plutonium density of will he carries inside his head, or whether the pressure will become too great and he will explode.
The nerves may not hold out. Because the nerves are there, and nerves do fray, even Tiger’s - as he showed on the afternoon before the US Open on the practice green at Pebble Beach. Don’t bet against him reaching his mountain top. But it could also be that in his striving for perfection the gods might first make him mad.
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