When 20-year-old Tiger Woods went pro in August 1996 — and was instantly hailed as a transformative figure in the insular, terminally white world of professional golf — he wasn’t merely a prodigy with an interesting backstory; he seemed to represent a wholly different species. Blessed with a sinewy physical grace, an unflappable (or so it seemed at the time) demeanor, and a charismatic physical presence, Woods was viewed as nothing less than the savior of a sport badly in need of another Nicklaus or Palmer.
He had been on the PGA Tour for only a matter of months when Sports Illustrated named him its Sportsman of the Year for 1996, with a Gary Smith profile that confronted both his instant impact on the world of golf and his potential impact beyond it, and opened with a quote from Tiger’s father, Earl Woods, that is still flabbergasting in its messianic presumption.1
1. “Please forgive me … but sometimes I get very emotional … when I talk about my son … My heart … fills with so … much … joy … when I realize … 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 … and his presence … I acknowledge only a small part in that … in that I know that I was personally selected by God himself … to nurture this young man … and bring him to the point where he can make his contribution to humanity … This is my treasure … Please accept it … and use it wisely … Thank you.” Describing the scene, Smith wrote, “In the history of American celebrity, no father has spoken this way.”
Enter Art Cooper, the shrewd editor of GQ, who very much wanted to put Tiger Woods on GQ‘s cover as well. IMG, the firm that was repping Woods, agreed to the piece, but put exorbitant strictures on the photo shoot and accompanying interview. The photographer, Michael O’Neill, would get one hour of Woods’s time. The writer, Charles P. Pierce,2 would literally be along for the ride, sitting in the backseat of the limo as a driver picked up Woods (who was staying at his mother Tida’s house in Los Angeles) and took him to the photo shoot at O’Neill’s studio in Long Beach. Pierce would then accompany Woods on the ride back to his mother’s house. End of access, end of story.3
2. Pierce grew up with the game of golf. “I play,” he says. “My father was a high school golf coach [at North High in Worcester, Massachusetts]. Whether I like it is another matter.”
3. “At the time, what they offered for both the photo shoot and [writer] access was really restrictive,” says David Granger, then the assistant managing editor at GQ and now editor at Esquire. “Now that’s the normal course of events for any famous person, but back then most of the time when we wanted to put somebody on the cover of GQ, back then — especially an athlete — they would give us the world.”
Pierce had worked with David Granger before, when both were on the staff of The National Sports Daily during its brief, glorious run, and afterward had followed Granger to GQ, where Pierce became a senior writer and sports columnist. Pierce, who is now a contributor for Grantland, had read Smith’s piece4 and taken note. “Having been raised Catholic, I have a decent barometer for bullshit spirituality,” he says. “And I thought, Wow, this is bordering on idolatrous here, at least with what Earl was saying, and I thought, This is a pitch made on behalf of somebody who really is unformed, both as an athlete and as a public celebrity. I thought it was a risky approach to take, and one that could easily come a cropper.”
4. A close reading of Smith’s original piece shows that he was as concerned as Pierce would be that Earl Woods’s prophecies were doing a disservice to his son. “Just below the applause, or within it, can you hear the grinding?” Smith wrote. “That’s the relentless chewing mechanism of fame, girding to grind the purity and the promise to dust. Not the promise of talent, but the bigger promise, the father’s promise, the one that stakes everything on the boy’s not becoming separated from his own humanity and from all the humanity crowding around him.”
And after Pierce wrote his story, it would.
By Charles P. Pierce
OK. GOLF JOKE. Jesus Christ and Saint Peter go out to play golf. Saint Peter steps up to the first tee. He’s got the sharp designer vines. Even got a brand-new yellow Amana hat. (Amana sewed up a sponsorship deal long before anyone else, and Nike couldn’t even get in the door.) Clubheads that gleam in the heavenly light like stars on sticks. Takes out a golden tee. Puts down a fresh Titleist Balata. Smacks it down the fairway for a clean 265, dead center. Ball sits in the green grass like a distant white diamond. Allows himself a little smirk as he steps out of the tee box. Listens carefully to hear if a cock is crowing.
Anyway, Jesus up next. Old robe. Sawdust up to his elbows (somebody needed a coffee table finished that morning). Got a black rock tied to a cane pole. Got a range ball with a red stripe around its middle and a deep slice up one side. Hits the ball with the rock, and it goes straight up in the air. It is plucked away by a passing pileated woodpecker, which flaps off down the fairway toward the green. Stiff head wind blows up. Woodpecker begins to labor. Just over the front fringe of the green, woodpecker suffers a fatal heart attack. Drops the ball onto the back of a passing box turtle. Ball sticks. Turtle carries the ball toward the hole. At the lip of the cup, turtle sneezes.
Ball drops into the hole.
Saint Peter shakes his head.
“You gonna play golf?” he asks Jesus. “Or you gonna fuck around?”5
5. Pierce first heard the joke from his old friend Michael Gee, with whom he worked at the Boston Phoenix.
Is this blasphemous?
And what would be the blasphemy?
And what would it be?
The punch line? That Saint Peter is said to be using a curse word as regards his Lord and Savior?
No, ma’am. Sorry. Please consult Matthew 26:73-74.
And after a little while, they came that stood by, and they said to Peter, “Surely, thou art one of them, for even thy speech doth discover thee.”
Then he began to curse and to swear that he knew not the man.
And immediately the cock crowed.6
6. Pierce was familiar with the passage from his college theology courses at Marquette University. “I didn’t wanna take theology where I had to read all of those really lugubrious Germans,” Pierce explains. “So I found a couple of guys who taught Scripture history. They taught the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gnostics and stuff like that, so I took a lot of Scripture courses. With a Catholic upbringing, you don’t learn a lot of Scripture because if you were Catholic and made it to the Mass by Offertory, it counted.”
Peter was forgiven.
And what would be the blasphemy?
And what would it be?
That our Lord and Savior would play golf?
That He would do anything within His admittedly considerable power to win?
No, ma’am. Sorry. I believe that Jesus would play to win. I would not want Jesus in a $1,000 Nassau, not even with four shots a side. I do not like my chances at that. No, ma’am, I do not. I believe Jesus would take my money. I believe that He would take it and give it unto the poor, but I believe He would take it. I believe that Jesus would focus. I believe that His ball would not find the rough. I believe that there would be sudden windstorms. I believe that He would find no water, but that if He did, He would walk out and knock one stiff from the middle of the pond. I believe that the Redeemer cometh and He playeth to win, or else He’d have wound up as merely one of the foremost carpenters in Nazareth. I would not want Jesus in a $1,000 Naussau, not even with four shots a side.
Is this blasphemous?
And what would be the blasphemy?
And what would it be?
That there is divinity guiding the game of golf? That the hands of God are on a steel shaft, the fingers of God overlapped and strong, and the hands of God bring the steel shaft up brightly in the heavenly light — but not past parallel; never past parallel — and then down, hard, to smite the sinful modern world?
Is this blasphemous?
IN THE LIMO, fresh from a terribly wearisome photo shoot that may only help get him laid about 296 times in the next calendar year, if he so chooses, the Redeemer is pondering one of the many mysteries of professional sports.
“What I can’t figure out,” Tiger Woods asks Vincent, the limo driver, “is why so many good-looking women hang around baseball and basketball. Is it because, you know, people always say that, like, black guys have big dicks?”
Vincent says nothing right off. Vincent is cool. Vincent played college ball at Memphis State under Dana Kirk,7 and that is like saying that you rode the range with Jesse James or prowled the White House lawn with Gordon Liddy. Straight outlaw street creds, no chaser. Vincent is sharp. Vincent got into computers back when computers meant Univac, and that is like saying you got into navigation when navigation meant Columbus. Vincent is cool and Vincent is sharp, but Vincent is stumped here for an answer.
7. Pierce asked the driver if he was Vincent Askew, a star on Memphis State’s 1984-85 Final Four team, but the man said no. “I didn’t get a last name,” says Pierce.
He and Tiger have already discussed video games. Tiger likes fighting games. He has no patience for virtual skateboarding. “I get fucking pissed when I’ve got a station and no game to play on it. It’s frustrating,” Tiger said. He and Tiger have also discussed the various models of Mercedes automobiles. The day before, Tiger won himself a new Mercedes automobile at a golf tournament outside San Diego. But it was such an ordinary, respectable Mercedes that Tiger gave it to his mother. Tiger likes the more formidable model of Mercedes that Ken Griffey Jr. drives. “That is a great fucking car, man,” he enthused. Vincent agreed. But then Tiger came up with this question about why all the good-looking women follow baseball and basketball, and he came up with this theory about black men and their big dicks, and Vincent is not ready for the turn that the conversation has taken.
So I step in. It is said to be the case, I begin, trying to give Vincent a moment to regroup, that women follow baseball and basketball closely because those two sports put them in greater proximity to the players.
“What about golf then?” says Tiger, and now I am stumped for an answer.
Vincent finally tells him, “Well, what Mr. Pierce back there says is right, and what you said well, there’s probably some truth to that too. And the other thing is that there is so much money involved in those two sports that that probably has something to do with it, too.” Tiger seems very satisfied with the roundness of this answer. He says nothing for a moment. He looks out the window of the limousine, and he watches the failed condominium developments go passing by.
One day earlier, he had won the Mercedes Championships at the La Costa Resort and Spa. La Costa was the place into which the Mob plowed all the money from the Teamsters pension fund. La Costa is now owned by the Japanese. Jimmy Hoffa must be spinning in the Meadowlands. The Mercedes Championships used to be what the PGA Tour called the Tournament of Champions. All things do change. Still, only golfers who have won a tour event during the previous season are eligible to play in this tournament, which annually kicks off the new tour season. In 1996 Tiger qualified for the Mercedes by winning two of the eight tournaments he entered after joining the tour in September.
At La Costa on Saturday, he birdied the last four holes to move into a tie with Tom Lehman, the 1996 PGA Tour player of the year. On Sunday, however, La Costa was drenched by a winter storm out of the Pacific, and it was determined Lehman and Woods would play a one-hole play-off for the championship, the $296,000 first prize and the brand-new Mercedes. The officials chose the par-three seventh hole, which ran off an elevated tee down to a green bounded by water on the left side. Hundreds of people scurried down through the rain, a great army moving behind a screen of trees, a bustling little loop of humanity shivering under bright umbrellas.
Lehman hit first. He caught his shot fat. It landed on the far bank and hopped backward into the pond, scattering a flock of American coots. (These are genuine American coots — also called mud hens — and not the other, more visibly affluent American coots, some of whom were lining the fairway.) Now, there was virtually no way for Woods to lose the tournament. He could reverse pivot and line up the clubhouse veranda, and he’d still be better off than poor Lehman, who had to function amid the ragged and distant hosannas of Tiger’s partisans cheering Lehman’s misfortune. Instead, Woods took out a seven-iron. As he followed through, a raindrop fell in his eye, partly blinding him.
The ball damned near went in the hole.
The crowd — his crowd, always his crowd now — did not cheer. Not at first. Instead, what the crowd did was … sag. There was a brief, precious slice of time in which the disbelief was sharp and palpable, even in the pulping winter rain. Then the cheers came, and they did not stop until he’d reached the green. He tapped in for the championship, the check and the car, which he gave to his mother.
“All right, here’s what happened,” Tiger would explain later. “If I hit it toward the middle of the green and my natural draw takes over, then I should be right at the hole. If I hit the iron shot I’d been hitting all week, which was kind of a weak-ass shot to the right, then it should hold against the wind and make it dead straight.”
“So I turned it over perfect. I finally hit my natural shot.”
And how long did all this calculating take?
“A couple of seconds. Of course, if he’d have hit it close, I probably would’ve been more aggressive.”
The next morning — this morning — a limousine picked him up at his mother’s house, and it took him to a photo shoot for the magazine cover that is only going to get him laid 296 times in the next year, if he so chooses. He gave the photographer an hour. One single hour. Sixty minutes, flat, in front of the camera. In the studio, which was wedged into a Long Beach alley behind a copy store and next to Andre’s Detailing Shop (if you happen to need an Aztec firebird on your hood in a hurry, Andre’s your man), Tiger was dressed in very sharp clothes by four lovely women who attended to his every need and who flirted with him at about warp nine. Tiger responded. Tiger told us all some jokes.
This is one of the jokes that Tiger told:
The Little Rascals are at school. The teacher wants them to use various words in sentences. The first word is love. Spanky answers, “I love dogs.” The second is respect. Alfalfa answers, “I respect how much Spanky loves dogs.” The third word is dictate. There is a pause in the room. Finally, Buckwheat puts up his hand.
“Hey, Darla,” says Buckwheat. “How my dick ta’te?”
He was rolling now. The women were laughing. They were also still flirting. The clothes were sharp, and the photographer was firing away like the last machine gunner at Passchendaele. And Tiger told jokes. Tiger has not been 21 years old for a month yet, and he tells jokes that most 21-year-olds would tell around the keg in dormitory late on a Saturday night. He tells jokes that a lot of arrested 45-year-olds will tell at the clubhouse bar as the gin begins to soften Saturday afternoon in to Saturday evening.
This is one of the jokes that Tiger told:
He puts the tips of his expensive shoes together, and he rubs them up and down against each other. “What’s this?” he asks the women, who do not know the answer.
“It’s a black guy taking off his condom,” Tiger explains.8
8. Pierce still vividly remembers the scene inside the studio. “I remember how they were fussing with him, and then he’d begun telling the jokes — the joke about the black men taking off their condoms, and lesbians always going 69, and all of that other stuff … He was young. And then I thought to myself, You know, after I graduated from college, my go-to default position in talking to groups of adults I didn’t know was not dirty jokes. It wasn’t like anybody there was severely shocked. They giggled, and they were all busy about their tasks, and Michael [O’Neill, the photographer] was maniacally focused on getting the right picture.”
He tells jokes that are going to become something else entirely when they appear in this magazine because he is not most 21-year-olds, and because he is not going to be a 45-year-old club pro with a nose spidered red and hands palsied with the gin yips in the morning, and because — through his own efforts, the efforts of his father, his management team and his shoe company, and through some of the most bizarre sporting prose ever concocted — he’s become the center of a secular cult, the tenets of which hold that something beyond golf is at work here, something that will help redeem golf from its racist past, something that will help redeem America from its racist past, something that will bring a new era of grace and civility upon the land, and something that will, along the way, produce in Tiger Woods the greatest golfer in the history of the planet. It has been stated — flatly, and by people who ought to know better — that the hand of God is working through Tiger Woods in order to make this world a better place for us all.
Is that blasphemous?
There is no place in the gospel of the church of Tiger Woods for jokes like this one:
Why do two lesbians always get where they’re going faster than two gay guys?
Because the lesbians are always going sixty-nine.
Is that blasphemous?
It is an interesting question, one that was made sharper when Tiger looked at me and said, “Hey, you can’t write this.”
“Too late,” I told him, and I was dead serious, but everybody laughed because everybody knows there’s no place in the gospel of Tiger for these sorts of jokes.9 And Tiger gave the photographer his hour, and we were back in the car with Vincent and heading back toward Tiger’s mother’s house. “Well, what did you think of the shoot?” Tiger asks, yawning, because being ferried by a limousine and being handled by beautiful women and being photographed for a magazine cover that will get him laid 296 times in the next year, if he so chooses, can be very exhausting work. “The key to it,” he says, “is to give them a time and to stick to it. If I say I’m there for an hour, I’m there, on time, for an hour. If they ask for more, I say, ‘Hell, fuck no.’ And I’m out of there.”
9. Pierce received some criticism for running the quote, but he chose to strictly observe the bright line in journalism ethics, which holds that a source must go off the record before making a comment, not after. “All I said was, ‘Too late,'” recalls Pierce, “and we both laughed, and I meant it, and I am not sure that he knew that I did. And frankly, it is not up to me to care.” For Granger, it wasn’t even an issue. “I had no qualms,” says Granger. “It was part of the experience of his reporting; it was totally fair game.”
Hell, fuck no?
Is that blasphemous?
And what would the blasphemy be?
And what would it be?
Can he blaspheme against his own public creation, his own unique role, as determined by his father, his management team and his shoe company? Can he blaspheme against the image coddled and nurtured by the paid evangelists of his own gospel?
Hell, fuck no?
And what would the blasphemy be?
And what would it be?
Can he blaspheme against himself?
God willing, he can.
Two days earlier, while Tiger’s father was greeting passersby behind the ninth green at La Costa, Tida Woods was following Tiger around the course. She is a small, bustling woman who occasionally is forced to take a little hop in order to see over the spectators in front of her. On the fifteenth hole, Tiger left his approach shot short of the green.
“Well,” Tida says, “Tiger will chip this on in, and we’ll go to the next hole.”
Tiger chipped the ball, which bounced twice and rolled straight into the cup.
“That boy,” said Tida Woods. “I told you he would do that.”
She walked on. I stood stunned under a tree for a very long time and wondered about what I had just seen. I think there are pilgrims at Lourdes who look like I did.
THIS IS WHAT I BELIEVE about Tiger Woods. These are the articles of my faith.
I believe that he is the best golfer under the age of 30 that there ever has been. I believe that he is going to be the best golfer of any age that there ever has been. I believe that he is going to win more tournaments than Jack Nicklaus won. I believe that he is going to win more major championships than Jack Nicklaus won, and I believe that both of these records are going to stand for Tiger Woods longer than they stood for Jack Nicklaus. I believe he is going to be rich and famous, and I believe that he is going to bring great joy to a huge number of people because of his enormous talent on the golf course. This is what I believe about Tiger Woods. These are the articles of my faith.
I believe that he is the most charismatic athlete alive today. I believe that his charisma comes as much from the way he plays the game as it does from the way he looks and from what he is supposed to symbolize. I believe that his golf swing — never past parallel — is the most perfect golf swing yet devised. I believe that he is longer off the tee than any good player has ever been, and I believe he is a better player than anyone else longer off the tee. This is what I believe about Tiger Woods. These are the articles of my faith.
I believe that Tiger Woods is as complete a cutthroat as has ever played golf. I do not want Tiger Woods in a $1,000 Nassau, not even with forty shots a side. I believe he would take my money. I believe I would leave the course wearing a barrel. I believe that the shot that won for him at La Costa was not completely about beating Tom Lehman on that afternoon, because Tiger could have used a lemon zester to do that. I believe that shot was for a couple of weeks or a year from now, when Lehman is trying to hold a one-shot lead over Tiger Woods down the stretch in a major tournament. This is what I believe about Tiger Woods. These are the articles of my faith.
This is what I do not believe about Tiger Woods. These are the theses of my heresy.
I do not believe that Tiger Woods was sent to us for any mission other than that of “being a great golfer and a better person,” as his father puts it. After all, this is the mission we all have, except for the golf part. (No just and merciful God would demand as the price of salvation that we all learn to hit a one-iron.) I do not believe that a higher power is working through Tiger Woods and the International Management Group, even though IMG once represented the incumbent pope. I do not believe that a higher power is working through Tiger Woods and the Nike corporation.
Tiger, Tiger, burning bright
Selling shoes for Phillip Knight
This is what I do not believe about Tiger Woods. These are the theses of my heresy. I do not believe the following sentence, which appears in one of several unauthorized hagiographies: “I don’t think he is a god, but I do believe that he was sent by one.” This sentence presumes, first, that there is a God and, second, that He busies himself in the manufacture of professional golfers for the purpose of redeeming the various sinful regions of the world. I do not believe this about Tiger Woods.
I do not believe what was said about Tiger by his father in the issue of Sports Illustrated in which Tiger Woods was named Sportsman of the Year: “Can’t you see the pattern? Earl Woods asks. Can’t you see the signs? ‘Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity,’ Earl says.”
I do not believe that Earl Woods knows God’s mind. I do not believe that Earl Woods could find God’s mind with a pack of bloodhounds and Thomas Aquinas leading the way. I do not believe that God’s mind can be found on a golf course as though it were a flock of genuine American coots. I do not believe — right now, this day — that Tiger Woods will change humanity any more than Chuck Berry did. This is what I do not believe about Tiger Woods. These are the theses of my heresy.
Is that blasphemy?
IN THE BEGINNING was the father.
“I said,” Earl Woods insisted, “that Tiger had the ability to be one of the biggest influences in history. I didn’t say that he would be. I am not in the business of predicting the next Messiah, nor do I feel that Tiger is the next Messiah. That’s stupid. That’s just stupid.”
Earl Woods was a tired man. He had walked the back fairways of La Costa, where he was treated by his son’s galleries the way that mobsters used to be greeted by the doormen at this place. But he’d forgotten his folding chair, and he’d forgotten his CD player on which he listens to his jazz music while Tiger plays. He was a month away from bypass surgery, and he was beginning to get cranky about it.
“I’m a terrible patient,” he said. “I’m one of those people who say, ‘I don’t want to be here.’ And then I make such an ass of myself that people let me go. They don’t have any reason to keep me.”
The story of Earl and his son is worn nearly smooth by now. How Earl fought in Indochina as a Green Beret alongside a South Vietnamese named Nguyen Phong, whom everyone called Tiger. How Earl returned from the war with a Thai wife named Kultida, and how they had a child whom Tida named Eldrick — “Fathers are just along for the ride on that one,” Earl explained — but upon whom Earl insisted on bestowing his old comrade’s nickname. How Earl would take the toddler with him when he went to hit golf balls. How the little boy climbed out of the high chair and swiped at the ball himself, showing superlative form. And how everything came from that — the appearance on television with Mike Douglas when Tiger was only 3, the superlative junior amateur career, the three consecutive U.S. Amateur titles, the explosion onto the PGA Tour at the end of last season.
And it was Earl’s apparently limitless capacity for metaphysical hooey and sociological bunkum that produced the gospel that has so entranced the world, the golfing press and large conglomerate industries. Separated into its component parts, Earl’s gospel is predestination theory heavily marbled with a kind of Darwinist Christianity and leavened with Eastern mysticism. Simply put, the gospel has it that while Earl Woods was wandering through Indochina, a divine plan was put in motion by which Earl would one day have a son who would win a lot of golf tournaments and make a lot of money because it was his karma to do so, and that, through doing this, the son would change the world itself.
“I think that the SI article went a little too deep,” Tiger muses. “As writers go, you guys try to dig deep into something that is really nothing.” Well, perhaps, but Earl certainly said what he said, and Tiger certainly has profited, because the promulgation of Earl’s gospel is as much at the heart of Tiger’s appeal as is his ability to go long off the tee.
There is a dodgy sense of transition around Tiger now, a feeling that the great plates on which he has built his career have begun to shift. In December, for example, he and his father fired John Merchant, Tiger’s longtime attorney. Moreover, there is a sense among the other people on Tiger’s management team that Earl has pushed his own celebrity far beyond the limits of discretion, particularly at his comments to SI concerning Tiger’s place in the world. At La Costa, after Tiger’s round on Saturday, his swing coach, Butch Harmon, dropped by the press room to cadge a beer.
“Earl,” he said with a huge sigh, “is getting out of control.”10
10. Sifford was the first African American to qualify for the PGA Tour, in 1961, but he never did receive an invite to the Masters. Sifford was the first African American inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, in 2004.
This is not something anyone would have dared to say even a year ago.
It is perhaps understandable. By his play and by the shrewd marketing that has surrounded his career almost from the time he could walk, Tiger Woods is now an authentic phenomenon. Golf tournaments in which he plays sell more than twice the number of tickets they would if he did not. With Michael Jordan heading toward eclipse and with no other successor on the horizon, Tiger Woods is going to be the most popular athlete in the world for a very long time. The old support system worked splendidly as he came up through the amateur ranks. But there are unmistakable signs that it has become seriously overtaxed.
Consider, for example, the persistent rumors that Earl and Tida have all but separated. At La Costa, they were not seen together on the course at all. Tida commuted to her new house, while Earl stayed at the resort. (At the time, IMG insisted that any rumors of a split were not true.) There was no evidence in his room that she had been there at all. There was only Earl, alone in the room, suffused with a kind of blue melancholy, an old man now, and tired besides.
“I’ll be satisfied if he’s just a great person,” Earl says. “I don’t give a shit about the golf.”
Ah, but he does. He has given up a lot for it. He left another wife and three other children. He has devoted his life, a lot of his energy and a great deal of surpassing bullshit to creating something that may now be moving far out of his control. “I’m not worried now,” he says. “Obviously, I will not be here to see the final result. I will see enough to know that I’ve done a good job.”
ON THE FIRST DAY AT LA COSTA, Tiger was paired with David Ogrin, a veteran tour pro who’d won the previous year’s Texas Open, his first victory after fourteen years and 405 tournaments. Ogrin is considered one of the tour’s most enlightened citizens despite the fact that he looks like a rodeo bouncer and is the owner of one of America’s most genuinely red necks. The two of them reached the ninth tee. Tiger had the honors. He absolutely scalded the ball down the center of the fairway, yards beyond anyone else who would play the hole that day.
“Hey,” said David Ogrin in awe and wonder. “Eat me.”
IT WAS BUTCH HARMON’S time of day. The son of a Masters champion and the brother of three other PGA pros, Harmon was stalking the practice tee at La Costa in the mist of the early morning. He explained how much of Tiger’s power comes from his longer musculature — “almost like a track athlete,” he said. “Tiger was born with a beautiful natural flow to his swing. It enables him to come through the ball almost like the crack of a whip. Add to that the fact that he was taught well early, because Earl had a real good concept of the golf swing.” And then he said something else — something beyond mechanics, but just as important.
“You know, you can get so wrapped up in this game that you have no fun, and as soon as you know it, your career is over and you never had any,” he said. “It’s a game you can get so serious on that you can’t … play.”
It is the golf that is the sweetest thing about Tiger’s story. It is the golf that is free of cant and manufactured import. To the untutored, Tiger Woods is an appealing golfer because he is young and fresh, and because of the distances he can carry with a golf ball. To the purist, he is appealing because his swing is the purest distillation of Everyman’s swing. Unlike John Daly, who approaches a golf ball with a club in much the way Mel Gibson approached English infantrymen with a broadsword, Tiger has a swing that is both controlled and clean. “I never go past parallel,” he says. “I think people look at me and say, ‘That’s the way I want to hit the ball.’ ”
There was resistance to him on the tour at first, because he had come so far so young. But what overcame that was Tiger’s manifest hunger to compete. It is not artificial. It is not feigned. It is real and genuine and very formidable. There is a difference between getting up in the morning to win and getting up to beat people. Tiger’s gospel says that he has more of the first kind of days than he has of the second. The reality is far less clear. He didn’t have to go after the pin on Lehman. But he did. “It’s nice to know you’re out there with somebody whose sole goal isn’t to make third on the money list,” says Justin Leonard, a gifted young pro.
“I just love to compete,” Tiger says. “I don’t care if it’s golf or Nintendo or in the classroom. I mean, competing against the other students or competing against myself. I know what I’m capable of.”
“You know, the prize money, that’s the paycheck. That’s the money I earned for myself. All that other stuff, my Nike contract and Titleist and now the All Star Cafe, to me, that’s a bank account, but it doesn’t really make me as happy as what I earn through blood, sweat and tears on the golf course. That money, I have the sole responsibility for earning that. Just me, alone. All the other stuff can depend on how good your agent is.”
It’s the gospel that has complicated his life. He can commit minor faux pas that become major ones because they run counter to the prefabricated Tiger of the gospel. Soon after he announced he would leave college to turn pro, Nike featured him in a commercial in which he said, “There are still courses in the United States that I am not allowed to play because of the color of my skin,” and the world exploded.
The racial aspect of Tiger’s gospel has always been the most complex part of it. At first he emphasized his multiracial background — after all, he is as much Thai as he is American, and Earl is an authentic American ethnic stew. At the same time, Tiger and his management team were pushing him as a racial pioneer along the lines of Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe, none of whom considered themselves “multi-ethnic.” The Nike commercial pointed up the dissonance of the two messages. One prominent gasbag of a pundit challenged Nike to find a course that Tiger couldn’t play.
It was an interesting case study in the practical application of the gospel. In the first place, if you dressed Tiger up in ordinary golf clothes — an outfit, say, without thirty-three Nike swooshes on it — I’m willing to bet you could find a course in this great land of ours that wouldn’t let a black man play. However, the gospel insists that Tiger came to heal and not to wound. There is no place in journalism whiter than sports writing, and there is no sports writing whiter than golf writing, and generally it is the received wisdom that to be great any great black athlete must be a figure of conciliation and not division. Witness, for example, the revolting use of Muhammad Ali in this regard, especially now that he can’t speak for himself. The imperatives of the gospel held. The spot was pulled.
There is little question that Tiger has brought black fans into the game, and that he is part of a modern continuum that reaches back to Jack Johnson. Johnson was a hero generally among black people not far removed from Plessy v. Ferguson. Later, Joe Louis served much the same function, except that Louis was far less threatening to white people and thus had an easier time of it. (It was with Louis that we first saw white people using a black champion to prove to themselves how broad-minded they’d become.) Jackie Robinson was a hero to those black people who came north in the great migration to work in the factories in places like Brooklyn. Arthur Ashe came along at a time when the civil rights movement had begun to create a substantial black middle class. And now that America has begun to wish for the appearance of the great racial conciliator, along comes Tiger Woods.
“The reason is the timing of it,” he says. “Other guys, like Charlie Sifford,11 they didn’t get the publicity, because the era was wrong. They came along when prejudice reigned supreme. I came along at the right time.”
11. “Is there a story that Charlie doesn’t write fast?” says Granger.
I believe that Tiger will break the gospel before the gospel breaks him. It constricts and binds his entire life. It leaves him no room for ambiguity, no refuge in simple humanity. Earl and Tida can’t break up, because the gospel has made their family into a model for the “unfortunate” broken homes that produce so many other athletes. Tiger can’t fire his lawyer, because the gospel portrays him as a decent and caring young man. Tiger can’t be an angry black man — not even for show, not even for money — because the gospel paints him as a gifted black man rewarded by a caring white society. Tiger can’t even tell dirty jokes, because the gospel has no place for them, and they will become events if someone reports them, because, in telling them, he does it:
He blasphemes against himself.
I believe in what I saw at La Costa, a preternaturally mature young man coming into the full bloom of a staggering talent and enjoying very much nearly every damn minute of it. I watched the young women swoon behind the ropes, and I believe that Tiger noticed them, too. There was one woman dressed in a frilly lace top and wearing a pair of tiger-striped stretch pants that fit as though they were decals. I believe that Tiger noticed this preposterous woman, and I do not believe that she was Mary Magdalene come back to life.
“See her?” said one jaded tour observer. “Last year she was following Greg Norman, and there were sharks on her pants.”
It is not the world of the gospel, but it is a world I can believe.
THE SEVENTEENTH HOLE at La Costa is a 569-yard par-five that the locals call the Monster. Legend had it that no professional had ever reached it in two. Back up in the tee box, Tiger was getting ready to drive the hole. He had birdied the previous two holes, hurtling himself at Tom Lehman, who was still leading the tournament by two strokes. As I walked from tee toward green, I noticed a young couple standing alone, far ahead of the mass of the gallery. They had established a distinct position under a gnarled old jutting tree. The tee box was invisible back behind the crook in the dogleg. A few yards in front of the couple, a browned footpath bisected the fairway.
“This,” the man explained, “is where John Daly hit it last year.”
The roar came up the fairway in a ragged ripple. And I saw the heads swivel all the way back along the fairway, swivel back and then up, back and then up. And then forward, still up. Forward, still up. I found myself caught up in it, and I saw the ball passing overhead, passing the point where the couple had decided to stand, passing the point where John Daly had once hit a golf shot that no longer mattered.
The ball dropped on the other side of the little brown path. The crowd did not cheer, not instantly. The crowd simply … sagged. Then they cheered, and the crowd came tumbling after Tiger along the sides of the fairway. He had hit the ball past everyone’s expectations.
Tiger had a birdie in his pocket, unless he jerked it over the flock of genuine American coots and dunked it into the designer pond in front of the green. All he had to do was lay it up, pitch the ball close and sink his short putt. That was the safe play. That was what he should have done.
Tiger took a wood out of his bag.
The gallery erupted.
It had been a long time since any golf gallery cheered someone for removing a club from his bag. The ovation was not about redemption or about inspiration. It was not about the metaphysical maundering of theological dilettantes. It was about courage and risk and athletic daring. Its ultimate source was irrelevant, but I do not believe this golden moment was foreordained by God while Earl Woods was stumbling around Indochina trying not to get his ass shot off. To believe that would be to diminish God.
And that would be the blasphemy.
And that’s what it would be.
He needs so little of what is being put upon him. I believe in the 21-year-old who tells dirty jokes and who plays Nintendo games, and only the fighting games at that. I do not believe in the chosen one, the redeemer of gold and of America and of the rest of the world. I hope he plays golf. I hope he fucks around.
I believe he can blaspheme himself. And I hope to God he does.
These are the theses of my heresy.
“Hey, Darla. How my dick ta’te?”
And I hope the jokes will get better.
It was a savage and wonderful choice that he made, the choice of a man who competes and who knows the difference between those days when you want to win and those days when you want to beat people, and who glories in both kinds of days. The choice he made to hit the wood was a choice he made not only for that day but also for a hundred others, when other golfers will be playing him close, and they will remember what he did, and maybe, just maybe, they will jerk it over the coots and into the pond. If that is the hand of God, it is closed then into a fist.
“Because the lesbians always go sixty-nine.”
They will get much better.
He took back the club — never past parallel — and it whistled down, and I could hear Butch Harmon talking softly about the crack of the whip. I heard no sound at contact. The ball rose, gleaming, into the soft blue of the sky, stone silent but smiling just a bit. The gallery began to stir as the shot easily cleared the pond and rolled up onto the green no one had ever hit in two before. The smile never made it all the way to his eyes.
This is what I believe in, finally. This is the article of my faith. I believe in that one, risky shot, and I believe in the ball, a distant white diamond in the clear heavens, and the voices that rose toward it, washed in its wake, but rising, rising still, far above the profane earth.
I believe in the prayers of the assembled congregation assembled.
“God! You the fucking MAN!”
The story sprang almost fully formed from Pierce, who wrote it, he says, in two and a half hours. “It was ready-made in my head,” he says. “As soon as I remembered the golf joke, I sat down in the basement and I worked. I got up to make myself a sandwich and I went down and finished writing it and sent it to Granger. It was one of those stories that just happened — just bang! — and it comes out in blocks in your head.”12
12. The cover headline read, “The Coming of Tiger Woods, Sports’ Next Messiah.”
The reaction to the story13 came in two spurts, the first one quite predictable, as the Woods camp refuted aspects of the story14 and criticized GQ for taking advantage of the callow youth in an unguarded moment.15 Then Woods won the Masters in record fashion and, in Pierce’s words, “that obliterated everything … just blew my story out of the water because it became this gigantic sports event.”
13. “It’s no secret that I’m 21 years old and that I’m naive about the motives of certain ambitious writers,” Woods said in a statement released March 22, 1997, shortly after the story hit the newsstands. “The article proves that, and I don’t see any reason for anyone to pay $3 to find that out. It’s easy to laugh it off as juvenile and petty except for the attacks on my father. I don’t understand the cheap shots against him.”
14. “To paint Tiger as some kind of naïf is naive in and of itself,” says Granger. “Even though he was young, he was as hardened a media presence then, almost, as he is now.”
15. “My comments were not intended to be racially derogatory, and I apologize for the fact that they were misconstrued in that fashion,” said Zoeller in a statement released by his agent about a week after the tournament. Later that same week, Kmart announced it was ending its sponsorship of Zoeller.
But that wasn’t the end of it. As Woods was storming to his record triumph, former U.S. Open champion Fuzzy Zoeller made remarks to the media about Woods — who, as the Masters winner, earned the right to select the menu for the next Champions Dinner — wound up starting another media conflagration.
“That little boy is driving well and he’s putting well,” said Zoeller. “He’s doing everything it takes to win. So, you know what you guys do when he gets in here? You pat him on the back and say congratulations and enjoy it and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. Got it.” In the storm of criticism and Zoeller’s apology16 that followed, a few wondered if there was a double standard — why didn’t Woods have to apologize for his remarks in GQ?17
16. Dave Anderson of the New York Times wrote, “Tiger Woods has accepted Fuzzy Zoeller’s apology for what the 21-year-old Masters winner described as an ‘attempt at humor that was out of bounds,’ but Woods’s apology to African Americans for his own out-of-bounds jokes in GQ magazine has yet to be heard.”
17. The modern major count is confined exclusively to professional Grand Slams, but for much of the 20th century it included U.S. Amateur and British Amateur championships, in which case Nicklaus’s total majors would be 20 (he won two U.S. Amateurs) and Woods would be at 17 (he won three).
Many are convinced that Pierce’s story and its aftermath contributed to the chilling, distant, all-business persona that Tiger maintained for the next decade. “If Tiger had ever, previously, considered being a forthcoming human being,” says Granger, “this sort of pushed him into his constant state of being as ungiving as possible.” The story also came to define Pierce’s career. “I think it certainly had the most impact of anything I’ve ever done,” he says. “I am happy that people enjoyed reading it, and thought themselves informed, but I have had stories that I’ve written that I liked doing more. But this one is going to be in the obit, I think.”
Inevitably, interest in the story rose once again after Woods’s car crash outside his estate in Windemere, Florida, and his subsequent split with wife Elin Nordegren in 2009. Pierce was inundated with interview requests. “As long as it was like a police story where nobody knew what happened, and the cops were trying to get him in and he was refusing to talk and so forth, I was willing to talk about it,” Pierce says. “But as soon as it became this really messy family saga, I refused all interviews. I didn’t want to be the go-to guy on Tiger’s dick, I really didn’t. I mean, it was an awful family story, and I just didn’t want to be the recognized authority in that area.”
When the furor broke, it derailed Woods’s bid at catching Nicklaus’s record of 18 major victories;18 Woods has been stalled at 14 for nearly five years.19 Many have wondered if Pierce’s story in 1997 foretold Woods’s downfall in 2009, but Pierce is more circumspect. “I think, if you look hard enough in the piece, there are enough bread crumbs that you can track it forward to what happened in Florida,” he says, “but I’m not making any claims for prescience in that piece. I think I caught a guy in a moment in time. And I think he was made uncomfortable by the moment in time in which I caught him, but that’s the way it goes.”
18. As for his predictions about Woods’s career accomplishments, Pierce says, “I’m less sure about the majors than I was. Obviously, there’s a great before-and-after gulf in the man’s career now. I still think he’s got a shot if he gets one (or two) this year. As to the rest of it, I think he still brings the joy, and he obviously still has made a ton of money. But there’s no question that he now has had two public careers and not one — the before and the after.”
19. “I think, as the years go by, Earl’s hyperbole and his clumsy ur-marketing early on is going to be seen as an enormous disservice,” says Pierce. “It wasn’t obvious at the time, but it gave Tiger something to rebel against. He couldn’t rebel against how Earl made him a golfer; the results were too obvious. So he rebelled against the messianic bullshit because that was there to rebel against.”
Michael MacCambridge is the author of America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation and Lamar Hunt: A Life in Sports.