Take it from someone who spent 18 months working on Hollywood Boulevard: There isn’t a more surreal street in the United States.
Every day feels like Saturday. The sun always seems to be shining. A never-ending stream of tourists shuffle around in a collective daze, snapping photos of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the Walk of Fame and everything else you can imagine while moving at half-speed. Various lunatics dress up as superheroes or look-alike celebrities, then stand outside the Kodak Theatre posing for pictures with out-of-towners — none of whom seem to mind that Superman smells like Nicolay Valuev after a 12-round fight. Every other day, there’s another red carpet premiere, another ceremony for a celeb who landed a sidewalk star, another autograph session for 1,500 screaming fans. Something always happens on Hollywood Boulevard.
So when Tiger Woods showed up Tuesday to promote “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07,” it seemed like just another ho-hum day on Surreal Street. About 200 fans lined along the curb, hoping for a glimpse of the world’s greatest golfer. As he stepped out of a car just 20 yards from Fake Superman, Fake Batman and Fake Johnny Depp (“Pirates of the Caribbean” version, not “21 Jump Street” version), it was difficult to tell whether this was Fake Tiger or not. After all, he was wearing his ubiquitous Nike hat, as well as an ugly-colored shirt and black pants — his game uniform, for all intents and purposes — and you could see his toothy smile from the sixth floor of the “Jimmy Kimmel Live” offices across the street. Was this really Tiger Woods? Or did they hire a look-alike?
Then we watched his wife step out of the same car. Somebody could pull off Fake Tiger, but nobody is pulling off Fake Mrs. Tiger. Yes, it was them.
Real Tiger hopped in a golf cart and zoomed down the sidewalk as the crowd applauded and an announcer bellowed, “Ladies and gentleman, Tiger Woods!” EA Sports had set up a makeshift golf hole that stretched down the street, then took a dogleg left into the Hollywood and Highland Center mall. The plan was for Tiger to “play” a hole using pseudo-golf balls that weighed one-third as much as the real ones. (Note: I’m not sure where you can purchase pseudo golf-balls, but if they had these when I was in college, I’d probably be missing an eye right now.) When Tiger brought his driver onto the mock tee, I was standing 6 feet away. And yes, at some point in my life, I’m going to realize, “Wait, that was like being 6 feet away when Ali was sparring or MJ was practicing jumpers.” But that’s the peculiar thing about Tiger: Because we’ve known him for so long, and because he lacks the charisma of those other guys, it’s easy to forget he’s the defining athlete of this generation.
We watched Tiger slice his first two drives across the street, then make the necessary adjustments to the pseudo-ball and crank the third down the middle. It’s a compact swing — a simple shift of the hips, with nothing else moving except his arms — and everything seems absolutely effortless, like it’s the easiest thing in the world for him. Satisfied, he hopped into a golf cart driven by ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt … unless that was Fake Scott Van Pelt, which is quite possible. They rode down to the “dogleg,” where a mock sand trap and a mock fairway were set up for his second shot. Aiming uphill (in this case, over three flights of stairs), Tiger sliced his first approach into the crowd, then sent a couple more screamers up the stairs before one landed within the mock green at the top, just a stone’s throw from a Lucky Brand Jeans store. The crowd applauded, even though folks weren’t sure what they were applauding. Trust me, this was as contrived, goofy and gratuitous as it sounds.
Why was I there, you ask? Because they promised me 10 minutes and the chance to play a couple of video holes with him. Any time you can get the world’s greatest golfer and the world’s greatest video game golfer in front of the same TV, that’s grounds for a pay-per-view special. I also wanted to get a feel for the guy. After writing not one but two columns over the years about how difficult it is to write about Tiger Woods, I clearly needed some help. You can learn a lot about someone in 10 minutes. Well, unless you’re standing next to Art Shell during a Raiders game.
Of course, I had one significant hurdle: we were playing an Xbox 360 and I’m a PS2 guy. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but look at the controllers some time. Jumping from PS2 to Xbox is like moving to England and driving on the right side of the road. I had 15 minutes to figure it out — a few practice holes with an EA producer showing me the ropes — and if that wasn’t enough, there was a blinding glare off the TV because we were outside on an 80-degree day. Playing with John Daly’s character, I started out triple-bogey, triple-bogey and couldn’t decide whether I sucked or they intentionally made Daly’s character drunk for the game. Maybe it was both. By the third hole, I switched to a cross-hand swing (holding the controller with my left hand and operating it with my right) and bogeyed the third hole, then parred the fourth.
I was ready for Tiger. He finished a 20-minute, sit-down interview with Van Pelt, and within a few seconds, we were shaking hands and sitting down for battle.
(Important note: When Tiger saw Daly on the screen, he said, “Oh, J.D.!” and seemed excited. This proves my longtime theory, “Everyone on the planet gets excited to see John Daly in a video game.” Which makes me wonder why Daly doesn’t have his own video game like Tiger; it could be like “Tiger 07” crossed with “My Name is Earl,” just him playing degenerate gamblers and lowlifes, everyone smoking and drinking on the course, and after you win a tournament, you’d immediately fly to Vegas and blow your winnings. I think this could work.)
This seems like a good time to mention my theory about celebrities: Take the dorkiest people on the planet, make them famous, and within four or five years, they wouldn’t be dorky anymore. Why? As soon as they became famous, their entire lives revolve around awkward interactions with people who are either (A) terrified to meet them, (B) kissing up to them, (C) interviewing them or (D) just as famous as they are. They become conditioned to it after a while. Eventually, their confidence swells and they morph into someone else — in any situation, in any room, they’re usually the alpha dog, and they know it. The perfect example is Clay Aiken, the dorky crooner from “American Idol” who slowly morphed into this generation’s Barry Manilow. Ever see Aiken on a talk show now? He’s as smooth as Merv Griffin in his prime. That’s what fame brings, a distinctive poise from being in control all the time. Eventually, you can’t help but become secure and self-assured. It’s inevitable.
So when people call Tiger Woods “dorky,” even if he might have been a little dorky once upon a time, that side was killed off long ago. He’s totally in control at all times. He maintains eye contact when he talks and listens. He’s always smiling. He seems totally at ease in any situation, as though nothing could ever rattle him. He’s measured in his responses, almost like a good politician, never wanting to say the wrong quote. Basically, he’s like any other famous person. I fired a steady stream of questions at him while we traded golf shots, trying to keep him interested, trying to get a feel for him and playing off his answers. Ten minutes isn’t a lot of time. But here’s what I learned:
1. He has been playing video golf ever since the Atari 2600/5200 days and can’t get over the fact that there’s a video game named after him. Also, he never plays himself in video games. He creates two characters — one a big, fat guy, the other a cooler guy — and plays those guys instead of the Tiger character. He always gives the surrogate guys goatees because he can’t grow facial hair so he lives vicariously through them.
(Note: I do this, as well, for the exact same reasons, but didn’t want to admit it because it would have seemed as if I was sucking up.)
2. He doesn’t travel with an entourage or bodyguards. For the most part, it’s just him and his wife. Unlike MJ in his prime, he doesn’t confine himself to a hotel room on the road — it’s actually easier for him to get around because he’s not traveling with a team of players, so, many times, people won’t even know he’s in town.
3. His favorite golf course is St. Andrews. He loves St. Andrews. Even more than Augusta.
(Translation: Always wager on him when he’s playing St. Andrews.)
4. His favorite golf movie is “Caddyshack.” There’s no No. 2 on the list. (I’m guessing he wasn’t a big fan of “Tin Cup” and “Bagger Vance.”) I thought about pitching him my idea for “Black Caddyshack” but decided against it.
5. We had an enlightening exchange about how he stays motivated after so much success the past 10 years. I made the point that he already has won all these majors, he’s clearly the best golfer, there wasn’t much left for him to do, right? He quickly countered with, “Win. Keep winning.”
And it wasn’t even as if he was offering a counterargument — he almost sounded like an alien who was sent to Earth programmed to destroy every golfer for the rest of eternity. When I wondered whether that same drive would wane, he quickly played the “You never get tired of winning” card, but convincingly, as though it was completely insane to think that he would ever want to stop winning. Even though MJ got bored, Ali got bored and Pele got bored, from what I could gather, Tiger can’t even entertain the notion that he would ever become bored of beating the crap out of other guys in golf. That’s just who he is. He wants to destroy everybody else. All the time. I’ve read this about him — many times, actually — but I believe it now. As Tiger said, “Winning never gets old.” And he’s dead serious. You can tell when you’re talking to people how serious they are. He’s deader-than-dead serious about this. I’m now convinced he’ll win 30 majors. At least.
6. Along those same lines, he’s not worried about finding the Frazier to his Ali, or the Magic to his Bird — a legitimate rival who could push him to another level — correctly pointing out that Jordan had a bunch of different guys take runs at him over the years, and so did Nicklaus, and it didn’t seem to affect either of their ceilings. Point taken.
7. Grabbing an idea from my mailbag, I threw the idea at him that MJ should be the next Ryder Cup captain, with Charles Oakley as his sidekick. He seemed intrigued but skeptical, claiming that the captains do “more than you think.” Whatever. I mentioned how a cigar-smoking Oakley would intimidate the Europeans, who were too comfortable against us in the past two Ryder Cups. Maybe he would shake them up. Tiger mulled that one over, finally pointing out that you couldn’t really intimidate anyone in golf because there was no physical contact. I begrudgingly accepted that one, but not before adding, “I think Oakley could get to Sergio.” That cracked Tiger up. I’m convinced that you could make a joke about Oakley kicking someone’s ass to any athlete and he’d laugh.
Meanwhile, we were playing video golf the entire time. Tiger birdied the first par-3; I bogeyed it. (In my defense, it’s tough to interview a celebrity and play video golf competently at the same time. I’d love to see Andrea Kremer or Jim Gray pull this off.) Our second hole was a par-4. We both hit killer drives. After his approach landed in the fringe in front of the green, I hit a towering approach that landed on top of the green, then rolled back, and kept rolling, and kept rolling … and wouldn’t you know it? It landed three feet from the pin! I couldn’t decide whether to trash-talk him or not, finally opting against it. You never want to bait Tiger Woods. Not even in a video game.
So what happened? Tiger responded by chipping in his third shot for a birdie. He even pumped his fist a little — not one of those “I just birdied the 16th at Augusta on Sunday” pumps, but a tiny “I didn’t want to lose to this schmuck from ESPN” pump.
“I just won,” he said.
“You didn’t win!” I objected. “I’m still putting for birdie.”
“You’re gonna miss it,” he said.
There wasn’t even an ounce of trash talk in his voice. He was utterly and completely convinced I would miss it. He knew I would miss it. This is an obscenely confident man. There’s something almost James Spader-y about him. It’s disorienting.
“It’s three feet,” I said. “I’m not missing it.”
I lined up the putt. Because of the glare, I could barely see the squiggly lines that indicate where the green breaks. I leaned forward. I was squinting. The Xbox controller felt as foreign as ever. Tiger was staring me down. Now I was worried I would miss it. And if that wasn’t enough, the greatest golfer alive was making little “yip-yip-yip-yip-yip” noises in the background to throw me off. He wanted me to miss it. He needed me to miss it.
I missed it.
Of course I did.
Yup, add me to the list of people who wilted under the glare of Tiger’s hypercompetitiveness. I was legitimately rattled. That putt will haunt me for a long time. Needless to say, he seemed delighted by the whole thing. And somewhere during this sordid chain of events, I found myself understanding why rival golfers feel as if they can’t beat him, that it’s a lost cause, that he’s always going to hold them off in the end. It’s nearly impossible to defeat someone who honestly feels as though he can’t lose. Even if you’re playing a video game on Hollywood Boulevard.
Mercifully, my 10 minutes with Tiger was up. He had to give a few more interviews, shake some hands and be famous for another hour or so. Just another day in the life of Tiger Woods. We shook hands, and I wished him luck. Like he needs it.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His new book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.