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Tiger Woods, But Not Me, 25 Years Later

Tiger Woods celebrates on the eighteenth green after winning the 1997 Masters tournament at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, on April 13 1997. Woods finished with a record eighteen-under-par. / AFP PHOTO / Timothy A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)
Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

And then the sumbitch goes out and shoots 71 on the first day of The Masters.

I suspect this will be the last piece I ever write about Tiger Woods, but I’ve suspected that before and he’s come back with something worthy of further comment and consideration. The combination of human achievement and human fuck-upsmanship in this man is rivaled only by that to be found in some of our greatest artists: Gauguin and van Gogh, going steadily batshit in Arles, or Robert Schumann, hearing voices telling him what notes went where, mistaking tertiary syphilis for inspiration, or Virginia Woolf, walking into the Ouse with her pockets full of stones. For me, it’s Tiger Woods, always full of surprises.

He plays magnificent golf, and people pay me to write about it. He crashes his car and his marriage one terrible Thanksgiving night, and people ask me to write about it. He comes back and plays, badly, at the PGA in Rochester in 2013, and people ask me to write about it. He gets busted in Florida for sleeping at the wheel, and people ask me to write about it. Then, 14 months ago, he rolls his SUV, doing an estimated 84 in a 45, smashing both legs, his right so badly that there was talk of amputating it, and people ask me to write about it. They had to wedge him out of his vehicle with an ax. And here we are, on a weekend in Augusta, and the sumbitch shoots a 71 on the first day of The Masters, and people ask me to write about it.

The reason that people have asked me to write about the various incidents in this man’s life is because of the first thing I ever wrote about him. In the winter of 1997, when I was a writer-at-large for GQ, my editor, David Granger, asked me if I wanted to write a cover piece on Tiger Woods, who was then just beginning his supernova period. It would run in the April issue of the magazine in anticipation of a Woods victory in that year’s Masters that was seen by most observers as inevitable. (Narrator: It was.) I readily agreed and flew to California.

The first reporting came at La Costa, where Tiger had won the Mercedes Championship in a playoff across the verdant plains into which the Mob had plowed all that Teamster pension money, beating Tom Lehman in one extra hole. He beat Lehman by nearly knocking his ball through the rain and into the hole. That’s the way things were with him back then. He didn’t just win. He beat opponents and golf courses into utter submission.

The next day I had my appointed—and rigidly negotiated, as you shall see—hang-around time. This consisted of a limo ride from his mother’s house to a photo shoot, the photo shoot itself, and then a limo ride back. It was explained to me (repeatedly) that I would have that period of time, and not a millisecond more, with my subject. And then, this happened:

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?”

There was more of this, and then,

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. 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 me, I say, 'Hell, fuck no.' And I'm out of there.”

And now, a quarter-century after my two hours of rigidly negotiated hang-around time produced all these other assignments on all the other events of an eventful life, on rebuilt legs, the sumbitch shoots a 71 on the first day of The Masters. I mean, goddamn.

It didn’t become A Thing until Fuzzy Zoeller opened his yap.

The piece hit the stands at the end of March in 1997. It wasn’t until then that Lisa Hintelmann, our intrepid celebrity wrangler at GQ, told me how utterly wretched the negotiations were that had produced my two hours of hang-around time. She said it was the worst such experience of her career, and Lisa regularly had to deal with Hollywood publicists. As I came to learn, Tiger and his management team, the shark tank known as IMG, wanted him on the cover of a major magazine in anticipation of the The Masters, so they played various magazines off each other and, for reasons known only to the sharks, GQ won the honors.

Once the piece hit, there was very little immediate blowback, which surprised me. Oh, Earl Woods went on with Charlie Rose and accused me of wiretapping the limo driver, and Charlie waved a copy of the magazine around and boasted to Earl that he had no intention of reading the piece. (In response, the late Art Cooper, may his memory be a blessing, told me he would send a box of the issue to Rose’s office. I don’t know if he ever followed through on that,) A prominent golf writer called me a scumbag on national TV. But that was pretty much it. The notorious parts of the piece were obliterated in the public eye by Woods’s, well, masterful victory at Augusta. 

Frankly, I was glad about that. I wasn’t an expert on the guy. I was just somebody who’d had a rigidly negotiated two hours of hang-around time with him, during which he’d said some things and told some jokes that were contrary to the carefully crafted public image that I already sensed was becoming a burden to him. Go with god, I thought.

Then Fuzzy Zoeller stepped up to the CBS cameras.

“He’s doing quite well, pretty impressive. That little boy is driving well and he’s putting well. 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. Or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve.”

Zoeller got hit by the whole train. He lost his sponsorship deals with Kmart and Dunlop. But then came the backlash against the backlash. Bad-faith actors from all corners of the media began to bellow that Zoeller had been “canceled,” as we say these days, while Woods had skated on what he’d been quoted as saying in GQ. (The racial aspect of this argument, akin to the racist arguments against affirmative action, was beneath contempt.) I took some of the interview requests, mostly from people I knew and trusted. But I battened down and rode out the frenzy, and moved on to write about other things.

I’d always been bothered by Janet Malcolm’s famous autopsy on the craft of journalism. I thought it was overstated by half. (The Milgram Experiment? Really?) But as the eventful life of Tiger Woods unfolded over the past 25 years, and people kept asking me to write about comebacks, aborted and otherwise, and messy family scandals, and near-fatal auto wrecks, I came to wonder if Malcolm hadn’t had a point when she wrote:

He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments.

I mean, what the hell did I really know about this guy anyway? What made me an authority? Two hours of hang-around time in a limo and a warehouse up the alley from an auto-detailing joint? During the Thanksgiving episode, I commented as long as it was still a police matter. When it became just an awful family catastrophe, I checked out. I was not the go-to authority on anyone’s libido. Including my own. I believe that is a sensible position that keeps me from having horrible nightmares.

And now that Woods has nearly died and has come back to grind out some professional golf, I don’t know any more about how one does that than anyone else in the world. We shared two hours once, a quarter-century ago. I know now what I knew then, and nothing more. As for Woods, well, I hope he can find his way to those red numbers again. Go with god, Tiger. Hire a driver.

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