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Tracing Tiger

How the golf icon became a bystander in the telling of his own story

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Let’s make sure the facts are screwed on tight so that no member of Team Tiger is moved to pick up a phone and scream. On March 17, 2016, the investigative reporter Armen Keteyian went to a senior golf event in Tucson. He had driven seven hours from his West Coast home in San Clemente, California. It was a Thursday, and participants in the Conquistadores Classic were playing in the pro-am. Keteyian spotted his quarry: Mark O’Meara.

O’Meara is two-time major winner. In sunnier times, he was Tiger Woods’s best pal and surrogate big brother. Keteyian knew this was the kind of ask he couldn’t make over the phone. I’d love to help, O’Meara would tell him, but there’s nothing in it for me. To get O’Meara to help him write the definitive book about Tiger Woods, Keteyian would need to walk up to him on the golf course, where it was harder for O’Meara to say no.

The story Keteyian and his cowriter Jeff Benedict tell in Tiger Woods is one we’ve caught small glimpses of before. There was swing coach Hank Haney’s 2012 tell-all and Wright Thompson’s mind-blowing article about Woods’s fantasy life with the Navy SEALs. But Keteyian and Benedict had a more ambitious goal: they needed to achieve that level of immersion throughout Woods’s life, to slip past the energy shield erected by Woods’s minders and vault readers directly into his thoughts.

Keteyian and Benedict solved this problem by flipping key figures in Woods’s life. A high school girlfriend described Tiger in his awkward, lovesick youth. A former attorney offered a view of Earl Woods in his world-conquering prime. Two coaches detailed Tiger’s unending quest to perfect his swing. But O’Meara could unlock something greater: a view of Woods’s humdrum, slightly weird life inside his gated community outside Orlando—the “real” Tiger Woods, if such a thing still exists.

A few minutes after Keteyian made his pitch, he and O’Meara were walking down the fairway together. After a time, Keteyian pulled out his digital recorder. They were going to do the interview while O’Meara was playing a round. O’Meara would entertain his pro-am partners, and then he’d turn to Keteyian and tell him how Woods would profess his love for O’Meara one minute, then reprimand him for talking to the media about Tiger the next. “For six or seven holes we were just walking together and talking,” Keteyian told me.

By the time O’Meara described how Woods no-showed O’Meara’s 2015 World Golf Hall of Fame induction ceremony—how Tiger’s idea of friendship was situational and instantly revocable—he was getting emotional. “The disappointment in his voice in that quote—‘sooner or later you have to be a human being’—to me that was just so heartbreaking,” Keteyian said. He kept glancing at his recorder to make sure it was working.

When you read Tiger Woods, you realize these are not just high-level reporting gotchas. This is Tiger’s life laid bare. Asked why O’Meara would unload to him in the middle of a golf course, Keteyian laughed. “I don’t ask!” he said. “Motivations are not my thing.”

144th Open Championship - Champion Golfers' Challenge Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Before Keteyian got O’Meara, Jeff Benedict had started building a relationship with O’Meara’s ex-wife, Alicia. Where Keteyian would extract what he could in one shot, Benedict was playing a longer game. Alicia O’Meara had been a mother figure for Woods. “She cooked for him,” Benedict said. “She looked out for him. She was someone he could rely on and talk to.” With Alicia, Benedict wanted to cultivate a source he could come back to again and again.

“I was mainly responsible for interviewing all the women in the story,” Benedict said. Other than his mother Kultida, Woods’s relationship with women is usually depicted as a broken marriage and an endless parade of mistresses. “We put an emphasis on women like Alicia who had more much empathetic things to say,” Benedict said. “It was clear she didn’t have an axe to grind. In fact, she still felt somewhat protective of Tiger. Those are the kinds of women I wanted to spend more time with because I felt that would round out the truth of the story.”

Keteyian and Benedict make for an interesting team of muckrakers. Keteyian, who works for CBS, has carved out a journalism career in a medium that often neglects it. (Of sideline reporting he once grumbled, “It’s more about your body than your body of work.”) When Keteyian gets a subject like Bill Belichick in the dock, I realize I’ve been looking into his skeptical eyes for most of my adult life. Benedict has written more than a dozen books on subjects like casinos and sexual assault. Beginning in 2011, the authors teamed up on a series of Sports Illustrated pieces, a project that eventually grew into their book The System. Keteyian is the more emotional and impulsive of the pair. “I’m the fire, he’s the ice,” Keteyian said.

Tiger Woods was a big book for Simon & Schuster even before Woods’s comeback bent the narrative arc. It was also a tricky reporting feat. Woods wouldn’t entertain the idea of an interview, Keteyian and Benedict write, unless they revealed “whom we spoke to, what they said, and the specific questions we would be asking”—a set of conditions they refused. Moreover, there were already more than 20 books written about Woods, plus marathon profiles from Thompson, Gary Smith, and Frank Deford.

Keteyian and Benedict began by reading the entire Woods literary corpus. Then they constructed a timeline of his life in a Word doc that ran about 75,000 words. That allowed them to connect the well-known events of Woods’s golf career with the lesser-known events of his personal life. Everyone remembers Woods winning the ’97 Masters at 21. Fewer people remember that when President Bill Clinton called Woods and invited him to fly to New York for a Jackie Robinson tribute, Woods turned him down. He went on vacation to Mexico instead.

Perhaps because Keteyian and Benedict were standing atop a mountain of journalism, a persistent theme of Tiger Woods is how he was covered by the media. Reporters—often the same ones—tended to go at Tiger two ways. In one view, Woods was the Chosen One, not just more gifted than other golfers but possessed of otherworldly powers. “In a period that has brought us instant messaging, multitasking, wireless distractions, and attention deficit disorder,” the New York Times David Brooks wrote in a 2008 column, “Woods has become the exemplar of mental discipline.” (By 2008, Woods was already spending much of his spare time recruiting mistresses and meeting them in places like his Las Vegas hideaway.)

In another view, Woods was a wildly talented golfer but a callow 20-something who was trailed by an overbearing sports dad. As soon he started on the Tour, Tiger and Earl earned noogies from John Feinstein and Charles P. Pierce. After he turned down Clinton, Maureen Dowd published a broadside called “Tiger’s Double Bogey.”

Reporters weren’t blinded by the Chosen One’s supernal glow. As Benedict and Keteyian show, the rough edges just never got into many of their stories. After Woods won the 1994 U.S. Amateur title, Earl told a People reporter, “When he gets a little cocky, I say, ‘You weren’t shit before. You aren’t shit now. And you’ll never be shit.’” The reporter sent his editors the quotes, but the magazine opted not to use them. Three years later, People featured Earl and Tiger’s “special” relationship on the cover.

In 1995, after Woods won his second Amateur title, Earl told a crowd, “Bobby Jones can kiss my son’s black ass.” A Sports Illustrated writer left out the line because he worried it would hurt Tiger with sponsors.

When they weren’t recovering deleted scenes, Keteyian and Benedict poked at what passed for the official story. The tree incident was a classic example. Here’s how SI’s Gary Smith told the story in his 1996 profile:

What happened was a gang of older kids seizing Tiger on his first day of kindergarten, tying him to a tree, hurling rocks at him, calling him monkey and nigger. And Tiger, at age five, telling no one what happened for several days, trying to absorb what this meant about himself and his world.

In further tellings to the likes of Barbara Walters, the story acquired more details. Woods’s tormenters were sixth-graders; they spray-painted the slurs on Woods’s clothes; Woods ran home from school after the incident. Keteyian said the tale struck him as suspicious. “I kept going, How is that possible?” he said.

Keteyian interviewed Woods’s kindergarten teacher. He interviewed the district administrator. He walked the playground where the incident took place. Keteyian couldn’t find any evidence the incident happened: the teacher didn’t remember it and, despite Earl’s claims, no report was filed.

That sent Keteyian and Benedict back to their timeline. “If you knew Earl like we knew Earl, it made sense,” Keteyian said. Earl had been the victim of racism since at least his high school days. While the authors report that Tiger was probably the victim of racism at a California golf course, Earl sometimes injected stories of racism into the Tiger narrative over his son’s objections.

Even as Keteyian reported the story, the specter of Team Tiger scrutinizing every word hung over him. Before he left Woods’s elementary school, Keteyian counted the lanes of traffic Tiger had supposedly run across again and again, to make sure he got the number right.

The Masters - Round One Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

In a previous act of muckraking, Keteyian wrote that Bears coach Mike Ditka was “void, on the most basic level, of a core set of values.” To read Tiger Woods is to stare into the same abyss. In Pierce’s 1997 GQ profile, Woods tells a bad joke. (The punch line is that black men are well-endowed.) A decade later, Benedict and Keteyian show Woods repeating the joke while playing golf with Bill Clinton. And Woods uses it again in a New York nightclub when he meets his mistress Cori Rist. Tiger is one of the most famous and richest athletes in the world, and he knows one joke.

Woods’s serial affairs are handled in the book as they should have been in 2010: as a key to understanding his personality rather than an occasion for national finger-wagging. Indeed, the fun of Tiger Woods is the details that are sloughed off in passing. When Woods’s agents negotiated his first deal with Nike, they accidentally gave away his video game rights. Bill Cosby wanted a Tiger-themed episode of his sitcom. After testing six prototype Nike drivers, Woods told the company he liked the heavier one. Nike “informed him that all six drivers were the exact same weight,” the authors write. But after a recheck, the company found that one driver was heavier by two grams—the “weight of two one-dollar bills,” Keteyian and Benedict note. It’s like how Bill Bradley knew a basketball hoop was hung an inch too low, as reported in John McPhee’s famous profile.

Keteyian and Benedict delivered a first draft to Simon & Schuster. Their editor, Jofie Ferrari-Adler, thought the authors had laid bare Woods’s life but hadn’t fully gotten into his head. “The goal here is to get the reader to look at Tiger’s life from his perspective,” Benedict said. “It was daunting to attempt that without having access to him. It made writing it far more complicated and challenging than anything I’d ever done.”

The authors again combed through years of Woods’s press-conference transcripts, trying to find any bits of emotion he’d betrayed to the media. In 2017, Woods published his own book about the ’97 Masters, which provided crucial primary-source material. (Team Tiger’s reaction to Tiger Woods has been to call it “just a re-hash”—a non-specific non-denial politicians use all the time.)

But the people who darted through Woods’s life gave Keteyian and Benedict the best material. Exes are a classic source for biographers—see David Garrow’s recent Obama bio. Woods’s high school girlfriend, Dina Gravell, had vivid memories: one time, after she leaned back on Tiger’s legs at a football game, he confessed to her, “I was dying when you touched my legs.” Gravell also showed the authors Woods’s chilly breakup note, one they suspect was ghostwritten by Earl and Kultida. “I know this is sudden and a surprise but it, in my opinion, is much warranted …” Woods wrote. “P.S. Please mail my necklace that I gave you to me when you get back home.”

John Merchant, Woods’s first lawyer, got a similarly abrupt kiss-off after he made some tipsy remarks about Earl. In 2002, Peggy Lewis, who rented her home in Augusta to Tiger for use during the Masters, found the house trashed and her phone bill exploding with overseas calls. When Lewis called Woods’s office to ask for payment, his team sent back the bill with a handful of calls highlighted and only paid for those.

Keteyian and Benedict wanted to talk to Woods, too. They would have settled for an off-the-record phone call where they explained what they were up to. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t get to Point A,” Benedict said. Some subjects you can’t doorstep on the 10th fairway. In Tiger Woods’s case, it made him a bystander in the telling of his life story.

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