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Tiger’s new Masters book lacks one crucial element: What Tiger was really thinking

March 20, 2017

The most interesting news in the narrow world of golf publishing last year was the announcement that Tiger Woods was going to write a book about the 1997 Masters, working with Lorne Rubenstein, an accomplished and thoughtful writer steeped in golf.

Many of us, who count golf and reading among our hobbies, were eager for Woods’s new book. (His first, How I Play Golf, was published in 2001.) The 1997 Masters was, one could argue, the most meaningful golf tournament ever, despite its complete lack of suspense. But as an athletic feat, and as a moment of social and sporting history, it was of immense interest and importance. Phil Knight, the Nike founder and the first person to make Woods jet-rich, calls the ’97 Masters “golf’s Jackie Robinson moment.” And Knight was there, hanging with his sponsee.

Even 20 years later, the just-the-facts-ma’am summation of the week makes your heart race: Woods, competing in his first major as a pro, and as a 21-year-old former Stanford student with a black father and a Thai mother, playing on golf’s most spectacular stage, at a club that had been anything but racially progressive, won by … 12.

And breathe.

If ever a golf tournament was worthy of a book, the ’97 Masters is it. I held it in my hands rooting hard for it and also with high expectations, because I know Woods has more to offer this world than the majesty of his golf record.

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You most likely have heard him in press conferences over the years, especially the pre-tournament sessions. He’s smart. His memory is prodigious. But he’s typically guarded. This book would represent a chance to see him in a new light. That is, if he was willing to dig deep, if he could be introspective.

Other athletic elites have done it. Just to get you in the mood: Down the Fairway, by Bobby Jones; Open, by Andre Agassi; The Science of Hitting, by Ted Williams. The first is a golf fever dream, the second a sweeping tour of a tennis player’s brain, the third a poetically incisive how-to baseball manual. Tiger’s work would be completely his own, of course. (Golf has never seen anybody like him.) But the combination of author and subject, and the 20 years Woods has had to think about that extraordinary week, gave a guy (this reader) hope.

So did bringing in Rubenstein. (I regard him as a friend.) Whether Lorne is writing about a cult figure such as Moe Norman or a magical place such as Dornoch or golfing royalty such as Nick Price, he is a superb general practitioner, seeing the whole patient. When I am with Lorne, I view him as part grad student in psychology, part country doctor. Tiger chose well.

O.K. I apologize for my long preamble, but it is a reflection of how much I care. I think — and much more significantly, Earl Woods believed — that Tiger could be a transcendent figure. When a public person writes a book, it can play a significant role in how the person defines his or her life, and how the public views said person. See: Jones, Bobby; Agassi, Andre; Williams, Ted. Woods has talked in recent years about how he is in a new chapter of his life, where tournament golf is by no means his highest priority. With that in mind, I viewed the book on my bed stand —​ The 1997 Masters: My Story — as the first chapter of the rest of Tiger’s life.

And with that, let’s turn to page 7 in the first chapter, where Woods writes about Arnold Palmer and his Bay Hill tournament, which the golfer-turned-author has won eight times, Arnold there to greet him each time in victory just off the final green. Woods writes:

“I was sad when he died on September 25, 2016, and I thought of all those times behind the eighteenth green. Arnold meant so much to the game, and I’ll never forget our friendship and his counsel to me over the years. Looking back, I know he fired me up the week before the [1997] Masters.”

Those are not sentences that should be published in a book written for sentient adults. It is right there that the editor should note in the margins of the author’s manuscript, How, how, how, how? Show, show, show, show! It is there, in the writing phase, that the author must ask, Can I go deeper here? Because the truth is so obvious. Arnold is dead. He half-invented the tournament that defines this book. You (Tiger) logged a lot of time with him, and you’re giving him some of the credit for your most important win. You can’t say enough here. Instead, we are presented with one shaggy paragraph.

I wouldn’t bring this up if it were an isolated incident. It’s not.

So it was early on that I began to worry whether Woods has enough introspection or story-telling skills to write a narrative book. He has always wanted his scores to speak for him, but that was then. Scorecards make excellent bookmarkers, but no one would confuse them for a book. Writing a book requires a person to give.

And too often in this book Woods does not. That extends even to the title. Coming up with a title is hard, but the one chosen for this work is almost willfully dull. It is devoid of any stamp of Tiger’s own take on the week.

He might have called the book Forty, for his front-nine score in his Thursday round. The underpinning to the first chapter is the walk Woods made from the 9th green to the 10th tee on that first day, when he went out in 40, four over par. Over the course of the book, we learn that his first-day, front-nine score defined his week. It’s a terrific way to pull us in, and there are many interesting tidbits along the way to signing for a Thursday 70. But since we know how that day and this story are going to end, tidbits are not enough.

Or Woods might have called this book The Hug. He writes beautifully about his relationship with his father in places (but only in passing), and he of course notes the hug-seen-around-the-world, at the conclusion of the tournament. He tells us what his father told him, wrapped in his arms: “I love you, and I’m so proud of you.” It’s straight, and it’s moving. But Tiger could write a book about that hug and what went into it, what it meant then and what it means now. Instead, he segues into the importance of a putting tip Earl gave him on the eve of the tournament.

I am trying to be honest, and you of course might have a wholly different reaction to this short book (230 pages). It’s golfy and the golfier you are the more you might get out of it, especially if you are not schooled in that week. (I was there, intensely so, and have been reading about it ever since.) I certainly don’t want to dismiss the many good things about this work. Woods is generous in his praise of his caddie, Mike (Fluff) Cowan, and his teacher, Butch Harmon. (I feel the book would have been enriched immeasurably by bringing their voices and insights into it.) In his post-win press conferences, Woods seldom talks about how others have contributed to his success, which is certainly his prerogative. But it was good to see him extend a branch to these two golfing lifers, particularly give that he eventually cut the cord with both of them.

There are moments when we see Woods’s inquisitive mind at work, asking Jack Nicklaus a specific (and unanswered) question about his win at the ’86 Masters, 30 years after the fact. I loved reading how Woods compares his approach to golf to the way improvisational jazz musicians (Earl was a jazz buff) approach their craft. Also, I was fascinated to read Woods on how he mixes speeds and his own heart rate for driving and putting. It’s an insight into the artistry and athleticism his golf requires.

But even that is in passing. Did he ever, for instance, compare notes on these subjects with Michael Jordan or others at that level? Woods is a master at the connection between method and outcome, as many athletes are. But I don’t believe that words, spoken and written, are anything he treasures.

There is way too much ordinary blow-by-blow golf fare here for the casual golf fan, I fear, to say nothing of the reader with no interest in the game. (He might have kept that reader more in mind.) I’m interested in the shots he played, yet even for me most of the descriptions were a slog. Good thing he only needed 270 shots that week. Fewer, in richer detail, would have resonated far more.

You keep turning pages, often dutifully, not because Woods is fun to hang out with here but because every so often there are interesting asides into things you maybe never knew. For instance, there was the intensity of his running, even during tournaments, logging several early morning miles at a 6:15 pace. Pretty serious! (Earl told me that had Tiger not become a golfer he would have been an Olympic high hurdler.) There’s a wonderful moment where Tiger asks the Augusta National chairman, Jack Stephens, about his pairing. It’s a pleasure to see Tiger off the course. In that vein, there’s another scene where Tiger is talking about grip pressure (his is intense) with Byron Nelson at a club dinner, at which Nelson tells Tiger, “Keep doing what you’re doing.” Charming! Tiger admits to the strategy we have all seen, of hitting into the fans to the right of the 9th green if you’re looking for a good place to miss. Smart! You could have taken the 60 or more similar tidbits presented here and used them as the basis of a fascinating 10,000-word essay.

Maybe the book would have been better in that form, just a slender volume on heavy paper, ink bleeding rich onto each page, with a spectacular collection of photographs. The book includes some wonderful childhood snaps, but nearly all of the photographs from 1997 are bland, almost blurry. They convey little emotion. Another lost opportunity.

Woods in his heyday, both as an amateur and a professional, played golf with immense emotion. It was part of what made him so gripping. His typical dull-but-professional post-round interviews seldom bothered me, because his play told the story. But the decision to write a book is also a decision to forgo that mindset.

Sometimes, he’s close. I was amused when Tiger noted his preference for the simple word spectators instead of the pretentious word Augusta National prefers, patrons. But that could have led to a whole let’s-go-deep section: This is what I really think about the place. This is how I feel when I am there, and when I leave. This is what really happened to me one day when I showed up to play a practice round. You can be candid and still be polite. And if you don’t feel you can be candid about your experiences, don’t write. In his acknowledgments, Tiger reverts to patrons. I wonder why.

The best part of this book, in regards to golf, is Woods’s intelligent and thoughtful dissection of what has happened to the Augusta National course, and golf equipment, over the past 20 years. There’s a hint of sentimentality for what has been lost. There is also the harsh reality that the course, once absurdly pleasurable for all levels of golfer, has been made more ordinary, with the planting of trees, the growing of rough, the construction of new back tees. Woods notes that equipment advancements made the changes necessary, if you don’t want golfers breaking 60 in the Masters. But that doesn’t mean he has to like it, and he clearly doesn’t. God bless him, he speaks the truth — or he speaks for me, anyway. It’s polite, and it’s candid. It’s perfect.

Other moments of truthfulness stop you cold. A nod to his marriage that ended in divorce, the pain he wrought, the regret he lives with. His mother, his father, his children, a daughter named Sam and a son named Charlie. He explains, and maybe you knew, that Sam was his father’s nickname for him. I have heard, as many have, that Sam was Earl’s public version, that in private Tiger was Sambo, the father preparing the last of his four children for life as a man of color in a white man’s world. Maybe someday Tiger will address that. As for Charlie, Tiger writes that Tiger and Elin named their son for Charlie Sifford, the pioneering black golfer who won twice on Tour but who never played in the Masters.

Woods writes: “Charlie is named for Grandpa Charlie Sifford. If he hadn’t been as brave as he was, struggling to break the PGA’s Caucasian-only clause, there might not be a place for me in pro golf. I would therefore have never met Elin, and Sam and Charlie would never have been born.”

What a tribute.

But it leads to the book’s glaring weakness, the fundamental reason why Woods’s 12-shot victory so transcended golf’s limited borders, the very thing Knight alludes to with such precision. For a variety of reasons, a black golfer didn’t play in the Masters until 1975. It was not until 1990 that a black man joined the club, and that was at the point of a bayonet. (See: Shoal Creek, 1990 debacle at.) Then Tiger Woods, in no way a country-club kid, went to Augusta in April 1997, with his Thai mother and his black father for the first time as a professional and won by 12. It was golf’s Jackie Robinson moment. The world took notice.

In this book, you can see Woods struggling with the subject. He has never been comfortable with discussion of race. He wants to know, reasonably, why he (in his early years) was routinely described as black, but seldom as Thai. Yet he is very aware of the pain of his black forebears, and he does not run from it. He discusses the Fuzzy Zoeller “fried chicken” remarks, late on Tiger’s coronation Sunday, but not in a way any student of race relations would call profound. He includes a copy of a thank-you letter he wrote to Stephens shortly after his victory, which concludes with this sentence: “Thank you again for giving me the opportunity to compete not just for myself, but for all minority people of the world.” But elsewhere in the book he writes about the importance of only competing for himself. He does not address this conflict, one that most likely defined his life in its first 30 or so years. The book lacks intellectual rigor.

Maybe I have gone on too long. It is a function of what the life and times of Tiger Woods has meant to me, on bad days, when he has frustrated me almost beyond measure, and the many good ones, when he has inspired me and countless others.

I know this will sound condescending, but I promise it is not meant that way: I believe the ideal audience for this book is middle-school readers, young people interested to learn about the sacrifice it takes to become excellent at a difficult thing, young readers who do not already know Tiger’s story from the 1997 Masters.

The book does not open with a dedication page. But, in a sense, the dedication is obvious. Here is the first paragraph of the end-of-the-book acknowledgments: “Thanks to Mom and Pop for showing me what’s important and for standing by me, whatever was going on in my life. My kids, Sam and Charlie, continue to teach me how to be the best dad I can be, and the best person I can be, day in and day out.”

Sam is nine, and Charlie is eight. Before long, their father’s book will be right in their wheelhouse, and they will most likely learn a great deal from it.

Michael Bamberger is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. Email him at mbamberger0224@aol.com.