The Tiger Mother’s Son

A year ago, after a decade of worsening pain from swinging hard since infancy, Tiger Woods, perhaps the highest-paid athlete in history, appeared headed for the same fate as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Prince, and Tom Petty. But this spring Woods is grinding away again on tour, playing surprisingly respectable golf.

Now 42, he may never win again. Or, who knows, Woods may put on a late charge toward the only records he doesn’t hold: Sam Snead’s 82 PGA wins (Woods has 79), Jack Nicklaus’ eighteen major championships (Woods has been stuck at fourteen since he memorably limped to the 2008 U.S. Open title), and his tennis peer Roger Federer’s twenty Grand Slam titles.

With the U.S. Open coming up in June at Shinnecock Hills in the Hamptons, it’s worth reviewing the new tell-all biography Tiger Woods by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian. Like his mentor Michael Jordan, Tiger benefited from advancements in the techniques of access journalism for controlling his media image, until it all fell apart in the sex scandal of 2009. So it’s informative to compare what Benedict and Keteyian say actually happened with what you had been told by the press at the time.

Woods being part black via his blowhard father was usually thought of as the most important element of his story, an angle assiduously pushed by Earl Woods. The elder Woods told a sports agent when Tiger was a 5-year-old sensation, “I believe that the first black man who’s a really good golfer is going to make a hell of a lot of money.” Amazon.com Gift Card i... Buy New $25.00 (as of 07:40 EST - Details)

But this exhaustive book doesn’t come up with much evidence for the pre-disgrace assumption that Tiger’s black side was key. For example, his father liked to tell the story of how as a kindergartener, Tiger was nearly lynched by racist 5-year-olds. But the authors can’t find a shred of proof for Earl’s oft-told tale. It appears to be just another Hate Hoax.

By the time Tiger was born in the mid-1970s, kids of military parents with previously exotic backgrounds (his parents met in Thailand during the Vietnam War when his father was a Special Forces lieutenant colonel and his mother, from an affluent but hard-hearted Bangkok family who had dumped her in a boarding school, was a secretary) were becoming much less rare in Southern California. Like Barack Obama growing up in Hawaii, Tiger was another mixed kid in a place less obsessed with black vs. white than the rest of the country.

In truth, culturally, Tiger has always seemed about 99 and 44/100ths Orange County Republican suburbanite. The authors, for instance, recount his rudeness to Bill Clinton, attributing it to the self-centeredness, ingratitude, and poor manners that Tiger’s parents inculcated in him to nurture the cold-blooded personality that intimidated the best golfers in the world from 1997 to 2008. The writers don’t, however, consider the possibility that Woods didn’t like Clinton because Bill is a Democrat.

Woods’ astonishing twelve-stroke victory as a 21-year-old at the 1997 Masters tournament, followed by a peak of dominance in 2000–01 when he uniquely won all four professional majors in a row, was widely predicted to revolutionize the demographics of golf, with blacks pouring into the game.

But that didn’t happen.

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