A Tiger in Winter

A review of The 1997 Masters: My Story by Tiger Woods with Lorne Rubenstein

  • March 20, 2017
  • Grand Central Publishing

When Tiger Woods won the Masters by 12 strokes in 1997, I was 13 years old, and I had already been obsessed with golf for a couple of years. My favorite players were Ben Crenshaw, Corey Pavin, and Steve Stricker. As I watched Tiger shoot 65 on Saturday, however, I realized that the guys I rooted for were in trouble. This 21 year-old, with his cool, austere clothes and his wiry power, was Google, and they were AltaVista.

During Tiger’s recent on- and off-course struggles, I have been drawn more and more to videos of his triumphs. The 1997 Mercedes, when on the first playoff hole he followed Tom Lehman’s water ball with a six iron to six inches. 2000 at Kapalua, when he beat Ernie Els in a playoff by holing a 30 footer that the announcers had just deemed impossible to make. The 2006 WGC-American Express, when he did nothing conspicuously brilliant except for control the tournament from the moment he stepped on the course. He won by eight strokes.

The more Tiger shows how fragile he is, the more I want to be reminded of a time when he seemed invincible.

It appears that Tiger, too, feels the pull of his own past. The timing of his memoir, The 1997 Masters: My Story, makes sense in a couple of obvious ways: it is the 20th anniversary of that remarkable performance, and Tiger has a new brand — TGR — to promote. But given the apparent collapse of his game, he must have also found it appealing to inhabit, through memory, a younger, stronger, less damaged self.

I was into it, and was hitting the ball long and where I wanted to hit it. I hit a pitching wedge into the fifteenth to set up the eagle. I was dialed in.

Seen as the self-administered therapy of a man in decline, this book is an intriguing document.

But it is not a good piece of writing. Composed with the help of golf journalist Lorne Rubenstein, The 1997 Masters retains the markings of its “as-told-to” origins. Clearly Rubenstein conducted a series of interviews with Tiger then did his best to stitch together a narrative. The seams show. Paragraphs start on one theme and end on another, digressions lead to further digressions, and some sections — especially the shot-by-shot accounts of Tiger’s 1997 rounds at Augusta — seem oddly impersonal, as though adapted from Wikipedia. I agree with Michael Bamberger’s review for Golf Digest, which detailed the book’s literary faults and compared it unfavorably with autobiographies by Andre Agassi, Bobby Jones, and Ted Williams. (Let me add to that list I Am Zlatan, a riveting memoir by Swedish soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimovic.)

As I read The 1997 Masters, I could not help imagining how much better the book would have been as a James Miller-style oral history. Tiger’s recollections could have remained front and center while being supplemented and contextualized by contributions from the many great talkers who witnessed his achievement first-hand: Fluff Cowan, Butch Harmon, Paul Azinger, Colin Montgomerie, Jim Nantz, etc.

To be honest, though, I did not buy this book because I expected it to be well-wrought literature. I bought it because Tiger is at a crossroads in his career — struggling to recover from another surgery and “receiving professional help to manage [his] medications” (PR-speak for “doing a semi-mandatory stint in rehab”) — and I’m curious how he got here and where he might be headed. Since the book focuses on four days in 1997, it does not provide many direct answers to those questions; yet whether consciously or not, Tiger reveals a great deal about himself in these pages.

For instance, he shows that he has been thinking about how race and racism have shaped his life. He speaks movingly about how discrimination scarred both his black father and his Thai mother, how the residents of his hometown in Southern California “weren’t happy that a mixed-race family had moved in,” how white kids seemed to get preferential treatment at the golf courses that he grew up on, and how he found himself “underwhelmed” at first by Magnolia Lane, the famous entrance to Augusta, because “the club had excluded black golfers from playing for so long.” He is at his best when working with these kinds of details. But as Michael Bamberger points out in his review, Tiger’s abstract pronouncements about his public role as a “race man” are full of contradictions. What Bamberger misses, however, is that Tiger acknowledges as much.

Maybe I couldn’t have it both ways. Maybe I couldn’t be seen as a golfer, nothing more, nothing less, while simultaneously hoping more minorities would be drawn to the game.

No, Tiger is not what anyone would call intellectually rigorous on the topic of race. But in this book he is thoughtful and, by his standards, open about it. Especially now that he has time to reflect, perhaps he will continue to grapple and evolve.

He will surely keep ruminating on the complex impact that his parents had on his development. In an unintentionally harrowing passage, Tiger recalls how when he was “about eleven,” he asked his father to toughen him up.

That was when he started what he called “psychological warfare” and “prisoner of war” techniques with me.

Pop would push me to the point where I might not feel as confident in myself. He tried to make me feel insecure. Later, I would learn that others thought he was doing this without my permission, but that’s not true. I needed him to push me to the edge of not wanting to continue because I had to learn to block out any feeling of insecurity. We had a code word that I could use whenever I thought I couldn’t take it anymore. But I never used the code word….

My dad deliberately used a lot of profanity when I was hitting balls, all the time, and throughout my swing. “Fuck off, Tiger,” he would sometimes say. I didn’t mind and even encouraged his cussing, which was poetry. He never repeated himself. He was very, very good at it, and used everything he could possibly use. It was some good stuff, and eventually, I started laughing at it. It was “motherfucker” this, “you little piece of shit,” or, “How do you feel being a little nigger?” — things of that nature. That was okay. I heard it at school and in tournaments, and I also knew that feeling of being excluded.

Judging these parenting choices by the late Earl Woods is a tricky business. Obviously his approach was informed by his own experience with racial discrimination and his understandable concern his son would face similar treatment in the golf world. At the same time, I have a hard time fathoming how an 11-year-old could meaningfully consent to such training. Moreover, as a teacher and as a son of two psychologists, I would reject the idea that “prisoner of war” techniques build mental toughness in anyone, much less in children. This approach is far more likely to cultivate deep insecurity along with the defensive response of emotional suppression. Yes, this psychological architecture may have helped Tiger win 14 majors in 11 years, but it was always prone to collapse. I do not think it is a coincidence that, as reported by Wright Thompson last year, Tiger’s mental health has likely been precarious ever since Earl Woods’s death in 2006.

So what’s next for Tiger? For my part, I would be happy to hear him announce a retirement from tournament golf. As the liveliest moments of The 1997 Masters suggest, he has much to offer as a mentor to young players and as a designer of golf courses.

When Tiger holds forth on golf technique, he suddenly becomes expansive and opinionated. While reading his thoughts on the putting stroke, I began not only to contemplate trading in my face-balanced mallet but also to appreciate his value as an adviser to the likes of Jason Day and Rory McIlroy.

I wanted to make sure that my putter moved away from the ball and inside the lane, then back to where I would hit the ball, and then moved inside and away from the lane again. That was the start of what I like to think of as a stroke that resembled Ben Crenshaw’s — inside the line going back, through the line at impact, and then back inside the line. I’ve never wanted to take the putter straight back and straight through. That made no sense to me, because the shaft of a putter is on an angle. It’s not straight up, ninety degrees from the ball. A pendulum stroke is fine if you’re perfectly ninety degrees vertical, but what putter is like that? If the shaft is on an arc, then the stroke should also be on an arc. The putter swings. It’s a stroke, but it’s also a swing.

There it is. Tiger’s voice. He is not a memoirist, though he has been paid to be one, and he is not an expert on race and racism, though he has been expected to become one; he is a golf nerd.

Even more engaging are his reflections on golf course design and on the evolution (or devolution) of Augusta in particular. Like most right-thinking architects and architecture geeks, Tiger sees the so-called “Tiger-proofing” of Augusta as a betrayal of Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie’s effort to build an “inland links.”

Making the course longer was one thing. It wasn’t as easy to understand why Augusta felt it should change the nature of the course in other ways, such as adding rough — that “second cut.” It also added trees, which narrowed the corridors of play and eroded the strategic values that Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie had created as the course’s essential feature. They wanted golfers to play the game by angles, which required wide fairways.

Tiger is the rare great golfer who seems interested in creating fun, playable, strategic courses. Indeed, his first major design, Bluejack National, resembles nothing so much as an un-“Tiger-proofed” Augusta. It sounds like a blast.

Right now, it is hard to imagine Tiger walking away from competitive golf without attempting another comeback. His career had such a spectacular first act, beginning with the events of The 1997 Masters and ending with a crash into a fire hydrant. His second act in 2012-13 felt incomplete, devoid of a signature triumph. It is clear that he wants a capstone for his playing career but almost as clear that his body and mind won’t let him have it. Yet as this book reveals, his third act, if he lets it play out, could end up being even better regarded than his first.

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