Book excerpt: Tiger at Quail Hollow
A Woods confidant didn’t pause to ponder the question when I asked which member of the inner circle bore the greatest brunt of Woods’s anger. “Hank,” he said. “Definitely, Hank.” Haney came to Woods through Mark O’Meara. O’Meara, also from southern California and himself a U.S. Amateur champion who blossomed into a top-ten-caliber pro, acted as a de facto big brother when Woods turned professional in the summer of 1996, a relationship nurtured by IMG, which represented them both. Golfers invariably would base themselves in a state where they could play year-round and, more important, didn’t have to pay state personal income taxes, so it was no surprise when Woods moved from California to Orlando’s elite golf enclave, Isleworth, where O’Meara lived. IMG found him a villa, and the wide-eyed twenty-year-old had celebrity neighbors like Orlando Magic basketball stars Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, baseball prince Ken Griffey Jr., and actor Wesley Snipes. Woods and Griffey often jumped the back fence to O’Neal’s home to shoot hoops.
Not coincidentally, his other neighbor was IMG’s head of golf, Alastair Johnston. “I think his move to Isleworth was pretty important,” Johnston told the Dallas Morning News at the time. “On one hand, the move means he doesn’t have as many friends around him. On the other hand, he can get away from it there. It’s a community that’s used to having stars around. He can orchestrate his life there. Therefore, I think he gets away. He relaxes. I think he has peace of mind when he goes home. He’s got a base to go home to, where he’s got his own stuff. I think that will be helpful in terms of dealing with all the pressures.” IMG also took the liberty of setting up a personal management team around Woods to run his affairs. There was even a full-time employee assigned to look after Woods’s home when he wasn’t there. Given his prodigious appetite, her job mainly involved restocking the fridge.
In truth, apart from the media room where he could sit for hours playing video games—in 1996, he was addicted to Mortal Kombat—and eating cheeseburgers, his favorite dish, Woods spent so much time at the O’Meara house he was almost part of the family. It was an important relationship for a young man seeking to live an independent life but very much in need of training wheels. The O’Mearas provided an emotional safe harbor by offering friendship with no strings attached; they weren’t looking to exploit him. Woods, perhaps understandably given his meteoric rise, was wary of the motives of those who tried to get close.
His fraternal relationship with O’Meara, who was eighteen years older, extended to fishing trips and regular rounds of golf at Isleworth, and continued for almost a decade. Woods learned other lessons, too. Their trips to Ireland included wild nights. Ultimately, Woods married and started finding his own path in life while the O’Meara marriage sadly fell apart, leading to an acrimonious divorce. Woods by then was spending his time with those he felt better understood his fishbowl existence: men like Jordan, Barkley, and Derek Jeter. Besides, as much as he tried to love fishing like O’Meara, he’s an action junkie. As he joked to writer John Hawkins, “After half an hour [of fishing], my ADD kicks in.”
Haney had long been O’Meara’s swing coach and so was very familiar to Woods. He made no direct attempt to indoctrinate Woods, but because they shared a passion for understanding the complexities of the golf swing, they naturally engaged in long conversations about how that mystery was best unraveled. Woods was a sponge when it came to subjects near to his heart, and the golf swing may be atop that list. “He’s a real student of the game,” says a member of Woods’s inner circle. “I think he could easily operate without a coach but he likes to have someone to bounce ideas off and take a look at him.” Few, however, expected Woods, whose swing was naturally more upright and conventional, to find much use in Haney’s unique ideas. “I’ve never understood what Woods saw in Haney,” says a Tour winner who also lived in Orlando. “If you’ve ever played with O’Meara, you know that’s not a ball flight you want to copy. It’s a sort of playable hook, but it’s not pretty, not anything to emulate.” He made a motion with his right hand, like a pitcher throwing a quick curveball. “It’s a ball that sort of falls out of the sky like a wounded duck.” O’Meara, though, had the last laugh, winning two majors in middle age on the wings of that wounded duck. He credited Woods for those successes, saying he was driven to greater heights because he simply couldn’t stand being pulverized whenever they played. While O’Meara couldn’t possibly hit the ball as far or as well as Woods, he learned to putt better to stay in the game. Not coincidentally, at forty-one, O’Meara won the 1998 Masters by holing a speedy 20-footer with a little right-to-left break on the last hole. He led the field on the game’s most treacherous greens that week, needing just 105 putts. The cherry on top was that Woods, the reigning champion, slipped the green jacket onto his shoulders at the presentation ceremony.
Haney’s greatest asset may be that he was the antithesis of Butch Harmon. Where Haney was naturally quiet, private, and circumspect, Harmon was loud and gregarious, the life of the party, not afraid to voice his opinions. Neither had the oldest son of the legendary instructor Claude Harmon ever been shy about extolling his own virtues. Woods was never comfortable with the way Harmon paraded up and down the driving ranges of the Tour, telling jokes and offering swing tips to every Ernie, Phil, and Freddie who came along. He began tiring of Harmon’s shtick in the early part of the decade when he felt his coach was taking too much credit for his successes. But what sealed Harmon’s fate was that Woods felt he had nothing left to learn. Harmon’s view was that he wasn’t fixing what wasn’t broken; therefore, all Woods needed was maintenance. His proof was seven out of eleven majors. But he badly misread Woods, who was driven by the simple need to be better tomorrow than he was today. “You’re always tweaking,” Woods told me in 2009. “You’re always trying to get better. The game is fluid. It’s never concrete. That’s the beauty and also the most frustrating thing about it.” Woods felt that with Harmon his swing was inconsistent. When his timing was off, he’d get “flippy,” meaning he had to rely on his fast hands to square the clubface going into the ball. “I feel that my overall plane and my swing and my release and how I play now is just so much more efficient,” he told me. “Bad shots aren’t what they used to be, and that’s what we were trying to get to. Anybody can play when they’re hot, but it’s how poor are your mishits, can you control them, and more importantly, can you fix it?”
Haney, who learned his craft from the one plane swing guru Jim Hardy in Chicago, was, like Hardy—and every Texan—a great admirer of Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson. These legends had perhaps the two most dependable swings in golf’s long history and both were, not coincidentally, long through the hitting zone. Woods was seduced by the promise of achieving such consistency, and others around him agreed that he had not reached his pinnacle. “You look at the video from when he was with Butch and you can see the contact wasn’t as consistent back then,” says Williams. “Two thousand was a phenomenal year, but if you look back at his putting statistics, and I keep all Tiger’s statistics, he putted unbelievably. I mean, yeah, he played good, there’s no denying that, but he putted phenomenal and his short game was great. It would be hard to say to somebody that at Pebble Beach he didn’t hit it his best, because you can’t say that when the guy wins the U.S. Open by 15 shots. It’s going to sound derogatory to the rest of the field, but the truth is he played good but he didn’t play great. He managed his game well and he putted unbelievably well. He made no mistakes.”
Harmon was the last of the Mohicans Earl Woods had hand-picked to form the original Team Tiger. How ironic that while Harmon was telling golf writers that Earl, who had the habit of making outrageous statements about his son’s greatness, was “out of control,” Tiger Woods had precisely the same concerns about the man he called “Butchy.” (Everyone around him, as an aside, was referred to in names ending in “e”: Stevie, Steiny, and his wife was just “E.”) Woods had already replaced his first caddie, Mike “Fluff” Cowan, after two and a half years in essence because Cowan, a friendly old hippie, liked to talk. Earl liked to talk, too; indeed, nary a thought passed through his head that wasn’t expressed. But not his son. Tiger Woods coveted discretion. The kiss of death for Cowan came when Woods, in attempting to play down rumors of a rift, wrote on his website in early 1999 that there was no substance to what he termed “Caddiegate.” “There’s nothing wrong between us,” he wrote. “People are blowing the situation way out of proportion.” A week later, Cowan was fired.
Woods replaced him with Williams even though his father was again urging him to hire a black caddie. Earl Woods, always looking at the big picture in positioning his son as the Chosen One, thought it was an important gesture. But Tiger’s sole interest, as it had always been, was winning golf tournaments. He cared little for making sociopolitical statements. He acted, as he usually did, guided by meritocratic principles. He chose the man he thought would do the best job. Woods saw the world in a very unfiltered way: you want his respect? Earn it.
Cowan was the third member of Earl’s team to be removed; or the fourth, if you count San Diego sports psychologist Jay Brunza, who was out of the picture by the time Woods turned professional. Brunza, a retired naval commander befriended by Earl Woods, caddied for Tiger in each of his six USGA championship victories. Earl adapted his Special Forces psychological training and his experiences in the killing fields of Vietnam to make his son’s mind strong. He was convinced—and he was right—that his son’s mental strength as much as his gift for hitting a golf ball would make him unbeatable. “Talent isn’t always the best indicator for an athlete’s success,” said Begay. “[Tiger] has the mental capacity.” Earl came up with many inventive ways to toughen up his boy. He constantly disturbed the young Tiger as he was about to play a shot. Tiger would boil over in anger, telling him that golf etiquette dictated that he had to be quiet, but his father wouldn’t stop. After a while, tired of being angry—and seeing that anger didn’t help—Tiger resolved not to be bowed and, sure enough, the day came when nothing would distract him on the golf course. While Earl succeeded, the story was at least as much reflective of Tiger. Indeed, it was classic Tiger: whatever the game, he would not stop until he won. “It’s extraordinary how competitive he is,” says Williams. “You can’t explain it to people because no one will believe you.” Everyone who’d been close to Woods had a story to tell about his legendary competitiveness. Perhaps the most humorous came from Jaime Diaz, who had predicted in Golf Digest that once Woods committed himself to sex addiction therapy in the aftermath of his infidelities, “It’s easy to imagine him wanting to leave a road to recovery adorned with rehab records.”
Earl, who was involved in self-help methods like EST, also gave his son tapes to listen to with subliminal messages, while his mother, Tida, introduced him to the Buddhist path to enlightenment. Buddhism was the perfect religion for Woods because it taught that salvation came through self, not belief in faraway and nebulous gods. In other words, only he could be in control of his destiny, find his own happiness. Buddhism also fit in nicely with the teachings of Earl Woods, who told his son that he was powered by an internal “nuclear reactor.” But just as Earl knew when it was time for his son to see a professional golf instructor—the precocious youngster on his first day told the teacher who asked him to hit balls at a flag on a range that he already knew how to do that but wanted to be taught how to shape shots around trees to the flag—he understood the need for a credentialed psychologist. Brunza arrived on the scene when Woods was thirteen and both hypnotized him and taught the boy how to get himself into a trancelike state, what in sports is generally referred to as the “zone.” Woods was such a good pupil, able to shut out all external distractions at will, that soon enough he no longer had need for the teacher. “Brunza went the way of everyone who outlives their usefulness,” says a Woods observer. A member of Team Tiger disputed the inherent cold-bloodedness of such a conclusion, however. “Tiger’s an excellent student and pretty independent. Once he gets what you’re telling him, he absorbs it and he moves on. I don’t think it was personal with Jay, or that he used him. He liked him but he didn’t need him there anymore.”
Lawyer John Merchant, the first African American to serve on the United States Golf Association’s powerful Executive Committee, was removed quickly as Woods’s business adviser, though Tiger had his father do the deed. “It’s weird considering he’s this intimidating killer on the golf course, but Tiger doesn’t like confrontation,” says a source who knows Woods. “He can be very cold and calculating with people, but he won’t be the one to tell you you’re out.” Indeed, after the third round of the BMW Championship at Chicago’s Cog Hill in 2009, Woods was whistling through the locker room, very much the king of his domain, when he stopped at a sink to wash his hands. Rory Sabbatini, who had greatly embarrassed Woods by pulling out of Tiger’s tournament at Sherwood Country Club in LA with a dubious excuse, moved to the sink next to Woods. I’d expected a tense exchange, but Woods instead made small talk. When I asked later whether he’d buried the hatchet with the South African, Woods looked at me like I was insane.
Next to fall was Hughes Norton, Woods’s first agent. Norton was no one’s idea of a shrinking violet. According to his view of the world, Greg Norman would have been just another pro had Norton not created the brand of the Great White Shark. Norman repaid Norton, of course, by firing him, just one of many reasons for Norton’s bitterness at the world. Norton was another who couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He told stories about how he’d regularly peel hundred-dollar bills because Woods never had any cash. “For a rich guy, you sure are poor,” Norton was quoted by Sports Illustrated in 1996 as telling Woods. Woods failed to see the humor in such statements. Interestingly, O’Meara, who like Woods was notoriously frugal, had already fired Norton as his agent, and when Woods came seeking counsel, advised him to do the same. Norton was paid hush money by IMG to keep quiet about his time with Woods, and maintained his silence despite being legally free to say whatever he wanted. “He will not be interviewed,” said an IMG executive. “His IMG buyout is over but not his contempt for the media.”
Woods quickly came to understand that he was the one writing the checks. Therefore, he also thought he should write the rules. He wanted those around him to remember who was boss, keep their mouths shut, and make no attempt to profit from their closeness to him without his approval. Neither was he in the habit of handing out money just because he had it in spades; again, it went to his view that in life, you should get what you earn. There were no handouts. Some saw that worldview reflected in the lack of closeness to his three stepsiblings from his father’s first marriage. Hideyuki “Rock” Ishii, the mad scientist who designed Woods’s golf ball for Nike, had the right answer when Sports Illustrated approached him about a story. “My job is to make balls for Tiger, not talk about him,” he told the magazine. “I don’t forget how lucky I am to work with Tiger. It’s an honor to play even the smallest role.” When I’d asked to interview Woods’s boyhood friends, Bryon Bell and Jerry Chang, I was greeted with silence.
In the summer of 2002, Woods cut off Harmon. Because there was no one else who could do the deed for him, Woods had to be the one to deliver the news and, typically, it was done awkwardly and inconclusively. He simply informed Harmon before the final round of the PGA Championship that August at Hazeltine that he didn’t need his help on the range. He wanted to work alone. A jilted Harmon spent his time watching over Justin Leonard while Woods warmed up at the other end of the range. In the soap opera world of professional golf, only everyone noticed. By the middle of 2003, the decade-long marriage between golf’s top instructor and greatest player was officially over. “Agent, caddie, lawyer, swing coach, foundation director—they were all gone very soon,” says the IMG executive. They were all, he noted, appointed by Earl Woods. “But Tiger’s replacements,” he continued, “are still there.”
That observation was certainly true when it came to Steinberg, Williams, Tiger Woods Foundation chief executive Greg McLaughlin, and Chris Hubman, the accountant who handled Woods’s personal business affairs. Haney, however, seemed forever on shaky ground. Henry, as Woods calls him, knew when he started working with Woods that it was a no-win scenario. There was only one way to go after Woods had tasted such unprecedented success under the tutelage of Harmon. Haney knew how long it would take to learn and master a new swing and that it was unlikely Woods would be winning during the reeducation. But Woods talked him into it and wanted to learn a better swing. He also wanted a swing that would be easier on his body and allow him to play at a high level into middle age. Woods understood that his swing was built on speed and power and that it had caused damage to his left knee. “My philosophy as a teacher,” Haney writes, “is to teach my students to become their own best teacher by getting them to understand the flight of the golf ball and how it relates to the swing, with emphasis on swinging the golf club on their own correct swing plane.” Innocuous enough, except that virtually every swing guru in golf believed Haney’s ideas were wrong. Harmon became the chief antagonist, telling anyone who’d listen that Woods was ruining his career, though he was hardly alone in that belief. A Tour winner, a disciple of 1980s swing guru Jimmy Ballard, told me that Haney had cost
Woods countless majors and “should be strung up for what he’s done to the kid.” Woods had many laudable traits, but they didn’t include taking criticism well. The more vocal the opposition to Haney, the more Woods supported him. He was going to be right, even if he wasn’t.
Woods arrived in Charlotte for the Quail Hollow Championship—played on a course he liked—knowing that the hornets’ nest had been stirred by his tirade at Haney on the practice rangeat Augusta. Journalists wrote that Haney’s position was tenuous, and after a pro-am round played alongside his friend, quarterback Peyton Manning, Woods’s first order of business was to defend his coach. “That’s complete speculation,” he said of reports that Haney was on his way out. “It has nothing to do with Henry. I didn’t hit the ball the way I wanted to and I didn’t make any putts. I felt like that every day it was 17 and 18 that hurt. I didn’t finish off my rounds the last couple days, and it cost me a chance to win the golf tournament.” So why, then, did he explode at Haney? “Usually you just leave me alone, let me vent for a while, and then I’ll be ready to focus on what I need to do to get ready for the next day,” he said. “ It’s happened before, he’s seen it before, Stevie has seen it. You’ve got to vent. We don’t get a chance to do that because we come off the green, we do media right away. You’re constantly on, and I just need to vent for just a little bit. Give me five minutes, ten minutes, and once that’s over, it’s, ‘What do we need to do to get ready to win this golf tournament the next day?’ ”
Woods said he needed to be patient because he felt his body was still in the process of recuperating. “I’m just now starting to get my pop back,” he said. “I’m starting to get my speed back, and that’s obviously going to take a little time. I’ve been away from the game for such a long time, and I haven’t been able to hit as many balls. So I’m just now starting to get my speed back, which is great.” Time was needed, he said, because there was danger in rushing to achieve too much, too soon. “You don’t want to stretch out the ligament again. It’s still healing. It takes basically two years. But it’s still healing, still got to watch out for that, and my muscles are now starting to come around where they’re starting to become more explosive.” He was asked again about how having children had changed his life and in answering paid homage to his father. “I love to teach, and to be able to teach Sam and as soon as I can start teaching Charlie a few things, that’s fun,” he said. “I live to be able to do that. Like my dad always told me, each and every day is a way to teach your kids something new. He’s always done that. My entire life he always looked at each and every day as that, and I do the same with my kids.”
Woods arrived in North Carolina without his family and without Haney and stayed at the high-end Ballantyne resort. He’d seemed more relaxed than he’d been at Augusta two weeks before. As far as Masters hangover cures went, his first-round 65 wasn’t bad. He had the lead by 2 strokes. But appearances could be deceiving. Woods’s struggles off the tee continued unabated. He hit only five fairways, but his iron play was good enough to find fourteen greens and his short game was off the charts. He got up and down on each of the four greens he missed, none of which was straightforward, and, for good measure, took only eleven putts on his inward nine, turning lemons into a 6-under-par 30. Unfortunately, that opening round was the high-water mark. Woods’s play deteriorated markedly throughout the tournament, but as pure testament to his indomitable spirit, he was still in the hunt on Sunday. The opening hole at Quail Hollow was benign; it played downwind and required no more than a bunted 3-wood to set up a short-iron approach. Woods took his driver and hit it at least 80 yards right, into a forest. He somehow escaped with a bogey. After failing to birdie two easy par 5s, his goose was cooked. An even-par round of 72 was good enough for fourth place, a great week for most players, though Tiger Woods didn’t play for $312,000 checks.
When David Feherty, the CBS analyst and resident jokester, interviewed Woods after his round, he asked whether Woods felt like a loser. It was the sort of question only a friend would ask, because it cut awfully close to the bone given Woods’s struggles with the long game. But Woods cracked a smile. It was reminiscent of the legendary—if somewhat embellished—exchange between Australian AP writer Andrew Both and Steve Elkington. After a poor round, Both asked the volcanic Elkington if he’d share his thoughts or “should I just go and f*** myself right now?” Elkington, who surely would’ve sent Both on his way, laughed and stopped to talk to him.
Woods’s mood was again noticeably different from Augusta, when he was essentially in the same position, having lost one he should’ve won. At Augusta, Woods looked like he was about to rip Bill Macatee’s head off as the interviewer made small talk by going over his new breakfast regimen while CBS took its sweet time cutting to them. “Well, I was,” Woods told Feherty, “and I wasn’t even first loser, either.” Sean O’Hair, whom Woods had slaughtered in the final round at Bay Hill, won the tournament despite two closing bogeys. Woods finished only 2 shots behind in a tournament no one wanted to win. He was disappointed but waited around for O’Hair to finish and congratulated him on his third Tour win. O’Hair marveled at the way Woods was able to keep such clean lines of distinction between the good friend he was off the course and the coldhearted assassin he was on it. “No matter how friendly you are with him,” O’Hair reflected, “he wants to slit your throat on the golf course.” But without a reliable swing, he was bringing knives to a gun fight.
Copyright © 2010 by Robert Lusetich. Reprinted by permission. Excerpted from the book Unplayable by Robert Lusetich published by Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. (Available now at your local bookstore and at www.simonandschuster.com. ISBN: 9781439160954, $26.00)