This interview was incredible. Some of the most insightful and thought-provoking discussion on Tiger Woods I have heard in some time. If you’re unaware of Wright Thompson, he wrote (among many other stories) this incredible piece on “The Secret Life of Tiger Woods” back in 2016 that exposed a previously unseen side of Tiger to the world.
This particular conversation in the leadup to his latest book “The Cost of These Dreams” touched on many athletes and their quirks, but the Tiger stuff was particularly enthralling to me.
Credit to “The Dan Patrick Show” which is where this interview took place.
On how Tiger was handled when he first turned Pro:
“Tiger was really let down by the people around him who were packaging and selling him, and you understand why they did it. When he started, the best and the most successfully marketed athlete in the world was Michael Jordan. So Tiger’s people, following the best practice, sold Tiger exactly like Michael Jordan. The real problem is, is that Michael is naturally an extreme extrovert. And Tiger naturally, is an extreme introvert. And, you know, it’s an (John) Updike thing, The mask eats the face. In some ways, making him be someone in public that he was spectacularly unsuited to be, was psychologically disastrous.”
On the two questions he would ask if he knew Tiger would answer honestly:
1) “Did you ever like golf?”
“I bet he likes golf now. I bet from 1997 to 2009 he did not like golf and wondered why he played… I think he’s a genius. He has an incredible mind and I think whatever, if his Dad would have introduced him to gymnastics. Or if his Dad would have wanted him to be an Opera singer. Or if his Dad would have wanted him to be the world’s greatest classical guitar player; I think he would have been that. I think the pursuit of greatness and of perfection was what he liked. I think now, I wonder if he really likes golf.”
2) “I would ask him where he feels closest to his father now.”
“Can you imagine if you’re an 11-year-old boy whose parents are getting divorced or are splitting up, and the happiest their family is is when they’re watching you succeed at golf. And 12-18 goes really quickly. You’re in college, you’re the best player in the world, now you’re signed to all these deals, now you’ve won The Masters. And you haven’t really had time to decide whether you want your whole entire life to be shaped by the unintentional whims of a 12-year-old boy. Now imagine you’re 30. And you have a wonderful life, but none of it is by your choosing.”
On if he thinks Tiger purposely sabotaged his own career:
“I don’t know. I’ve thought about that a lot. I mean, subconsciously possibly. I think that he understood that there was a difference certainly between “Eldrick Tiger Woods” and “Tiger Woods.” One was an avatar. I imagine like lots of famous people he came to hate the avatar, and also sort of like it. It’s like the Johnny Manziel thing. He wanted to be famous desperately and then when he got it all he wanted was to give it back. And you can’t.”
On the difference between Tiger and other athletes:
“I think (Lionel) Messi is another one of those people who, the decisions he made as a 13-year-old boy now are…
(Wright is asked if he thinks Messi is “trapped” like Tiger)
“I don’t think he’s as smart as Tiger, so I don’t think he feels as trapped. I mean, I think Tiger’s like legitimately off the charts brilliant. In a way that, say, Jack Nicklaus isn’t. Tiger is a fascinating guy. I mean, I’d love to go back to Tiger.”
Crazy stuff. The part about how Tiger was marketed by Nike and his management company in much the same way Michael Jordan was, and how detrimental to him as a person that ended up being: it couldn’t have been more spot on. I had never previously considered that angle, but when you look back at some of Tiger’s old commercials it is evident the person they were trying to portray was not the Tiger we (think) we know now.
The most fascinating aspect of the whole thing to me though was the first question Wright would ask Tiger if given the chance and granted the certainty of an honest answer. The thought that Tiger Woods of all people wouldn’t have enjoyed the most prolific stretch of golf played in the history of the sport seems preposterous. But the line about Tiger enjoying the pursuit of perfection more than anything, that line changed my mind on the entire thing completely. For years we have seen Tiger get as close to perfection with his swing and game as we have ever seen anyone do before, yet just as he appeared to have reached his peak, he would break down his swing in an attempt to get even better. If Tiger had never changed the swing that won him the 1997 Masters, or the the one that won five majors (including four in a row) and 22 wins on the PGA Tour in a three year stretch from 1999 through 2001, would he have more major championships titles at this moment in 2019? Almost certainly.
I felt a tinge of sadness flowing through my veins as Wright broke down how potentially miserable Tiger’s life has been, especially considering how much happiness and inspiration his life has given me. On the other hand though, hearing one of my favourite writers and clearly an extremely intelligent man himself refer to Tiger as being “off the charts brilliant” was pretty cool and brought a smile to my face. The times we’ve seen Tiger let the nerdy side of himself out (see below for one example) have been great, so to know that with all of the other stuff I love about Tiger, that he is actually a genius, that warms my heart.
I hope Wright Thompson does in fact go back to Tiger one day and Tiger does let him ask the questions he wants. The more we learn about “Eldrick” the more I, for one, love about “Tiger.”