This week's Sunday Long Read is Wright Thompson's fascinating ESPN piece on golf prodigy and legend Tiger Woods, and his fall from the heavens over the last ten years into despair and numerous affairs, and how the death of his father Earl, a former Green Beret, in 2006 all but broke one of the greatest to ever play the game.
THE DECADE SEPARATING the cemetery in Kansas and the marina in the Bahamas has seen Tiger lose many of the things most important to him, and the more time passes, the more it's clear he left some essential part of himself there in the ground between Miles and Maude Woods. How did all he'd built come undone so quickly and so completely? That's the question that will shadow him for the rest of his life. The answer is complicated and layered. He fell victim to many things, some well-known and others deeply private: grief, loneliness, desire, freedom and his fixation with his father's profession, the military. These forces started working in Tiger's life almost as soon as his G-IV landed back in Orange County after he buried his father's ashes. The forces kept working until finally his wife found text messages from Rachel Uchitel on his phone and he ran his Cadillac Escalade into a fire hydrant (that car, incidentally, is owned by a man in rural Arkansas, who bought it used from a local dealer, neither of whom knew its own secret history).
After Thanksgiving in 2009, his life split open in the most public and embarrassing way -- can you imagine having to talk about your sex life in a news conference with your mom in the front row? -- but that car crash wasn't the beginning of his unraveling. In an odd way, it was the end. Everything he's endured these past seven years, including admitting that his golf career might be finished, is a consequence of decisions he made in the three years after he lost Earl. He'd been hurtling toward that fire hydrant for a long time. On some level, he even understood what was happening to him, or at least was invested in understanding. There was a book in his car the night of the wreck, and it ended up on the floorboard, covered in shards of glass. Its title was Get a Grip on Physics.
The topic fascinated Woods. He'd long struggled to sleep, and when he wasn't texting or playing video games, he'd read, often military books about lone men facing impossible odds, such as Roberts Ridge or Lone Survivor, or books about theoretical physics and cosmology. The intro to Get a Grip laid out the basic rules of early science, from Newton and Galileo, focused on the concepts of friction and gravity. These had long interested him. Five-year-old Tiger once made a drawing that showed stickmen swinging different clubs, with the clubface sketched, as well as the flight path of the ball, including distance and apex.
That drawing is a window into something Woods himself perhaps still can't articulate; even at that age, he was curious enough to be thinking about physics. From the beginning, his golf talent has seemed to be an expression of his genius, not the genius itself. He is a remarkable person, and not because he once won 14 important golf tournaments, but because he thinks about how he came to occupy his particular space in the world. "He certainly had his mind open to big questions, such as who he was, or who anyone was," says a close friend who requested anonymity, "and had his mind open to the idea that sometimes the question is the answer." Six pages into Get a Grip, author John Gribbin sums up a truth governing both the world and the relationship between Earl and Tiger Woods: "There was a fundamental law of nature which said that, left to their own devices, things move in circles."
I am always reminded that Tiger is just a few months younger than myself and has been through more than I'll ever imagine. My life is pretty sane compared to his at pretty much any point along the line, and I wonder just how high a cost the man has paid over the years to accomplish what he has.
He's lost a lot along that road, more than I would be willing to pay, which is probably why he's got 14 major golf championships and I have a 2nd place junior league bowling trophy from 30 years ago.