Book Review – two recent biographies capture Tiger Woods’ recent comeback
by John Strawn
Tiger Woods displayed his preternatural golfing genius on TV when he was two. He could read a putt before he could talk. Other than a royal baby, few children have experienced the kind of scrutiny Tiger faced throughout his life.
But unlike many young phenoms – Ty Tryon, Ryo Ishikawa, and Bobby Clampett come to mind – Tiger flourished as the limelight grew brighter, winning prodigiously as an amateur and surging to the top of the world rankings soon after turning professional.
That storybook phase of his life ended in November 2009. After Tiger’s Cadillac crashed into a tree outside his Orlando home, his fall from Mt. Olympus was precipitous and brutal.
Once back on earth, Tiger settled into quicksand. It took a decade, with interludes of success punctuated by injuries, surgeries and playing agonies – remember those excruciating chili-dips, the equivalent of Pavarotti singing off-key – before he rose back to the top.
Winning the Masters in 2019 was the dazzling dénouement to what author Curt Sampson calls Tiger’s “decade in the wilderness.”
That epic trek is at the heart of a pair of new books by two of America’s finest golf writers: Michael Bamberger with The Second Life of Tiger Woods and Curt Sampson with Roaring Back.
Working as a PGA Tour caddie provided the narrative scaffolding for Bamberger’s first book, The Green Road Home. Three subsequent golf-themed Bamberger books – To the Linksland, This Golfing Life and Men in Green – belong on any well-read golfer’s bookshelf.
After 22 years on Sports Illustrated’s golf beat and another two as a columnist for GOLF Magazine, Bamberger is the consummate Tour insider, but not even he could penetrate the defensive perimeter erected around Tiger to keep prying scribes out. As both Sampson and Bamberger note, not even Dan Jenkins, the Jack Nicklaus of golf journalists, was able to breach Tiger’s ramparts.
Despite this constraint, Bamberger has written a thoughtful, conscientious, and shrewd assessment of the life of Tiger Woods. Still, more than 200 illuminating pages into The Second Life of Tiger Woods, Bamberger confronts the unique burden of the Tiger expert.
“One challenge of being a reporter on the Tiger beat,” Bamberger laments, “is the summertime cocktail party. People expect you to say something insightful or original, but it’s impossible because everybody knows all about the life and times of Tiger Woods.”
If that were truly the case, Bamberger’s book would be a self-evident plod, but The Second Life of Tiger Woods is far from tedious. We can join the happy hour chorus in knowing the inspiration for both The Second Life and Roaring Back was Woods’ astonishing victory in the 2019 Masters, not long after he had effectively acknowledged, as Bamberger reports of a conversation Tiger had with Gary Player at the 2017 Champions Dinner, that “he was done.”
Lively, astute, and vigorously reported, Bamberger’s book – and its title – riffs on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s curious avowal that American lives don’t have second acts. That has never been the case, of course, in a country where re-invention is as common as inheritance.
But in Tiger’s case, the genuine accomplishments were so mighty – six consecutive USGA championships as an amateur, a win at the Masters by 12 shots at age 21, a U.S. Open win by fifteen at Pebble Beach – that his fall defied credulity.
Sampson is not only a terrific writer but also my business partner, so my appreciation for Roaring Back is flavored by friendship. Still, I know I am right in saying it’s a wonderful book, a fitting supplement to Sampson’s previous best-sellers, such as The Eternal Summer, Hogan and The Masters. If I hadn’t liked Roaring Back, I would have kept that to myself.
Anyone hoping to understand what makes Tiger Woods tick should read at least one if not both of these books. They inevitably cover much of the same ground, but with the distinctive voices and individual perspectives Bamberger and Sampson together provide is as full a portrait of Tiger as we’re ever likely to have.
Both Sampson and Bamberger had to contend not only with Tiger’s snubs but with his gift for saying nothing when he did speak. Transcripts of interviews displayed his genius for the anodyne answer.
In the absence of Tiger, Bamberger and Sampson drew on decades of their own reporting and the occasional insider’s revelation. Bamberger mined Hank Haney’s The Big Miss, for example, and his own interviews with Butch Harmon, while Sampson drew on his biography of Ben Hogan to compare Hogan’s comeback from a car crash with Tiger’s from his psychic train wreck.
Both writers found real insight in a series of interviews conducted with Woods by Henni Zuel on GolfTV – sessions Tiger was paid to provide, flouting journalistic protocols forbidding purchased content.
Both Sampson and Bamberger praise Zuel for her conscientious approach to interrogating Tiger.
“One of the most important things a reporter or interviewer can do,” Bamberger wrote on Zuel after her post-Masters interview with Tiger in 2019, “is make the subject comfortable. Henni does this effortlessly.”
They also found in Tony Finau a throwback source – a talented young player whose candor and intelligence evoked the disposition of Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino, who understood the role writers played in promoting the game that had created such wonderful lives for them. In both books, Finau comes across as someone to root for.
Tiger’s aversion to speaking with writers was reinforced by an announcement in late 2019 that he had his own memoir in the works. Back, a press release quoted Tiger as saying, will describe “how I feel and what’s happened in my life.”
Dozens of books have been published about Tiger – Sampson jokingly refers to himself as Tiger’s “120th biographer” – including a previous one by Sampson, Chasing Tiger, from 2002.
Bamberger also teamed up with Alan Shipnuck in 2012 to write a lightly fictionalized version of Tiger post-scandal, a novel called The Swinger. The red cover on The Second Life of Tiger Woods cheekily echoes that novel’s cover.
Tiger will not be defending his title at Augusta National in April, of course, as the sports world endures a global lockdown. But Jack Nicklaus, according to Sampson, thinks Tiger has 10 years of competing in majors left in him, and “could win one a year.”
Every one of those wins, should they come, will inspire more books on Tiger, but it’s hard to imagine anyone telling the story better than Bamberger and Sampson, each in his own way, have done in Roaring Back and The Second Life of Tiger Woods.
The Second Life of Tiger Woods
Avid Reader Press – $28
Roaring Back – The Fall and Rise of Tiger Woods
Diversion Books – $26.99
Based in Portland, Ore., John Strawn is currently a Principal at Strawn & Sampson, and the former CEO of Robert Trent Jones II Golf Course Design. His first book, “Driving the Green,” was published by HarperCollins in 1991. In the fall of 2019, he completed “Creating Calusa Pines,” which Golf Digest’s Ron Whitten called a “fascinating read” and “a compelling treatise on golf design.”