The truth about Tiger

The accusations started soon after Tiger Woods’ extramarital activities hit the tabloids. Golf columnist Lorne Rubenstein dispels the myths around Tiger’s fall from grace.

Lorne RubensteinThe interview room at the Augusta National Golf Club was full on April 5, when I was ushered in along with 206 other journalists to attend Tiger Woods’s much-anticipated press conference. As I awaited Woods’s entry and the question and answer session, I spoke with a colleague about the criticism that had been directed at the golf media over the months since the events of Nov. 27, 2009, which led to the unraveling of Woods’s off-course life that led to this much-anticipated event. Typical of the criticism was something that The New Yorker’s John Cassidy wrote in a Dec. 17, 2009, blog post.

“The golf press is notoriously soft on professional golfers, especially Tiger,” Cassidy wrote. A couple of weeks later, Globe and Mail columnist Jeff Blair referred to “the complicit and largely white-bread golf media.” Cassidy and Blair had joined a growing chorus of non-golf media who accused golf writers of going easy on Woods.

I believe, however, that most and perhaps all of the golf press, of which I’ve been a member for more than 30 years, knew very little and, more likely, nothing about Woods’s philandering. He and his handlers made sure of that; they were very successful at hermetically sealing Woods, at least from the mainstream press whose habit wasn’t to follow him when he left the course.

Whether we should have is another question; were we obliged to get around the walls and evasions and find the man within? Should the golf media have been poking around in his private affairs?  We covered what Woods did inside the ropes. Meanwhile, Woods had long ago perfected the ability to say nothing during his press conferences. And Team Tiger changed very little over the years, so there were very few ex-members who could provide information about his inner workings. When I spoke with those inside his small circle, it was clear they would answer nothing about who he really was off the course. Their lips slammed shut as if stapled together.

We were left with one picture and one only: Tiger Woods the extraordinary golfer. We wrote about that part of him because he exposed no other part. Jaime Diaz, who has probably spent more time with Woods than anybody in the media, touched on this in an illuminating essay in the February 2010 issue of Golf Digest. Diaz recounts their initial meeting, when Woods was 14 years old.
Tiger Woods
“He had many questions, a lot of them about the media,” Diaz writes. “As I made the case for maintaining an open dialogue, he listened impassively. Then he asked, with a pained expression, ‘Why do they have to know everything?’”

Woods tried to make sure the media knew nothing about him away from the course. If there were hints of what he was doing in the exclusive and private bars and lounges he apparently haunted, it wasn’t as if the golf media were privy to them. We watched Woods play golf, we listened to him say nothing, and we wrote about his extraordinary golf.  That was enough, because it was so exceptional. It’s also true that there was nothing else to write about. Woods was opaque.

Anybody who cares to go to and read transcripts of the press conferences with Woods can read thousands of pages and still learn very little about him. If he had an opinion, he wasn’t about to share it with the media. He answered questions without revealing anything about himself. He said nothing during the press conference that Monday in advance of the first round of the Masters three days later that was different. Sure, Woods said he had “acted terribly,” and “hurt so many people close to me.” But he wouldn’t reveal anything that suggested he would open up emotionally to the media and through us to the public. 

This was business as usual, that is. Some examples from things he had said in the past will make the point.

Asked how he handles being under the microscope, Woods said, “It’s not always fun at times.” That’s about it. No Woods there.

Asked whether he felt golf officials should compel manufacturers to roll the ball back because it’s going so far today, Woods said, “It would protect the great golf courses.” But he didn’t say whether he supported such an initiative.

Woods spoke at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on January 18, 2009 as part of the events preceding Barack Obama’s inauguration as U.S. President. He didn’t use Obama’s name once. He paid tribute to the military, of which his late father had been a member. Meanwhile, Woods, when he’d been asked during the campaign whom he supported, wouldn’t say. Not that he had to, but he simply wasn’t willing to expose himself in that way.

The wall that Woods built around himself with the media started when his father advised him to answer a question with as few words as possible, and never to go further.

He revealed nothing of how he might have felt about anything. A few years ago, I had breakfast with him at the Isleworth Golf and Country Club in Orlando, where he lives and where he crashed his car into a fire hydrant in the middle of that November night last year. The incident led to a cascade of revelations about his off-course life and serial infidelities. But at Isleworth that morning back then, I had no reason to ask Woods about any such behaviour. I knew nothing.

I was being spun by Tiger’s people, of course, much like every other member of the media has been over the years. The Wall Street Journal golf columnist John Paul Newport and I were having breakfast with Woods because he was the pitchman for the Swiss watch company Tag Heuer. The company was introducing an expensive watch meant for golfers, and it had invited us to the sit-down with Woods. At the end of our breakfast I asked him a non-watch question.

“Tiger, I’d like to do a piece on you for a non-golf magazine, maybe The New Yorker, Harpers or The Atlantic. I’d like to observe you here at Isleworth for two or three days while you prepare for, say, the Masters or U.S. Open. It’s the same sort of thing I’d want to do if I were writing about a gifted jazz musician, or an actor getting ready for a performance. Would you do that?”

Woods was caught a bit off-guard, but he recovered quickly, flashed his smile, and answered, making sure he addressed me by name. Woods has often addressed writers he knows by name, and a big deal was made in the non-golf media when he did this during the press conference at the Masters.  The non-golf media were suggesting that Tiger and the media were pals; after all, he’d addressed some of his questioners by name. But it meant nothing. It implied a familiarity that isn’t there, and was no different than Barack Obama addressing by name journalists on the White House beat.

“Well, it’s the sort of story I’d like to do, Lorne,” Tiger told me that day at Isleworth, “but I won’t, and here’s why. I won’t do it because I don’t want the other guys to know how I practice. I’ll talk to you all you want off the record about my practice and my swing, but not on the record.”

Maybe I should have pursued his invitation to speak off the record, but I didn’t see the point. A couple of years later, I visited the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim, Califorina to write a feature for U.S. Golf Weekly. I requested a one-on-one interview with Woods through his agent, Mark Steinberg. Steinberg said he would consider that if the magazine could guarantee a cover story. But that’s not possible in a weekly magazine, as the editor said. What if Arnold Palmer died the week the story was to be published, he asked, to make the point.  That would be the cover story.

In the end, Steinberg agreed to an interview conducted by e-mail. It’s not traditional practice to submit questions—that hardly constitutes an interview—but it was that or nothing. I sent Steinberg some questions for Woods to answer. The responses came back a few days later. Did Woods actually answer my questions, or did one of his surrogates? I have no idea.

Here’s the bottom line, and I’m confident I’m speaking for most of my colleagues. We hadn’t been “notoriously soft” on Woods. Rick Reilly in ESPN Magazine took Woods on last summer for using off-colour language on the course. I wrote a column in The Globe and Mail saying that his throwing clubs in anger was inappropriate.

Finally, there’s the accusation levelled at the golf media that we’ve been afraid of asking Woods tough questions because we would lose access to him.

Access? We weren’t afraid of losing access. We never had any real access. There wasn’t any to lose.

“A lot of these media guys are so opinionated, but they don’t have all the information,” Woods told Diaz. We didn’t have the information because he and his people walled him off from the mainstream press. The press conference at Augusta National didn’t change that. Six days later Woods finished fourth in the Masters, five shots behind the winner Phil Mickelson. We had learned over the months that Woods had a secretive off-course life. That was no longer a secret. He still is.