Wooden heart

2012-05-12 00:00

I USUALLY avoid books about sport and particularly those of a biographical nature. I have little time for the ghosted works of the My Life So Far variety. Such books are usually trivial with the odd tidbit thrown in to lure the punters.

When Hank Haney produced his recent book The Big Miss, I thought it would be a self-serving story of his successful years as the coach of Tiger Woods culminating in an account of the sex scandal which engulfed the great golfer at the height of his powers.

I could not have been more wrong. Haney’s is a careful and thoughtfully written story. It confirms much of what one suspected about the nature of Woods’s personality, but throws considerable light on the pressures of being the best-known athlete in the world combined with his obsessive desire to obtain the perfection that would enable him to become the greatest golfer of all time.

As we all know, the odyssey of Woods’s life is to eclipse Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 Major victories. The fascination of this book is mainly in the manner in which the peculiarities of a complicated personality keep getting in the way of the completion of his life’s mission.

The sadness in Haney’s tale is the way Woods has ruthlessly shut out the rest of the world in his effort to suborn every moment of his life to the good of his greater goal.

In what little there is of his unscripted speech, Woods does refer to various people as “friends”, but one is left in no doubt by Haney that Woods has little understanding of the meaning of friendship. Phone calls are unreturned, e-mails are left without responses, those once regarded by Woods as his friends are dropped or slighted without compunction.

Unless a person has some use to Woods in pursuit of his desire for perfection on the golf course, he has no interest in him or her.

Haney once introduced Woods to a champion motor racing cyclist on the practice range at Woods’s home club, Isleworth. Woods was curious to know what this fellow ate for lunch prior to a race. When he was told “a candy bar and Coke”, Woods lost interest and resumed hitting balls. This guy was simply not a serious athlete.

Woods is more likely to establish a rapport with those golfers who pose no threat to his supremacy than those like Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els whose talent he recognises, but refuses to acknowledge. He enjoys nothing more than to turn it on when any of his main rivals pauses to watch him on the driving range just to let them know exactly what they are up against.

He countenances no familiarity from other golfers. Ian Poulter, whom Woods regards as brash and bumptious, once bummed a ride on Woods’s private jet. Woods was furious with him and coldly ignored Poulter throughout the flight. “Can you believe this guy?” he said to his coach.

The thrust of Haney’s book tells the story of their years together as pupil and coach in a relationship where the pupil was definitely the master. Knowing as much about the golf swing as he does, Woods was not always keen to follow Haney’s advice, to which he often responded with a dismissive silence. Butch Harmon had warned Haney that coaching Woods would be difficult and so it was.

What Haney soon discovered was that, like many casual golfers, Woods had difficulty in transferring his immaculate ball striking on the practice range into tournament play. There were particular shots that he feared, chief among them being the driver on holes where trouble lurked down the left side of the fairway.

He was afraid of the big miss that could cost him a stroke or more. The holy grail for Woods was to be able to hit a safe shot with his driver under extreme pressure, but his macho personality got in the way of at least one solution.

Haney was keen for Woods to use his famous stinger shot with the driver. It is a low, piercing fade that he hits accurately with other clubs. Although Woods could play this shot with his driver on the range, he refused to use it in tournament play on the grounds that he would lose some length. He did not want to be seen hitting his driver shorter distances than his opponents.

Although Woods’s practice routine was extremely diligent in that it occupied a full day, he quickly became grumpy and bored if he thought that its purpose was merely that of maintenance.

Everything he did was supposed to make him a better golfer in order to keep him well ahead of his rivals. He did not accept that he was already so far ahead of them that mere maintenance would allow him to achieve all his goals.

This perpetual desire for an edge led Woods into a long and eventually harmful flirtation with matters military. He began associating with units such as the Navy Seals whom he greatly admired. He visited their camps and submitted himself to various brutal training regimens. Inevitably, he badly injured his knee and fractured his tibia. This was the injury that was to take him out of golf at the height of his powers, but not before his astonishing victory in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines where he played 72 holes with a broken leg and then defeated Rocco Mediate in an 18 holes play-off.

Haney mentions little about the sex scandal other than to say it damaged Woods’s shaky confidence. He knew nothing about it. He goes to pains to say that Steve Williams, who comes across as a more sympathetic character than his television image as an enforcer, was also ignorant of the womanising that destroyed Woods’s marriage and his reputation.

Haney’s book is written with fondness and respect for Tiger, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that Woods is a difficult man to like.

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