Few things are more fun than reading a book from a writer who's got an ax to grind, an unhidden bias and an argument as sharp as his blade. John Feinstein, who is as prolific and authoritative as any sportswriter sharpening a, uh, pencil these days, takes a breather from the usual in-depth reportage of big books such as A March to Madness
and A Civil War
to tee off on Team Tiger in what is essentially a long magazine essay stuffed between book covers. The First Coming
may be short, but like a wily par 3, it's loaded.
Feinstein makes this clear from the get-go: he is awed by what Tiger Woods can do with a golf club, and he detests the way money rules sports. Thus, his beef isn't with the phenom of the fairways, regardless of how surly and capricious and self-inflated he can be; it's with Tiger's entourage--his father (who's likened the son to the Second Coming), his management company, and his endorsement sponsors, all of whom seem bent on extracting every pound of flesh they can in pursuit of the almighty dollar. In Tiger's case, the number comes to a very dividable stack of about 100 million of them. Feinstein declares a holy war on Tiger's team. The journalist is extremely tough on Earl Woods, for example, comparing him to one-time tennis hopeful Jennifer Capriati's father. He argues convincingly that, with Tiger's financial den secure, the golfer should forget about burning himself out by chasing every cent he can rake in for them and take dead aim on only one target for himself: the majesty of chasing Jack Nicklaus's seemingly unsurpassable achievement of 18 major tournament victories.
"The most important question that remains unanswered," writes Feinstein, "is this: Who is Tiger Woods? He's not the messiah, that's for certain." At this stage in his life and career, though, the positive side of that answer remains hidden in the rough, even for a scribe of Feinstein's provocative daring.
A Conversation with John Feinstein author of THE FIRST COMING TIGER WOODS: MASTER OR MARTYR?
Q: Why did you choose THE FIRST COMING as the title for this book?
A: It occurred to me as a result of Sports Illustrated's 'Sportsman of the Year' article on Tiger. During an interview for the article, Tiger's father Earl insisted that his son had been sent by God and that he would be the most important human ever. Not the most important golfer or the most important athlete. The most important human. When asked if he honestly thought his son--a golfer--would have more impact than Nelson Mandela, more than Gandhi, more than Buddha, Earl Woods said yes. Considering this messianic setup, THE FIRST COMING seemed both an ironic and appropriate title for this book.
Q: One of Tiger's problems you detail in THE FIRST COMING is that he is surrounded by an entourage that refuses to tell him when he's behaving inappropriately. Has that situation changed at all?
A: Not really. Keep in mind this is not a problem unique to Tiger. Rich and famous athletes are frequently surrounded by people who are financially dependent on them. Such people rarely have the nerve to say 'you screwed up' because they don't want to risk their meal ticket saying 'you're out of here!' The same goes for Tiger Woods. Having been through some of the negative experiences I describe, and being a bright guy, I'm hoping Tiger will be able to figure out for himself when he's stepping over the line because no one around him will. Of course he says the guy who tells him when he's screwing up is father--which makes sense because his father can't really be fired.
Q: You also explore a problem known in the sports business as 'golden handcuffs.' What are golden handcuffs? And how does the phrase apply to Tiger Woods?
A: It has been said in the past that when an athlete puts a corporate logo on his body or his equipment that he sells off a piece of his soul. If that's the case, Tiger Woods has very little soul left to work with. Because almost everything he owns, from head to toe; from golf bag to golf balls; from free time to time alone; has been sold. Even when he's on the golf course, playing the game he loves to play, Woods isn't completely free. He is always under the microscope. No matter how he plays, the public wants an explanation. Athletes--especially those making big money--have to understand there's a trade-off involved here. You can have more privacy if you decide you don't want to endorse Nike, American Express, Rolex, and so on. But if you to chase the big money, as Tiger has done, you've got to be able to put up with all the attention.
Q: Few of Tiger's missteps have received wide attention. Why does the media seem so inclined to make excuses for, or ignore, Tiger's misbehavior?
A: There are several things working in Tiger's favor. First of all he's very good at what he does. It would be wrong for any of us in the media not to recognize his ability to play well under pressure. We also all recognize that Tiger is very important to the future of golf. These two factors combine to make him somewhat intimidating. At the very least reporters are inclined to be a little more forgiving of Tiger when he acts out. Also working in Tiger's favor is his tendency to allow reporters minimum access. Those reporters who have managed to gain that access don't want to lose it by reporting aspects of his behavior. Finally, Tiger's management company--IMG--is one of the most powerful and omni-present sports management companies in the world. They've managed to charm half the reporters covering their star clients and bully the rest into submission.
Q: Is Tiger Woods--and the hoopla that surrounds him--good or bad for golf?
A: I think it's good for golf. It's always a good thing when you have a great young player like Tiger come into a sport. When that sport happens to be one with a well-deserved reputation for racism, and the young player happens to be a minority, so much the better. Everyone hopes that Tiger Woods will draw more young kids--especially young minority kids--into golf. But there are no guarantees. After Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon we didn't see lots of black kids breaking into the tennis ranks. There are still questions of minority accessibility to the sport of golf that need to be answered. Nevertheless Tige's presence has been a boon to the game which is much better off now than it was a year-and-a-half ago.
Q: You've compared Tiger Woods with Jennifer Capriati. What are the similarities and differences between the two of them?
A: Although Tiger has always said he played other sports growing up, his father raised him, from infancy, to play pro golf--and to make a lot of money doing so. Albeit in a different sport, the same could be said of tennis phenomenon Jennifer Capriati and her father Stefano. Both Earl Woods and Stefano Capriati stopped working long before their kids turned pro in order to supervise their advancement and training. Earl, who had a military pension, went on IMG's payroll as a 'junior talent scout.' Clearly, Tiger was the junior talent being delivered to IMG. And Stefano began making deals for Jennifer when she was only nine. On the other hand, Tiger was almost twenty-one when he turned pro. He had two years of college under his belt and was much more equipped to deal with the pressures of the life he had chosen. Jennifer was only fourteen when she turned pro and was not equipped on any level other than the fact that she had a ludicrous amount of game for someone so young.
Q: What do you think will most surprise readers of this book?
A: Tiger's vulnerability. I don't mean vulnerability in terms of his golfing but in terms of the things going on around him that could keep him from being the greatest player of all time. I think readers will be surprised at the many pitfalls awaiting Tiger and that he's shown himself capable of falling into them. And I think people who don't follow the sport closely will be a little surprised that Tiger isn't always the sweet young man with the infectious grin that appears on television commercials and in post-tournament interviews. The other side of Tiger--the side that stalks off and refuses to talk to reporters when he's had a bad round, or that gets into battles with other pros--has received little attention outside the tightly knit golf community.
Q: What are the biggest pitfalls that Tiger currently faces?
A: Overscheduling is the biggest pitfall of all. Tiger says he loves to travel but the kind of traveling he does--to events all over the world where he plays for huge appearance fees--is exhausting no matter how young you are. And when Tiger travels overseas, he does a lot more than play in a four day event, collect a fee, and go home. In return for big bucks--for Woods, the bidding usually begins at $400,000 and can go higher--players are normally expected to play in a Pro-Am the day before the event, show up at a couple of cocktail parties or dinners to glad-hand with the sponsor's business partners or pals, and perhaps give a clinic. Then there are usually obligatory appearances for one's own sponsors--shoe companies, clothing manufacturers, and others--worked into the week. In short, it can be an exhausting ordeal. Tiger has frequently said 'I'm tired.' He often blames this fatigue on media pressure. I think that's nonsense. Tiger can deal with media pressure with both hands tied behind his back. The exhaustion comes from all the travel and promotional work he's doing. When you see a young man like Tiger--at twenty-two years old--talking about how tired he is, you have to wonder how he'll feel at thirty- or forty-two.
Q: You describe the ways in which Tiger has become something of an outcast in his new environment--partly because of simple jealously and partly because of the way he and his handlers have conducted themselves. Is he still an outcast?
A: He's less of an outcast now than he was last year--probably because he hasn't been as dominant in the sport during the past six months as he was during the latter part of 1996 and the beginning of '97. Back then he was on a streak--winning six major tour events in ten months. Now he's gone seven months without winning. Tiger has become more comfortable in the PGA environment and is making more friends in the locker room. But there will always be people who resent Tiger Woods because he's so good, because they think he's arrogant, or because they don't like the IMG approach.
Q: Tiger recently played a tournament in Thailand. Is this an indication that he's still chasing big money appearance-fees?
A: I think it is. He insists it isn't. Tiger played in, and won, the same tournament last year. He claimed the purpose of this year's trip was to defend his 'title'--which he did. I do not have a problem with Tiger Woods traveling to his mother's homeland to participate in a tournament. The problem I had with last year's trip was that on his way back from Thailand, he made a stopover in Australia to collect yet another monster fee.
Q: What's wrong with that. Why is it important that Tiger resist these big money offers from tournaments around the world?
A: Tiger doesn't need the money. At this point in his life everything he does should be geared toward winning major titles. That's what his career will be judged on--not on how many times he went to Australia to pick up a half million dollars in exchange for a week of glad-handing corporate executives. For someone who is going to be a champion for a long time, resisting these money-chasing trips is of vital importance. Every athlete I've ever met initially said travel didn't bother them. They always look back ten years later and say, 'I wore myself out with all that travel.'
Q: Of all the incidents and anecdotes that you detail in THE FIRST COMING, which do you consider to be the most revealing?
A: The story at the very start of the book which describes Tiger's disastrous opening round at the 1997 U.S. Open, and his subsequent childishness with the newsmedia. It tells you a lot about what Tiger became after winning the Masters and about his mindset. It was a wonderful illustration of the notion that there's no one around Tiger to tell him when he's acting badly, and that there's always someone ready with a rationalization for his behavior. To some extent, Tiger has learned a lesson. He does talk to the media now no matter how badly he plays. But even he says he shouldn't have to! He still thinks if he shoots a bad round he shouldn't have to talk to the press. Tiger needs to learn that while rank has its privileges, it also has its responsibilities.
Q: After winning the Masters, Tiger turned down a White House invitation to appear at a ceremony honoring Jackie Robinson. In responding to criticism that he had 'blown off' the invitation, Tiger questioned the President's last minute invite. Doesn't Tiger have a point? Wasn't Clinton simply grandstanding and trying to use Tiger Woods for his own 'photo-op' purposes?
A: The fact that President Clinton may have been grandstanding is not the point. Tiger was given a unique opportunity to honor Jackie Robinson alongside his widow Rachel. Yes the invitation came at the last minute. But it came in response to what Tiger had done at Augusta, making history by winning the Masters Tournament. He didn't make history by participating, Lee Elder had done that twenty-two years earlier. And Tiger wasn't even the only minority player in the field. David Berganio, a Mexican-American who had grown up in the LA barrio under far more difficult circumstances than Tiger, also played. But Berganio didn't win. Tiger did. That's why he was invited. Forty-eight hours after handling himself so magnificently at Augusta by talking about the golfers who had blazed the trail for him, Tiger blew off the memory of the man who had blazed more trails than anyone.
Q: Do you think Tiger Woods can survive his father, his sponsors, and the adoring public?
A: Tiger would thrive without all the hoopla, but I also think he's a strong enough person--and has enough game--to survive with it. How much it will affect him down the road is a question we won't know the answer to for a number of years.
Q: Aren't you just trying to jump on the bandwagon here and make an extra buck off of Tiger Woods by telling this aspect of his story?
A: If that's really what I wanted to do I could have accepted any of a dozen offers to write an unauthorized biography of Woods when he turned pro. THE FIRST COMING is a unique opportunity to write something in essay form based on my experiences observing Tiger's first year as a pro. There was a lot of stuff in my notebook that I wanted to get out and this was my chance to accomplish that.
Q: What do you want readers to get out of this book?
A: To know who Tiger Woods really is. I want readers to understand the challenges he faces on a daily basis and I want them to know that there's a lot more to all of this than Tiger's ability to hit a ball three hundred yards and to make twenty foot birdie putts.