As details begin to emerge from the earth-scorching new biography of Tiger Woods, cowritten by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian, the inevitable push and pull over the facts has begun in earnest. The newly published Tiger Woods advertises itself as an unflinching look at one of the world's most famous athletes, and indeed it spares little in the way of sordid details, real and invented. A spiritual throwback to Albert Goldman's lurid and disreputable biographies of Elvis Presley and John Lennon, the authors are governed by a singular determination to view Woods through a prism of their own formulation.
The image of Woods they labor to conjure is of a capricious, God-like athlete, so carefully coddled and over-awed by his own physical genius that he fails to evince even a rudimentary relationship to human decency. In the process of a four-hundred-page litany that frequently reads like a vaguely hysterical criminal indictment, everything from Woods's on-course comportment to his off-the-clock dalliances to his charitable work are all part of the same toxic framework. Woods's very real and very public failings are revisited with forensic detail and form the foundation of the book's character assassination. His less well known but remarkably impactful work through his charitable foundation and halting but earnest attempts at public and private rehabilitation are treated as self-serving and disingenuous to the extent they are dealt with at all.
Many of the mistakes and untruths in Benedict and Keteyian's book are careless errors of the sort that could have been easily fact-checked. Other stories seem invented from whole cloth in order to advance their exhausting narrative. The authors cite a dinner following Woods's historic initial victory at the Masters in 1997 when Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer are part of a crowd that rises to give Woods a standing ovation. Neither man was at the dinner, but the authors’ anxiety to place Woods in the presence of the two greatest rivals to his golfing preeminence proves too tempting a storyline to be disrupted by actual events. This kind of loose association with the facts is emblematic of a book whose eagerness to churn out a tabloid-worthy melodrama seems to persistently override basic journalistic integrity. (Questioned by Bob Ley on Tuesday's edition of ESPN's Outside The Lines regarding the multitude of egregious errors contained in Tiger Woods, the writers seem to take the novel tack that there are lots of things stipulated in the book, and at least some of them are accurate.)
In the process of retrofitting Woods’s extraordinary story to their villainous specs, Benedict and Keteyian blow through several journalistic red lights, routinely getting names and dates wrong, misattributing or misrepresenting quotes and anecdotes, and indulging in wild flights of fancy concerning the mindset of an individual they had no access to over the course of the book's authoring.
Ugly and unsavory as the entire enterprise comes off, it's not difficult to see what Benedict and Keteyian are after here. Celebrity and public shaming are in many ways the twin engines that make our contemporary culture hum, and rendering the most salacious, mean-spirited possible portrait of the most dominant athlete of the past twenty years must have felt like a surefire winner when they launched this project.
(Not coincidentally, the book will soon be turned into a docuseries by Alex Gibney
.) With Woods seemingly a broken man living the joyless life of a wounded recluse, one senses the icky poetic justice the authors must have felt as the great golfer seemed to hit one physical and emotional rock bottom after the next. Everything about their reporting has the character of kicking the living shit out of an individual while he's down—and wearing golf shoes doing it.
It would appear, however, that just as hamfistedly as they have rendered their subject, Benedict and Keteyian have missed their public moment. That Woods would ever play professionally again was far from a sure thing as recently as a year ago. Now, following successful spinal fusion surgery, he is back on tour and showing signs of completing a return that would register among the great comeback stories in all of sports history. Following a span of good to excellent play that has seen him contend in multiple events and demonstrate more than a passing resemblance to the player who manufactured more thrills between 1995 and 2015 than any living athlete, a powerful wave of nostalgia has brought Woods back to the forefront of the sports world's consciousness. Ratings for recent tournaments like the Honda Classic and Bay Hill have approached record-breaking highs, and the feeling of good will between Woods and his fan base has never been stronger. Benedict and Keteyian may not have fathomed a redemption story in the offing, but headed into next week's Masters, Woods is suddenly the odds-on-favorite to win his fifth green jacket.
It may seem sometimes like America loves nothing better than a vicious takedown of a once beloved figure. But the truth, like the golfer they portray, is a little more nuanced and a lot less depressing. Here's what America likes more: an individual who perseveres, who finds a way back from injury and oblivion, self-inflicted and otherwise, who finds wisdom and humility and self-awareness as he ages. With their unrelentingly nasty and shoddily reported book, Benedict and Keteyian have taken a deep dive into the reputation-wrecking business. But in a bit of instant karma, it's not exactly clear whose reputation they've succeeded in ruining.