Exclusive: Excerpts from Shane Ryan's Slaying the Tiger

Tuesday June 9th, 2015
Jesse Reiter

Editor's note: The following is an exclusive excerpt from "Slaying The Tiger: A Year Inside the Ropes on the New PGA Tour" by Shane Ryan. It contains explicit language. The book will be published June 9 by Ballantine Books.

“You remember in high school, you’d have those assemblies where some kind of professional athlete came in, and he’d tell you to always have a backup plan? ‘Only .02 percent of you guys are going to go pro in your sport.’ I remember sitting in there and just thinking, ‘Fuck this guy.’ If you have a backup plan, guess what? That’s what you’re going to be doing.” — Matt Every

When I sat down with Every at a shaded table outside the Colonial clubhouse in late May, it didn’t take long before he cemented his reputation as the most outspoken professional golfer in the universe. We had met just once before, and didn’t speak for more than five minutes. Clearly, my status as a stranger—and one armed with a tape recorder—didn’t faze him. Within minutes, he was boasting, complaining, joking, and opining about golf and himself—his two favorite subjects—with a startling amount of insight and intelligence. I liked him immediately.

If you can take this onslaught in stride, it quickly becomes clear that the recurring criticism of Every—his arrogance—is off base. He does carry himself with a certain amount of swagger, and has a smile that verges on smug, but there’s not much self-importance or superiority to him—far less anyway, than you get from your average golfer. The world is interesting to Every, and he makes himself vulnerable to outside elements. He wouldn’t like the word I’m about to use, and you wouldn’t know it by his bulldog build—five foot eleven and solid, with a head like a cinder block—but the truth is that he’s sensitive, albeit in the most combative way possible.

Every, then thirty, has been kicked around the Tour, mocked by fans and media, and targeted for his past, but unlike the vast majority of American golfers, he never tries to hide his emotions or retreat into a cocoon.

Instead, he’s the kind of guy that lets you drop the usual journalist-athlete code of conduct. I never felt the need to be deferential to him, as so many athletes’ egos require, and I never got the sense he was bullshitting me. For a brief moment, and for the first and only time in a year on Tour, I even considered the possibility that he and I, in a different universe, might actually overcome the wide gulf separating our lifestyles and—I can’t believe I’m saying it—be friends.

Then again, some of the things he told me are too good to waste on a friendship. We had barely sat down, for instance, before he began complaining about another journalist.

“He’s done it before,” he said intently. “He’s picking me out to be a villain because I’m an easy target.”

The subject was Geoff Shackelford, a blogger who covers the sport with an irreverent tone. But since this is golf we’re talking about, with all its claims to propriety, Shackelford toes the line, choosing his victims strategically in order not to offend anyone with real influence. For him, Every made a perfect target—here was a player with no power.

Earlier that month, Every caused a minor stir when he complained about the state of TPC Sawgrass. He called it “the worst-conditioned course in Jacksonville” and compared the greens unfavorably to “Miami munis.” (This rant later earned him a “talking-to” from Tour officials.) However, he also took pains to blame himself for his 76-77-CUT performance, leaving the conditions out of it. Shackelford ignored that last part, and suggested that Every was merely making excuses for himself.

“And why is his opinion so fucking important?” Every continued, still chafing at the perceived dishonesty two weeks later. “I told you I don’t like Geoff Shackelford, and you can write that in your book.” He lowered his head inches from my tape recorder, speaking slowly and loudly for emphasis: “Fuck you, Geoff.”

“That will go in the book,” I promised.

This approach continued throughout the interview. When I asked him if he felt “lucky” in the general sense, and then clarified that I didn’t mean “lucky” in the way that outsiders use it—as in, oh, he’s so lucky to be a professional golfer—it set him off on a tangent.

“I’m glad you said that, because it pisses me off when people write, ‘Oh, that guy, I can’t believe he’d say something like that, he should be privileged to play on the PGA Tour!’ ” he said. “Like I got fucking picked out of a lottery. I mean, I’ve worked my ass off to be here. It’s not like they handed me this spot, you know?”

That set us on the path of how golfers behave on the course, and why it’s so difficult for spectators to understand their anger.

“It’s a job,” he said. “And you see people say, ‘Everyone looks so miserable while they’re playing.’ Well, the highs are really high out here and the lows are really low. I mean, you’re not making any money when you’re down, and it feels like you’re going to be down your whole life. It’s like you honestly do not know when you’re going to play good again.”

And since the lows are more frequent, that’s what fans will see almost every time.

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Matthew King Every grew up on the water in Daytona Beach, the son of Kelly, a construction worker who had tried professional golf, and Penny, a secretary at a lawyer’s office. He started golfing at age six, and he grew up playing at the Riviera Country Club in Ormond Beach, a public course owned by a friend of the family where he could play for a song.

From the time he was very young, Every loved golf because there were fewer politics involved in who would make a team, or who succeeded, than the other sports. Still, there were things that frustrated him. The Everys were middle-class, and Every bristled at the cost of the premiere junior tournaments. Kelly went on to own a construction company in Matt’s high school years, but the recession hit the business, as well as family real estate investments, hard.

“If you step back and look at these kids grinding out there,” he told me, “it means nothing. It means nothing. You don’t want to peak when you’re fifteen. That’s terrible. I think that’s what happened to James Vargas at Florida [a teammate of Every’s]. He was a world-beater when he was a kid, he was a stud, and then he got to college and it was like, ‘Where’s your room to improve?’” 

When Every couldn’t golf, he’d shoot hoops on the strip of concrete outside his house, playing so long that eventually his father put lights out for him. The sport was his first love, and until age twelve, he was convinced he would play for the Orlando Magic, following in the footsteps of heroes like Scott Skiles, Dennis Scott, and Nick Anderson. Then high school came around, and while most of his friends went to Seabreeze High, Every was off to Mainland High in Daytona, where he suddenly found himself in a very different demographic. Playing with the brothers, Every barely made his freshman basketball team, and wasn’t nearly good enough to start. He couldn’t lie to himself, and when the school switched the golf season to overlap with basketball, the choice was easy—golf or bust.

He improved enough in the next two years to start getting letters from smaller colleges, but his heart was set on being a Florida Gator. Buddy Alexander, the head coach, liked him, but not enough to give him a scholarship.

“Matt likes to tell people that he’s a walk-on,” Alexander said, “but that’s not true. I did have to tell Matt that I was out of money, and he decided, ‘I don’t care.’ His comment was, ‘I’m not North Florida material. I’m coming to UF.’ And if you know Matt, you’re chuckling because you know exactly how it sounds coming out of his mouth.”

Every came in a little bit anonymous—“fucking terrible,” in his own words—but his improvement during his freshman year turned heads. Alexander considered red-shirting him in the fall, but by the spring, he had done so well that the coach, who loved his confidence, took a calculated risk and made Every the team’s number 5 player for the postseason. From there, he finished top-ten individually in the SEC Championship, top-20 in NCAA regionals, and, most surprisingly, 12th at the national championships. By the end, Every was calling himself “the greatest number-five man in college golf history.”

Every went on to become first-team All-American three years in a row, and won the Ben Hogan Award as the nation’s top college golfer in 2006. He discovered that entering a slump wasn’t the worst outcome in the world, and that he could sometimes break out of it with the power of positive thought—or, as he put it, lying to yourself and then believing it.

He also gained a reputation as a “cocky” golfer and an outspoken nonconformist. At the 2005 U.S. Open, he told reporters that he was equal to, if not better than, the other players in the field, and after playing the Walker Cup later that summer, he let the Orlando Sentinel know that he hated the U.K. because there was “nothing to do, nothing to eat,” and that even the French fries were terrible.

Socially, Every spent most of his free time with his girlfriend, Danielle, who he married in 2009. Drinking held little appeal; he had worked at a seafood restaurant in high school, and the smell of stale beer that confronted him each time he took the trash out was enough to put him off the suds. (“I would party in other ways,” he told me.) Nor were academics a priority, a truth he doesn’t go out of his way to hide.

“People asked, ‘What do you want your major to be when you go to college?’ ” he remembered. “It’s like, psssh, whatever has the least amount of math. I don’t care. I’m not going to use it. My major was commercial recreation. I don’t even know what I could do with that.”

It didn’t take long after graduation for Every to find out how meaningless his Hogan Award would be in the professional ranks. He missed Q-School after graduation, and didn’t make the PGA Tour until 2010. He also missed six weeks in his rookie season when he broke his finger playing a game called “burnout” that involved him and his caddie pegging a football at each other. That was a minor setback compared to what came next. Just two weeks after his return, at the John Deere Classic, Every made a mistake that would come to define his golfing life—or at least how he was perceived by the media and fans—for years.

At the Isle Casino Hotel, in Bettendorf, Iowa—just across the Mississippi River from the TPC Deere Run course in Illinois, where the tournament is held—Every stepped off an elevator and wandered into a room where his caddie and two others were smoking marijuana. According to Every, he was only in there for a few minutes when hotel security burst through the door, tipped off by someone who had smelled the telltale odor that seeped through the door.

“I probably could have gotten out of that situation if I did things a little differently,” said Every, “but it doesn’t fucking matter now.”

The four of them didn’t move, and Every maintains that the security guards violated their rights and didn’t go to great lengths to mention that they weren’t actual police officers. They pulled the culprits one by one into the bathroom, extracted confessions, and finally turned them over to the real cops, who booked and arrested them.

“I don’t know if they just have a hard-on, or they feel like they’re saving the world, or what,” Every said.

The PGA Tour makes a policy of not commenting on its suspensions—a fact that would come into play later in 2014—but Every’s PR company revealed in August that he’d been hit with three months for “conduct unbecoming a professional.” He came back in time for the final tournament of the season, but he failed to keep his Tour card, and was back on the Nationwide Tour for 2012—a brutal demotion, subtracting a zero from his average paycheck.

He fought back, finishing 18th on the money list and regaining his Tour card within a year. Every still thinks winning that fight was his greatest professional accomplishment, and one that validated his status as a “real golfer”—the kind who deserved to be on the PGA Tour.

The arrest and suspension dogged him long after he fought back to the big leagues. Every has no problem with marijuana, but he doesn’t identify as a stoner, and it bothers him that the people who know his name tend to associate him with drugs.

“There’s so much more to me than that,” he said, “but that’s just the way it’s going to be, man. You hear stuff all the time in galleries. Mostly conversations, but you’ll get a guy who will yell out ‘420!’ or something, and I don’t think it’s a fair representation of me. And now that Twitter’s out there, everyone thinks they’re a comedian. Even the media, some guys will put the dumbest shit out there. Like if it’s foggy out, they’ll write, ‘Oh, Matt Every must be playing this week.’ ”

It would have been easy for Every to kowtow to the conservative faction and claim that he was a changed man, that drugs were Satan’s work, and that he had recognized the error of his ways and reformed himself in the image of a law-abiding family man. Instead, he scoffed at the punishment and refused to hand anyone—especially the media—the easy redemption story.

“No, I still hang out with the same people,” he told reporters at the 2012 Sony Open, his first tournament back on Tour. “I have great friends, man. If one of my friends likes to smoke marijuana every now and then, I’m not going to say, well, you can’t be my friend anymore. Honestly, man, I know more people who smoke marijuana than who don’t smoke marijuana. I know that’s probably not the politically correct thing to say, but it’s the truth.”

Following his second round that week, a 64, he sat down with the Golf Channel’s Kelly Tilghman. After some chitchat about golf and snorkeling, Tilghman got down to business and unleashed what stands as the most awkward segue in television history.

“I look back at this island,” she said, turning to a mass of stones and palm trees in the water behind her, “and it kind of reminds me of that TV show Lost, which you say is one of your favorites.”

“Oh yeah, I love that show.”

“And I know that the word ‘lost’ might also be a fitting word to describe the state of your mind and game about two years ago,” Tilghman continued, in all her ham-fisted glory, “when you were arrested on drug charges and suspended by the PGA Tour. That must have been a difficult experience for you. Take us back to that time and what it was like.”

Every stared at her for a moment, grinned uncomfortably, and sank even lower in his chair. His eyes were mostly hidden by the shadow from the brim of his Bridgestone cap.

“Uhhh. . . .” He said. “It was all right. I mean, I just got three months off.”

The interview devolved from there. Every told her that he wasn’t doing anything wrong, that he’s the same person with the same friends, and that worse things happen all the time on Tour. Tilghman, not content to settle for anything less than the trite, made-for-TV coming-of-age story she’d envisioned when she asked the question, followed up, wanting to know what Every had “learned.”

When I reminded him of this moment, Every had only one regret. “What have you learned from that?” he asked rhetorically. “Put a towel under the door. I should have said that.”

This, it seemed, was Every’s curse. He was doomed to be misunderstood by everyone; either you thought he was a chronic pothead who wandered around in a drug-induced stupor, or you wanted to pigeonhole him as a reformed criminal who had emerged from the depths of depravity to resurrect his life and career. The truth—that he’d been a bit stupid and a bit unlucky, wasn’t palatable. And he knew that the only thing that could truly put his arrest in the rearview mirror was winning.

From the book SLAYING THE TIGER by Shane Ryan. Copyright © 2015 by Shane Ryan. Reprinted with permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House.

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