AUGUSTA, Ga. -- As we prepare to gaze upon the breathtaking cinematography that is the Masters at Augusta National, Tiger Woods, who hasn’t hoisted major hardware in almost four years, is more compelling than ever. The numbers bear this out: NBC’s final-round ratings from the recent Arnold Palmer Invitational, when Woods won by what should have been a yawn-inducing five strokes, were virtually identical to the ratings from the last time he won at Bay Hill, by one over Sean O’Hair, in ’09.
In fact, over the last half hour of play, NBC’s 6.8 rating and 13 share edged the NCAA men’s basketball tournament (Kansas/North Carolina) and its 6.6 and 13.
Why? I suspect the answer to that question can be found in a book, and not just Hank Haney’s “The Big Miss,” the instructor’s new account of his years with Woods, written with Jaime Diaz. The book I’m thinking of ostensibly has nothing to do with Woods, golf or even sports. It’s “The Writer’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler, who goes deep into the influence of classical mythology on contemporary storytelling and inadvertently explains a lot about Woods’s enduring appeal.
“Heroes must also be unique human beings,” Vogler argues in “Journey,” which in its 14 years has become something of a Bible in Hollywood, “rather than stereotypical creatures or tin gods without flaws or unpredictability.”
A tin god? That was the old Tiger. The new Tiger is lousy with flaws. That begins to explain why Tiger’s shooting 62 to finish second at the Honda Classic last month was in a way just as compelling as sweet, guileless Rory McIlroy winning the Honda to become No. 1 in the world for the first time in his career.
As Daniel Pink (“A Whole New Mind”) and others suggest, story is everything, and the Tiger story has become far more gritty and interesting in just 28 months.
Consider the Woods of pre-Thanksgiving 2009. He was about as real as Frank the Headcover, the orange-and-black ball of felt that sat atop his driver and sometimes helped him hawk Nike product. That was Tiger the children’s book, a nice read but too oversimplified and one-dimensional to be believed. Today’s Tiger is more adult fare, like a character in a Franzen novel: complicated.
By touching on heroes, anti-heroes, mentors and shape-shifters, Vogler gives us a framework to begin to understand not just Woods, but also the bit players and mini-dramas that stick to him like wet grass clippings.
Woods hates that there’s a Haney book, as if he imagines himself as Anakin Skywalker losing both arms and a leg to Haney’s Obi-Wan Kenobi. (Vogler is a big “Star Wars” fan.) Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Who went to the dark side of the Force? To be sure, Haney was a mentor, but now what do we call him? A shape-shifter? A traitor? Was Haney ever a father figure? What about Butch Harmon, Tiger’s coach before Haney, and/or Steve Williams, Tiger’s blustery ex-caddie?
With Woods, there are always father issues. Haney cites multiple sources claiming Woods tore ligaments in his left knee when he fell and was kicked in an urban-warfare simulator called a “kill house,” while training with the Navy SEALs in California in 2007. (The Woods camp has denied it.) Why would Woods jeopardize his career like that? A guess: To honor the bond with his father, Earl Woods, whose second tour of duty in Vietnam was as a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces, and who had died the year before.
The Haney drama is of course a sequel to the Williams drama, which boiled over at a caddie awards banquet last November, when Tiger’s old bungee-jumping and racing buddy used racially charged language to insult his old boss, sparking a lightning storm in the Twitter-verse and beyond. As Vogler writes, it’s fascinating when “the polarity of a friendship or romance reverses itself, switching from a strong force of attraction to one of repulsion.”
The Haney and Williams exits give us plenty to talk about and much room for interpretation. That is partly what’s so fascinating about Woods, who, granted, is not as friendly as the average Rotarian, if we’re to believe his wounded cast-offs (and this writer). That’s okay. Even though the Woods story is no buddy picture, and many of us were a little jarred by his neck-snapping transformation from hero to antihero -- Tiger, meet Don Draper/Walter White/Nurse Jackie -- he could be the sort of lost-and-found tale that plays well in Hollywood and on the page.
“The witnesses begin reacting as if he were dead,” Vogler writes of the famous trash compactor scene in “Star Wars,” in which Luke disappears under the muck. “In a few seconds you begin to wonder if he’s ever coming up.”
Woods was in the trash compactor for 28 months. (His win at the 18-man Chevron Challenge last December was unofficial.) His third act, if he builds upon his recent victory in Orlando and keeps parting fairways and pelting greens, may be merely that much more cathartic. Will he break Jack’s record of 18 professional major championship victories? It would be all the more remarkable after enduring so many self-inflicted and just plain unlucky wounds, literally and otherwise.
Vogler again: “Audiences love watching Heroes grapple with personality problems and overcome them.” Fractured leg, broken relationships, public humiliation -- Woods has seen it all. Phil Mickelson and the writers of “Breaking Bad” couldn’t have scripted more calamity or exposed more problems.
At 36, a divorced father of two kids, the notoriously ruthless Woods seems a least moderately self-aware. It’s strangely encouraging, and a little funny, to read of him saying he’s always been an “a**hole” and isn’t sure he can change now -- a quote attributed to him by Michael Bamberger in the Feb. 20 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Woods still has a way of turning every interview into a game of who’s the a**hole; reporters craft and ask questions carefully as a result. At the Honda Classic in West Palm Beach last month, a scribe wanted Woods to comment on the Haney book, Woods said he was done commenting on it, the reporter pressed him, and Woods got irritated. Everyone who’s covered him has a similar story of a seemingly benign Q&A that suddenly turned into big-time log rolling, with only one combatant -- or neither -- staying dry and keeping dignity intact. Antihero stuff.
There was a nice moment, too, at the Honda, when Woods got to talking about his recent move from Orlando to Jupiter Island, Fla., where he has a sprawling estate with its own practice area. Does he train there with the kids, Sam, 4 1/2 , and Charlie, 3? Does he work more at the nearby Medalist? “As far as getting out there with the kids,” Woods said, “yeah, my little boy, he loves to hit balls with me. My little girl, Sam, will just kind of run around and pick the flowers.”
Woods talking about Sam picking flowers was like Darth Vader mentioning his heart chakra. Sam, flowers, Tiger -- it’s not how we think of him. “The fun is in seeing a tiny seed of the opposite quality coming to life in a polarized character or situation,” Vogler writes. Will Woods’s public persona ever resemble a fully formed character? There’s no telling what form his character arc will take, but at least now he seems to have an arc. For those of us watching, it’s a classic drama.