February 19, 1999
During the first round of the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional CC, I watched long-time PGA Tour pro Russ Cochran quietly talking to his friends outside the clubhouse.
Cochran stood a few feet from a large crowd. No one pushed a hat or ball into his hands for an autograph. No gang of photographers shot pictures of him. In fact, no police or security forces were to be seen.
Until Tiger came near.
Two bright yellow ropes suddenly split the walkway crowd. Along the now-open path between the 9th hole and the 10th tee, a dozen photographers rushed along. A phalanx of police and security guards then swept by, with a not-too-happy Tiger Woods stuck in the middle of them.
The crowd roared encouragement as Tiger passed by, but I felt sorry for him. It can’t be fun to play or live under those conditions.
John Feinstein’s book tries to make sense of the amazing phenomenon that is Tiger Woods. The First Coming is part of a new series of essays from Ballantine Books, called the Library of Contemporary Thought.
Feinstein describes the many influences, some not so benign, that seem to affect Woods’ choices of how, when, and where to play golf. The book is revealing not only for what it says about the Masters champion, but also for what it says about the relationship between professional athletes and the sportswriters who cover them.
Feinstein clearly does not care for Hughes Norton, the IMG agent who brought Tiger to the PGA Tour. Some months after this book was published, Woods fired Norton. From Feinstein’s comments, one has the impression that this was a good move.
Feinstein makes a well-reasoned argument about the inherent risk of conflicts of interest between an agent’s desires to maximize income and the long-term interests of extremely talented athletes such as Tiger. The cautionary tale of Bill Rogers and his burn out after his British Open win doesn’t seem to have gotten through to Tiger just yet. On the other hand, how often does a young person think that what happened to someone else could possibly happen to him?
The Tiger entourage is sensitive to media coverage. Feinstein tells an interesting story about the pressure brought on George Peper of Golf Magazine, when some in Woods’ camp became upset with Feinstein’s prior commentary in that magazine.
At some level, though, you have to question the wisdom of picking a fight with Feinstein. After all, he’s published several bestsellers, his work shows integrity, and he has frequent opportunities to tell millions of people his side of things.
Feinstein has also decided that Tiger’s father, Earl Woods, is not a model parent. This runs counter to reports of the elder Woods’ personal assessment. Feinstein gives a few examples that are painful, but also ring true.
Despite the tone of much of the book, it’s also clear that Feinstein would like to see Woods have a long, successful career, challenging Nicklaus’ record for winning major tournaments. Feinstein is wary of the potentially corrosive influences of those seeking to profit from their proximity to a remarkable athlete. He hopes that Tiger can achieve sufficient maturity and judgment to protect himself from those interests, and develop into a legendary golfer in the next few decades.
This is a thoughtful, hopeful book. After I finished it, I thought Woods should read it. Based on recent events, including his win in San Diego last week, maybe he did.