There’s a truly insane anecdote about a 21-year-old Tiger Woods I read in Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian’s fabulous biography of the golfer I want to share with you. After he won The Masters in 1997, one of the most dominant showings in the history of sports, he received his green jacket, stepped off the field, and took a call from Bill Clinton, the president at the time. Clinton congratulated him—the first black man to win a golf major and who managed to make it happen at the Augusta National Golf Club, one of America’s most historically racist sporting institutions that required all their caddies be black until 1959 and didn’t admit black members until 1990.
Clinton invited Tiger to participate in a celebration of the 50-year anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball that would be taking place during a Dodgers/Mets row at Shea Stadium later that week. Jackie Robinson’s widow would be there and everything. Clinton offered to send Air Force One to pick him up. A normal person would probably do this without even thinking about it.
But Tiger Woods is not a normal person. He opted out of the ceremony and the ride in Air Force One, citing previous plans—he had an opening to attend at an Official All Star Café franchise and a vacation in Cancun with some Stanford friends—and the last-minute nature of the invitation.
Jeff Norton, his manager, trying to do damage control, told the press that “There's no bigger hero to anybody than Jackie Robinson is to Tiger Woods, but the president’s request would have required Tiger being in Mexico on Wednesday noon instead of Tuesday morning.” This sentence is a completely crazy thing for an American athlete, on the cusp of becoming one of the most famous athletes in America, to say. Who the hell would blow off the president, and Jackie Robinson’s widow, to go to Mexico almost immediately after signing a massive deal with Nike that would give him more than enough liquid capital to do both? He was in the Tri-State Area earlier that day hanging out at Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal Casino. Was it really that tiring to take a two-hour detour through Queens on his way to Cancun? Who would do this!?
The answer to that question is: “Tiger Woods, a colossal fucking weirdo.”
This week, Tiger, now 42 and fading in and out of being deeply washed, did more crap that had to do with presidents and weirded everyone out. Since Trump was elected in 2016, he and Woods have played golf together, twice. They were acquainted before, of course, Trump being nothing if not a guy who owns golf courses and Tiger Woods being, uh, a golfer. But it’s hard not to stand at the place where we are right now, what with the ICE roundups, the president not saying anything about mass shootings caught on tape, and the daily horror show of living in a country whose ostensible leader pisses his pants online every damn day, and think that anyone who chooses to continue associating with Trump is making a statement about whether or not they are OK with this maelstrom of horseshit.
And so, this weekend, at The Northern Trust tournament in Paramus, New Jersey, a reporter finally got around to asking him about it. “Well, I’ve known Donald for a number of years,” he began, miraculously not seeming stressed out about it, at first. “We’ve played golf together and um… we’ve had dinner together, so yeah. I’ve known him, you know, pre-presidency, and obviously during his presidency.”
The reporter responded: “At times, especially 2018, I think a lot of people, especially people of color, immigrants [Tiger’s mother, Kultida Woods, is a Thai immigrant], are threatened by him and his policy. What do you say to people who might find it interesting that you have a friendly relationship with him?”
Tiger’s response is… strange, especially for a guy who blew off the president once and must have thought this through at some point: “Well, he’s the president of the United States. You have to respect the office. No matter who is in the office, you may like, dislike personality or the politics, but we all must respect the office.” Then, when asked if wanted to expound on the issues at play, he replied matter-of-factly: “No. I just finished 72 holes and really hungry.”
Trump, who loves it when famous people aren’t mean to him, ate it up:
Mediocre sports writer turned mediocre right-wing free-speech grifter Clay Travis also took some time out of his day to heap praise on Tiger, who he claims is doing God’s work by avoiding politics as an athlete:
(Jordan probably didn’t say that, and gives out the ass to African-American causes, by the way.)
In sitting on and looking at all this, it’s pretty easy to assume that Tiger is on Team Trump in his heart, and that a lifetime of being a rich dude who cheats on his wife has turned him into a Republican. But I suspect that might be only half the truth. He has also golfed with Obama, for instance, and did eventually play a round with Clinton (more on that extremely odd event later).
It seems more likely that Tiger is such a superhuman compartmentalizer that he has absolutely no desire for his thoughts and feelings on anything to become public knowledge. Some of it is tactical, of course, like Travis suggests—there is no sporting figure, maybe ever, who has done more to be a universal figure who can sell literally anything he wants. But some of it goes deeper than that, into the essence of his self.
There’s a passage in Benedict and Keteyian’s book that illustrates this, because, yes, Tiger is a tactical being, for sure, but he is also a creature of obscene training, a guy whose mind was tempered by his father in ways that were deeply twisted:
Earl would later brag to golf writers that he would jingle the change in his pocket when Tiger was putting, or he would cough or drop his golf bag during Tiger’s backswing. “It was psychological warfare,” Earl wrote in his memoir. “I wanted to make sure he would never run into anybody who was tougher mentally than he was, and we achieved that.”
The stories, when told by Earl and others, sounded benign—just one more ingenious lesson passed from a father to a son. In reality, as Tiger would reveal long after his father’s death, some of Earl’s tactics, under today’s standards, bordered on abuse.
“My dad deliberately used a lot of profanity when I was hitting balls, all the time, and throughout my swing,” Tiger said. “‘Fuck off, Tiger,’ he would sometimes say. . . It was ‘motherfucker’ this, ‘you little piece of shit,’ or ‘How do you feel being a little nigger?’—things of that nature. “He constantly put me down,” Tiger recalled. “Then, when I really got mad, he would say, ‘I know you want to slam down that club, but don’t you dare do it! Don’t you dare!’ He would push me to the breaking point, then back off. Push me to the breaking point, then back off. It was wild.”
We may never know how Tiger really felt at age eleven, twelve, or thirteen as he was repeatedly called those demeaning names by his father. But in 2017, at age forty-one, Woods said this about the experience: “I needed him to push me to the edge of not wanting to continue, because I had to learn to block out any feeling of insecurity. We had a code word that I could use whenever I thought I couldn’t take it anymore. But I never used the code word. I was never going to give in to what he was doing. I was a quitter if I used the code word. I don’t quit.”
The code word that Tiger never uttered was enough.
If this is the kind of shit he would make himself just swallow, that he would push deeper inside and golf through, the ramblings of an old crank almost certainly wouldn’t do much, at least when there’s something to be gained from letting him drone on. Tiger has made his whole life on the principle of putting everything in a little box and separating it from everything else. How else do you think he was able to convince himself that he was going to get away with screwing half the PGA Tour without his wife finding out? His entire life has gone this way: slick public exterior, not saying anything out of line, not letting himself express a thought or a feeling he doesn’t want to a person he doesn't want to express it too, then pushing any negative feeling or mental poison into altering his swing, again, or banging some cocktail waitress.
It truly wouldn’t matter if Donald Trump really did upset him with his campaign rhetoric. His very nature would demand that he put that stuff away and move on. It’s not moral, I don’t think, it’s not the kind of thing that makes a better world, but it’s the thing that works for him.
Then again, the next part of Tiger’s history with Clinton, as told in Benedict and Keteyian’s book, might prove a little rejoinder to this. Because, yes, he did eventually regret his decision to blow off the president, when he founded the Tiger Woods Learning Center and wanted the ex-president’s helping hand in getting it off the ground in 2006. He wanted the president to appear, but, as a serial collector of resentments, figured he never would—that Clinton hated him and wouldn’t get over it. Of course, Clinton, an adult who loves compromise, didn’t really care about what a 21-Year-Old Moron did nine years earlier and agreed to do it as long as Tiger called and asked him personally, and consented to a round of golf with him in Orange County. Tiger gritted his teeth and did it. What happened next is wild:
On the day before the official opening of the learning center, Woods met Clinton, Doug Band, sports agent Arn Tellum, and Wasserman for the promised round of golf at Shady Canyon Country Club in Irvine. Tiger was having breakfast with McLaughlin in the clubhouse when Tellum and Wasserman approached. At that point, Woods had never met either man. Dispensing with introductions, Tiger wanted to know if the president had arrived. When told Clinton was on his way, Woods replied with a straight face, “I can’t wait to talk about pussy.”
The round that followed was apparently deeply awkward. And so, perhaps, we are left to wonder if Tiger really does respect the office of the president, or if he just respects dudes he can talk about weird sex stuff with. Trump certainly qualifies, if that’s the case.