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Review: The Big Miss - My Years Coaching Tiger Woods by Hank Haney

The Big Miss: My Years Coaching Tiger Woods

Hank Haney

Crown Archetype, 272pp, £17.99

The world of sport thrives on exaggeration and overstatement. Triumph and despair, courage and cowardice, mental strength and weakness, win and lose – these are the binary oppositions of the commonplace sporting lexicon. So when Hank Haney, on the second page of this memoir, declares that Tiger Woods is the “human being who’s fallen faster than anyone else in history”, you forgive the hyperbole because he speaks as a sportsman. More than this, he speaks as the American golfer’s former coach, from March 2004 to May 2010, and as a man who likes to think he speaks the truth.

Not so long ago we knew Tiger Woods publicly as a golfer of unusual brilliance and as the world’s richest and most recognisable sportsman – one of his early ambitions was to become sport’s first billionaire. He was the greatest ever to play the game, routinely expected to break Jack Nicklaus’s longstanding record of 18 victories in “major” championships. (The four majors are the US Masters, the US Open, the British Open and the US PGA, comparable in status to the four grand slams in tennis.)

Woods turned professional in 1996. Through his dominance and because of his mixed racial heritage he quickly became an icon of globalisation, as celebrated in Asia and Africa as he was in Europe and North America: endorsed, acclaimed. Everybody wanted a piece of him and sponsors in the Gulf states or China would pay millions of dollars simply to have him turn up at their tournament.

The son of an African-American former marine named Earl and an Asian mother, Woods was a black man in an oppressively white and often shamefully segregated game. If he mostly avoided speaking about politics and race, settling for the bland neutrality of most sports stars, his very presence on the golf courses of the elite country clubs of the American Deep South was political. That he was not only the best of his generation – Earl called his son “golf’s first athlete” – but the best ever merely underscored his significance. He was imperious. He was unignorable. Plus, he seemed to be a decent young fellow, a little intense and brooding perhaps, but a devoted son who sought to honour his parents at all times and a good husband to his ultra-blonde Nordic wife, Elin Nordegren, with whom he had two children. He also worked at his game and on his fitness like no one before or since: over the years the once-thin and gangly Woods transformed his body shape through relentless gym workouts, putting muscle on, bulking out. Weary of being intimidated by his supremacy and athleticism, his rivals were forced into the gym as they attempted to compete and add distance to their drives (Woods was one of the game’s longest hitters).

But then, at the age of 35, Woods catastrophically found himself lost in life’s dark wood, exposed as a serial adulterer and hypocrite – a “sex addict”, no less, with a taste for rough, dirty sex with hardcore porn performers (one hesitates to call them stars or actresses) and other women procured by his handlers for casual encounters. The carefully cultivated public image of wholesome clean-living was destroyed and the private Woods was suddenly laid bare as a monster of appetite and supreme selfishness. His fall, in a modern sporting context, is astounding, if not world-historic as Haney in all his insularity and monomania would wish it.

Once the first revelation was out after Woods crashed his car into a water hydrant and tree near his Florida mansion after an early-hours row with his wife in November 2009, the once-deferential US sports media turned against him. The kiss-and-tells and lurid stories followed swiftly, one after another. Haney describes how Woods would check out the reports on his smartphone, venturing beneath the line to read what was being said about him.

After a period of reconciliation and therapy, Elin left and then divorced her husband. Corporate sponsors began deserting Brand Tiger. Worst of all, his golf game – his reason for being – deteriorated alarmingly and he stopped winning tournaments (he has not won a major since July 2008). In some tournaments he has hacked around the course like a jobbing tour pro, the eyes cold, the strain and suffering obvious as he rages, as if aghast at how the gods are treating him. There has been no Virgil to lead him out of the underworld.

But for a period there was Haney – and he has since gone about breaking all confidences. His book is the most devastating portrait yet of Woods by anyone who has worked closely with him. Haney assiduously monitored Woods’s moods and frustrations, his silences and sulks. He reproduces emails that he sent to Woods and paraphrases his replies. Haney used to stay often at Woods’s house in Florida, and yet you get the sense that he was never fully liked or trusted – sensibly, as it has turned out.

Haney is quick to say that it was not Woods but he who ended their relationship after the 2010 US Masters. He had grown weary of Woods’s indifference and felt that his man was no longer as dedicated to refining his game as he’d once been. Woods’s fascination with the military disturbed and irritated Haney, who reveals that the golfer used to go off on training expeditions with the Navy SEALs and considered enlisting in the elite force. Tiger speaks in clipped, direct sentences and Haney captures well the idiom. Was he writing it all down as he went along?

Haney accepts that working so closely with Woods was the thrill of his career. After all, the Woods of old was incomparable and his resolve unbreakable (he won the 2008 US Open with a ruptured left knee, which meant that he could not walk without severe pain and spent hours between rounds each evening in his hotel room receiving emergency treatment). At moments of heightened on-course stress he was able to slow his pulse and operate as if at a pace entirely of his own choosing. “Tiger was like a yogi who could level his emotions seemingly at will,” says Haney. He was the antithesis of the choker: the finest final round finisher the game has known.

He may not realise it but Haney reveals just as much about himself as he does about Woods as he goes along. There are cryptic references to his struggles with alcoholism and loss of confidence as a golfer, his recent divorce and the ways he felt slighted and wronged by Woods. He is thin-skinned and perhaps should have kept tight-lipped: no one in the professional game is likely to trust him again, not after what he has revealed about Tiger Woods, for whom he professes fondness even as he exposes his former pupil as a mean and unfathomably remote narcissist. (“Though I do hate him as I do hell’s pains,” Iago says of Othello. “Yet for necessity of present life, I must show out a flag and sign of love.”)

In golf parlance the big miss is the rogue shot that can destroy the rhythm of a round. Too many big misses and a card and a tournament are wrecked. Woods longed to build a swing that would eliminate the big miss from his game and Haney believed he could help him do it. In the event, after several notably successful years together, they separated. This book is a necessarily partial account of an often-strained partnership as well as an enthralling record of what it costs a man not only to dare to be the best of his generation but a champion for all the ages – until, that was, he suffered the biggest miss of all, since when he has floundered on and off the course, as if unable to comprehend the calamity that has befallen him.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, European crisis

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.