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

New Statesman
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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.