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Biography that Traces Tiger Woods’s Mythical Rise and Fall

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There have been many biographies of Tiger Woods, and surely there will be many more. Some are friendly and shyly philosophical, like David Owen’s early “The Chosen One,” from 2001. Others are curmudgeonly and expert about golf, like Tom Callahan’s “His Father’s Son” (2010).

Amid these books, “Tiger Woods,” the new biography from Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian, rides in as if on 18 wheels, for better and only occasionally worse. It’s a confident and substantial book that’s nearly as sleek as a Christopher Nolan movie. It makes a sweet sound, like a well-struck golf ball.

I found it exhilarating, depressing, tawdry and moving in almost equal measure. It’s a big American story that rolls across barbered lawns and then leaves you stranded in some all-night Sam’s Club of the soul. It reminded me of a line from Martin Amis’s new book of essays: “How drunk was Scott Fitzgerald when he said there were no second acts in American lives?”

The authors have hoovered up everything there is to be learned from previous writing about Woods, and then interviewed more than 250 people on their own. (They declined to interview Woods after he set draconian conditions.) They bring grainy new detail to almost every aspect of Woods’s life.

Better, they have a knack for scene-setting. They tuck us inside Woods’s private plane as the desert gives way to Las Vegas’s megaresorts to open a chapter about Woods’s exploits in that city, sometimes with Michael Jordan or Charles Barkley in tow. They refresh old stories by telling them from new angles.

This biography begins the only way it probably could have: with the car accident at Woods’s home on the day after Thanksgiving in 2009 that precipitated his steep fall from grace. He groggily ran over hedges and curbs and smashed into a fire hydrant after his wife, Elin, who had learned of his adultery, apparently smashed his S.U.V. windows with a golf club.

At the time, Elin didn’t know the half of it. Woods’s paramours (strippers, waitresses, neighbors) began popping up from behind every swizzle stick. The scandal was on the cover of The New York Post for 21 consecutive days; each issue was so sleazy you wanted to pick it up with tongs. (The Sept. 11 attacks, by contrast, managed only 20 straight covers.) This was a purge of schadenfreude. Many were delighted to see this ostensible paragon of virtue take a fall.

Woods, the greatest athlete of our time, has not won a major tournament since. But he is healthy and playing well and has his sights on the Masters in a few weeks. This story might easily have another twist.

Benedict is a writer for Sports Illustrated. Keteyian is a CBS News correspondent. Together they are the authors of a previous book, “The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football” (2013).

In “Tiger Woods” they take special aim at Woods’s parents, especially Earl Woods, Tiger’s father. They raised a champion. They also raised a narcissistic loner who lacked basic decency. “Even the most basic human civilities — a simple hello or thank you — routinely went missing from his vocabulary. A nod was too much to expect.”

This book is littered with the bodies of those Woods cut out of his life without a thank you or goodbye — girlfriends, coaches, agents, caddies. If you stripped most of the golf out of this book, you might sometimes think you are reading the biography of a sociopath, a nonmurderous Tom Ripley or Patrick Bateman or Svidrigailov from “Crime and Punishment.”

Earl Woods, the worst kind of stage father, profited early and often from his son’s career. He was a liar and an adulterer. The later years of his life were particularly sordid. He hired multiple young women to attend to his needs.

“Pornography played steadily on the television,” the authors write. “Sex toys were stuffed in drawers, and sexual favors were performed at Earl’s request. ‘It was a house of horrors,’ recalled a former employee. ‘Every drawer. Every cabinet.’”

There is beauty and awe in this perfectly pitched biography, as we watch Woods’s skills blossom. Woods was shy and nerdy in his first years of high school. No one knew of his golf exploits. The moment here in which an early girlfriend, Dina Gravell, watches him play for the first time is terrific. It’s as if she’s discovered that he’s Harry Potter.

Lovely too is the scene the authors set when Woods wins his first Masters. Woods looks up — at this tournament in which the first black man, Lee Elder, played in 1975 — and “witnesses the abundance of black people from the Augusta staff who had left their posts and assembled on the lawn and the veranda on the second floor.”

Many other details accrue. The authors tally up the lies Woods has told the media since he was young. There’s little evidence, for example, that he was mugged while at Stanford as he claimed. They marshal evidence that raises questions about whether or not Woods took illegal performance-enhancing drugs. There is good writing here about agents and ad campaigns.

If this book has a flaw it may be that it’s too confident. Reading it can be like watching one of those crime shows in which the bumper music ends with slamming car doors. The authors move about like a supersleuth Starsky and Hutch, or Tango and Cash, or Crockett and Tubbs. To be fair, a bit of wit and play are allowed to sneak in.

Who is Tiger Woods? The authors don’t get to the bottom of that question, but does anyone really expect that they could? Woods himself doesn’t appear to have a clue.

Whom the gods will destroy, Cyril Connolly said, they first call promising. This intense book gives us Woods’s almost mythical rise and fall. It has torque and velocity, even when all of Woods’s shots, on the course and off it, begin heading for the weeds.


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