Book review: 'Tiger: The Real Story,' by Steve Helling

(Courtesy Of Da Capo Press - Courtesy Of Da Capo Press)
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By Barry Svrluga
Tuesday, May 4, 2010


The Real Story

By Steve Helling

Da Capo. 242 pp. $25

Late in "Tiger," author Steve Helling re-creates the scene of the besmirched golfer stepping to a lectern in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., and addressing a room of friends and supporters -- as well as a live national television audience -- about the sex scandal that had overtaken his life and, by extension, the sport of golf. Two pages later the book ends having quoted the 13 1/2 -minute speech nearly in its entirety, interspersed with five paragraphs of context and scene -- his mother dabbing her eyes, media members murmuring as they watched the broadcast at a nearby hotel.

"Today I want to ask for your help," Tiger Woods says in closing. "I ask you to find room in your heart to one day believe in me again."

Would a biography that included true insights and revelations about its subject conclude with a public speech that has been endlessly picked apart in the media -- and surely viewed or heard by any golf fans or celebrity watchers with interest in the subject? Certainly not, and that is telling about Helling's book, the latest attempt to analyze an intensely private superstar and the first since Woods's image was damaged, perhaps irreparably, by his marital infidelity.

Helling, a People magazine reporter who drew on interviews and encounters he had with Woods dating back to 2002 -- as well as "many friends and associates of Tiger Woods" who would not be quoted for attribution -- doesn't set out to write an exposé on Woods's marital infidelities, an ambition that could be interpreted as admirable. But the timing of the book's release -- less than three months after the golfer delivered that public apology and less than six months after the scandal broke -- seems an attempt to capitalize on the star's personal problems.

Despite a thorough account of Woods's life -- including detailed background on both his parents and his early dating life -- "Tiger" delivers neither in enhancing what we already know about the world's most famous athlete nor in uncovering significant new information that would push Woods's salacious story forward. Rather, it reads more like an update of who Tiger was ("one of the world's most untouchable stars"), where he came from (some of Helling's best work explores the upbringing of Woods's father, Earl) and what he has become ("he has now proved that he is only human").

Readers seeking juicy tidbits will find a few. Helling reports Woods's wife, Elin Nordegren, signed a prenuptial agreement before their 2004 wedding; Nordegren would receive $20 million if she remained married to Woods for 10 years. He writes, "Marriage hadn't changed Tiger's appetite for sex," and quotes an unidentified television production source who worked with Woods more than 50 times saying Tiger "dated a lot of girls even after he was married to Elin." He reports that one Orlando club owner desperately called newspapers and magazines trying to interest them in stories of Woods's behavior with women at his establishment, to no avail.

But unlike journalist Mark Seal, who convinced several of Woods's former mistresses to speak on the record for a Vanity Fair story published last month, Helling's reporting is mostly vague -- fine for the reader seeking an overview of Woods's life story, but frustrating for one seeking titillating details of his transgressions or even a complex psychological portrait. Offering no specifics, Helling links Woods's increasingly irresponsible behavior to his father's death, writing, "He was inconsolable, and he used sex as a medication to fix things."

The book also suffers from structural flaws and downright sloppiness that seem to indicate it was rushed to publication. Helling, for instance, writes about Woods's relationship with former coach Butch Harmon with a section that begins, "Tiger wasn't one for long good-byes," but soon includes a passage describing Harmon's bitterness over "how he was fired, being phased out slowly."

Factual errors occur on mundane golf matters: Former U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy is called Gregg; Woods is described as having "endured one notable, rare failure" by missing the cut at the 2009 U.S. Open, when in fact he tied for sixth there, but missed the cut at the British Open the following month. These gaffes will be noticeable only to true golf fans, but they are numerous enough to raise questions about Helling's attention to detail on other story lines.

The subtitle of "Tiger" is "The Real Story," and Helling's account is no doubt a version of Woods's real story. But one of Helling's central points is that Woods spent a lifetime creating a nearly impenetrable personal life in which only the chosen got to truly know him. If nothing else, "Tiger" serves to prove how hard it is to break through and truly understand Woods -- both before and after his scandal.

Svrluga is a sports writer for The Washington Post who covers, among other things, golf.

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