The downfall of Tiger Woods, both on and off the golf course, remains one of the most perplexing stories in all of sports.
Woods, who turned 40 in December, is indefinitely sidelined from golf as a result of multiple back surgeries. Still, in the past few months he has been the subject of several lengthy profiles. These pieces have all tried to answer the same question: What happened to Tiger?
The latest instalment is a 12,000-word ESPN the Magazine story by Wright Thompson, who explores the relationship between Woods and his late father, Earl, especially after Earl Woods died in 2006.
Woods’ father was a Green Beret, and after he died, Woods became obsessed with the Navy SEALs. He often visited their private training facilities, skydived regularly with them, and went through complex combat scenarios that included close-combat exercises and simulated raids. Thompson reports that Woods’ obsession became so intense that his close inner-circle once staged an intervention, worried he wasn’t focused on golf and might quit the sport to enlist.
One anecdote in particular stands out, though. From Thompson:
Then there’s the story of the lunch, which spread throughout the Naval Special Warfare community. Guys still tell it, almost a decade later. Tiger and a group of five or six went to a diner in La Posta. The waitress brought the check and the table went silent, according to two people there that day. Nobody said anything and neither did Tiger, and the other guys sort of looked at one another.
Finally one of the SEALs said, “Separate checks, please.”
The waitress walked away.
“We are all baffled,” says one SEAL, a veteran of numerous combat deployments. “We are sitting there with Tiger f—ing Woods, who probably makes more than all of us combined in a day. He’s shooting our ammo, taking our time. He’s a weird f—ing guy. That’s weird s—. Something’s wrong with you.”
Over the course of his story, Thompson makes the case that Woods’ obsession with the SEALs was twofold: at once a manifestation of grief over his father’s death and a desire to escape the celebrity of being Tiger Woods.
But Woods also seemed to earnestly believe that the training he was doing was the same as the SEALs, that he was becoming one of them. His unsavoury lunchtime etiquette indicates this; he wanted to be one of the guys, not a famous, millionaire athlete expected to pick up the tab. Not shockingly, many of the SEALs resented him, for this and other behaviour.
For one thing, his training paled in comparison to the actual training it takes to become a SEAL. Writes Thompson, “Guys saw him doing the fun stuff, shooting guns and jumping out of aeroplanes, but never the brutal, awful parts of being a SEAL, soaking for hours in hypothermic waters, so covered in sand and grit that the skin simply grinds away.”
Thompson went on:
“Tiger Woods never got wet and sandy,” says former SEAL and current Montana congressman Ryan Zinke, who ran the training facility during the years Tiger came around. The BUD/S instructors didn’t like the way Tiger talked about how he’d have been a SEAL if he didn’t choose golf. “I just reached out to the guys I know who jumped with him and interacted with him,” says a retired SEAL. “Not a single one wants to have any involvement, or have their name mentioned in the press anywhere near his. His interactions with the guys were not always the most stellar, and most were very underwhelmed with him as a man.”
If nothing else, Woods’ interactions with the SEALs reveals that in the years prior to the now-infamous car crash, his mind and sense of self were wildly adrift. Part of that was certainly (and understandably) the result of his father’s death. But Earl Woods dying wasn’t the only reason he drifted off course.
The answer to the question What happened to Tiger is, of course, far more complicated. And no matter how many magazines continue to ask their most esteemed writers to tackle this question, ultimately no one but Woods himself will ever know the full answer.
Thompson’s whole piece, though long, is worth reading in full. You can read it here.