Tiger Woods after his arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence in May 29, 2017 in Florida
Lying in a Californian hospital with his legs shattered and his glittering 30-year career surely beyond salvation, Tiger Woods might reflect that his personal life has been one long car crash. Both literally and figuratively.
With a club in his hands and the competition at its fiercest, he was the most gifted golfer the world has seen. Perhaps even the finest sportsman of all time.
Leaving aside his genius, what set him apart was his mental strength: The ability to switch off the adrenaline pump and enter a zen-like trance of concentration to sink an impossible-looking, million-dollar putt.
How paradoxical, then, that away from the course Woods has spent many of his 45 years fighting ruinous psychological flaws.
Childhood diffidence that caused him to stammer; profound loneliness and insecurity; an inability to maintain trusting relationships: He has been tormented by more inner demons than any caddie could carry.
Over the years, Woods has attempted to block out his angst in various unsavoury ways – drinking heavily, dosing himself with strong painkillers prescribed for his longstanding back and knee injuries, and, most infamously, sneaking away from his wife and children to cavort with mistresses.
He has also pushed himself to the brink of endurance on murderously tough Special Forces’ assault courses, and taken up scuba-diving (he feels safely beyond reach only when submerged in the ocean, friends say).
Young master: Tiger Woods aged five with his father Earl Woods
Tiger Woods with Elin Nordegren – they divorced at vast expense
However, his troubles seldom remain below the surface for long. Periodically they explode in a blaze of lurid headlines – and, when they do, the police have repeatedly found him slumped behind the wheel of his car.
In 2009, when his wife Elin discovered he had been cheating on her with a nightclub hostess, she chased him from the house brandishing a golf club. Racing away in his Cadillac Escalade SUV, his judgment impaired by a cocktail of pills, he smashed into a fire hydrant before hitting a tree in a neighbour’s garden, whereupon Elin broke two of the vehicle’s windows with the club.
Then, in 2017, police released a shocking video showing Woods when they stopped his car late one night near his Florida home. Bare-footed, blank-eyed and dishevelled, he was so disoriented after combining five types of prescription drug that he could barely speak and had no idea where he was.
When Woods careered off a tortuous, steeply descending country road outside Los Angeles on Tuesday morning his senses were not impaired. LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said it was ‘purely an accident’, adding that Woods was ‘lucid’ and there was no evidence to suggest he had taken ‘medication, narcotics or anything like that’. However, reports suggest he had looked ‘exhausted’ again recently, and that he had stormed angrily away from his hotel to keep a filming engagement.
Tiger Woods’ alleged mistress Rachel Uchitel
Erica Herman, his girlfriend for the past four years, was said to have visited him in hospital last night, though whether the 35-year-old former waitress – a constant presence when he travels around the golf circuit these days – had been staying with him in Los Angeles this week remains unclear.
A grounded woman who hails from a blue-collar background (in contrast to the pneumatic, plasticated types Woods once preferred) Erica caught his eye when she served him in a restaurant near his mansion in Jupiter, Florida.
According to golf insiders, she appears to have brought some much-needed solidity and organisation to his life, arranging his personal diary and warding off the hangers-on who once surrounded him. Qualities he has sorely missed since being divorced – at vast expense – by Elin, mother of his daughter Sam, 13, and son Charlie, 11.
Tiger Woods and his girlfriend Erica Herman celebrate after the final round of the tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club on September 23, 2018, in Atlanta, Georgia
Erica’s loyalty has evidently brought its rewards, however: She dresses more stylishly than when I first saw her with Woods, at the Ryder Cup in Paris in 2018, and her mother has moved from a trailer-park to a more salubrious home.
There could be many reasons for Woods’ reported ill-temper on Tuesday before he crashed. But the long-term causes of his unhappiness are easier to find. Indeed, they are laid bare in a powerful two-part TV documentary released by HBO last month.
Featuring candid interviews with Woods’ first girlfriend, Dina Parr, his parents, Earl and Tida, family friends, golf and business associates (not to mention some of the hookers he bedded) it unpacks his dysfunctional upbringing, and his quest for elusive contentment, in painfully raw detail. The film opens with Earl, a hardened former Green Beret soldier who operated behind enemy lines in Vietnam, giving an excruciating, tearful speech in which he proclaims that his son – then in his teens – will not only become the best golfer in history but ‘change the world’.
It was a message he instilled in Tiger from the earliest age. He would tell anyone who listened that his son’s importance in healing mankind’s racial and social divisions would surpass that of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Buddha.
That Earl Woods’ personal immorality made him more of an alley-cat than a tiger was conveniently forgotten when he made these pious pronouncements.
Earl was married to his first wife, Barbara, and had three children when his roving eye fell on Tida, a secretary 17 years his junior working for the US military in Thailand, where he was then stationed.
When he returned to America, he brought his young mistress with him, and married her – bigamously, Barbara claimed, since their divorce had not gone through. The boy predestined for greatness was born on December 30, 1975.
He was christened Eldrick Tont Woods, but his father insisted he must always be called Tiger, the nickname he gave to a Vietnamese soldier who twice saved his life. A capable amateur golfer, Earl was determined to turn his son into a champion from the moment he was born. He sat baby Tiger in a high-chair in the garage at his home in Cypress, California, and the tot watched him hit golf balls endlessly into a practice net.
Crunch: His crashed car after Elin learned of his cheating in 2009
When he was just ten months old – if we believe Earl’s misty-eyed recollections – Tiger toddled out of the chair and took his first swing of a sawn-off club. ‘Honey, get out here – we’ve got a genius on our hands!’ he shouted to his wife.
Soon, he could strike the ball cleanly and straight – a task beyond many adult beginners. For Earl and Tida, who pushed her son with equal ruthlessness (she would later instruct him to ‘go for the throat’ of junior opponents and make sure he ‘killed them’) this was just the start of Tiger’s pre-ordained odyssey. When he was two years old, his father urged the local TV station to capture his prodigious brilliance on camera. It was the first of many screen appearances.
One telling clip in the documentary shows Tiger, still in nursery school, impressing actors Bob Hope and James Stewart with his perfect swing. Afterwards, however, Stewart – a Hollywood veteran who knew how small children could be damaged by overblown parental expectations – remarked: ‘I’ve seen too many precocious kids like this sweet little boy and too many starry-eyed parents.’
Tiger’s formative years might have been healthier if his father had been a good role model. Sadly, he was not. As a military veteran he was permitted to play golf free at the Navy club near the family home and took the young Tiger there to practise with him.
However, Earl kept a Winnebago camper-van at the course, and he would persuade young women to have golf lessons with him, then cajole them into the van for drinks and seduce them.
In the documentary, Joe Grohman, who coached at the club and became Tiger’s first golf teacher, admits he joined Earl in these sex sessions, and says they took place as Tiger watched.
‘For a long time me and Earl were the two men closest to him, and here (we are) chasing skirts, and he’s seeing this,’ Grohman said, weeping. ‘I was married, too, and I had access to this child’s development. I exposed him to that.’
Earl never publicly apologised for effectively schooling his impressionable son – who worshipped the ground he walked on – in the art of adultery. Yet he was surely instrumental in turning Tiger into the serial philanderer he became.
His father must also be blamed for other appalling parental failures. To ‘toughen Tiger up’ and train him to blot out insulting cat-calls from the overwhelmingly white, middle-class spectators who attended golf tournaments, he would yell disgusting racial insults at him while he practised. There is no doubt that Woods did encounter a great deal of prejudice as his star rose. He became the first black man to win the US amateur championship, won a university golf scholarship, and landed a lucrative deal with Nike (the first of the many endorsements that made him the world’s richest athlete).
However, as he explained in an early interview, he let it wash over him and didn’t spend much time dwelling on his ethnicity.
And although a Nike executive admits in the film that the company deliberately used his mixed African-American and Thai roots as a marketing tool, the young Woods clearly felt overburdened by carrying the aspirations of black America on his slender shoulders.
Determined that nothing should distract Tiger, Earl and Tida also sabotaged his three-year relationship with Dina, whom he met in the last year of high school.
Having repeatedly professed his love for Dina, and saying he wanted to settle down with her, Woods abruptly ended the relationship by sending a letter, accusing her – without foundation – of trying to ‘exploit’ him and his family. The wording suggested it had been dictated to him.
Thereafter, he dated several woman fleetingly, but it wasn’t until 2004 when he was in his late 20s and had escaped his parents’ suffocating cloak that he married statuesque blonde Elin Nordegren, then a nanny for a Swedish golfer.
For the marketing men, it was the dream match. Fire and ice. Photos of the perfect couple appeared in magazines the world over, and when they had children, the fairytale was complete.
As we now know, however, it was just that. A fairy story. In truth, Woods, hopelessly ill-equipped to live up to his wholesome image, soon began sneaking off to Las Vegas to pay for sex with call girls.
Former casino hotel VIP hostess Tiffany Masters describes Woods as ‘a bit of a geek … certainly no Casanova’. But, she adds, he didn’t need to be – girls threw themselves between his silken sheets, and he could do whatever he pleased.
According to Michelle Braun, a Las Vegas madam, Woods would request up to ten girls at a time, preferring blonde ‘college cuties’. One of those he reportedly bedded, Loredana Jolie, says he would treat them like ‘little puppets’.
As he grew more reckless, Woods began having sex with Mindy Lawton, a waitress in a restaurant near his Florida home. Their heated sex sessions came to the notice of the National Enquirer, America’s raciest tabloid, whose photographer filmed them romping in a parking lot.
However, when the magazine told Woods’ representatives, a deal was struck whereby the story would not be published in return for the golfer appearing on the cover of a fitness magazine owned by the Enquirer’s group.
That was in 2007. Two years passed before Woods’ behaviour was exposed. When he took another of his lovers, New York club hostess Rachel Uchitel, to Melbourne, Australia, where he was playing a tournament, the Enquirer followed – and this time there was no compromise.
The story was published, but Woods told Elin it was untrue. He then took a sleeping pill and went to bed. While he slept, his wife scoured the texts in his phone and called one of the women he had been messaging. The whispered voice that greeted her was that of the hostess: Tiger’s game was up.
Woods went on TV to deliver a humiliating admission of guilt, apologising to his wife and family, and all the ‘kids’ who idolised him – but first to his business partners, some of whom promptly tore up his multi-million-dollar contracts.
To his credit, after being treated for sex addiction and plunging down the golf rankings, he fought his way back into the public’s affection.
His rehabilitation was completed in 2019 when he staged one of sport’s most remarkable comebacks to win the US Masters tournament, after undergoing four back and umpteen knee operations.
Now, once again, the Tiger lies badly wounded. The world is willing him to recover. Yet given the extent of his injuries, it is difficult to imagine this magnificent athlete prowling the fairways again.
Additional reporting: Barbara McMahon in Los Angeles