The Underground Detective

Thomas Boswell’s baseball columns might be close to unreadable now, but he’s excellent when writing about the human condition. Obituaries. Retirements. Hiring decisions. He’s insightful in a way others aren’t. Sure he’s no Gary Smith, but even Smith lost his fastball long before leaving Sports Illustrated. Hacks might be able to churn out the same drivel forever (see Lupica, Mike) but the most talented writers, it seems, burn out relatively quickly.

Not Boswell, who’s been at it since the tail end of the 60s. Boswell out wrote everyone not named Jaime Diaz regarding Seve’s fall and was Diaz’s equal in explaining Tiger’s frailties, nudged out only by Tom Callahan, who had the advantage, if you’d call it that, of being friends with Earl. Heck, after long leaving golf behind Boswell even wrote the best piece out there on the denuding of Oakmont, primarily by looking at the issue as a human and not a golf snob. Similarly, Boswell did a better job on Bud after his passing than any of the tennis elite.

After Arnold Palmer died, Boswell, in his weekly online chat, told a story of Arnold’s genuine excitement after scoring a hole-in-one on consecutive days on the same hole at some entirely forgettable senior tour event. And Boswell recounted his own excitement covering it. He used the story to get across the point that everyone else emphasized in their Arnold biopics — the man truly loved the game of golf. It was no act.

But Boswell then explained that he wouldn’t be touching Arnold in the newspaper. He said he didn’t really know Arnold. He never pilgrimaged to Latrobe, or walked through Arnold’s legendary barn. Boswell never did a one-on-one interview with him.

Boswell, in effect, said he’d be a fraud if he attempted to take on the topic, and further called out anyone who would deign to write about a subject they’d never met. “You can’t fake it,” he wrote.

And this is where I spit the bit.

For one thing, you can bet Boswell never interviewed Seve. And even if he had during a Kemper Open drive by, Seve certainly wouldn’t have opened up in any meaningful way. At best, Boswell likely talked to Dean Beman about how exasperating Seve was, and perhaps got a few quotes from Crenshaw types about Seve’s “genius.”

But this would have been nothing more than box-checking; Crenshaw and Beman had nothing to say about the man that wasn’t already well known. Yet, years later Boswell was able to get at Seve in a way that others covering golf for a living weren’t.

What’s more interesting, and telling, is that the one subject Boswell has flubbed is the athlete he’s known better than any. I stopped being a baseball guy in 1986 or so, but the game’s mid-Atlantic hero, Cal Ripken, is of that time, so I’d pay attention when the DC papers covered him. And Boswell was the dean of the sport in this very non-baseball city, so he was one of the few to read on the matter.

But all Boswell could muster on Cal was mush, hero-worshipping fluff. I recall a paragraph or two about “roughhousing” in the clubhouse — which I translated to mean acting like an ass — and a ridiculous reflection on the moment Boswell realized Cal had lost a step. The rest, platitudes.

A few lines I came across recently in a book on Cuba’s ‘el Duque’ (which touched on Cal’s “leadership” or lack thereof, during a playoff game against the Yankees) and some stories that surfaced in the New York papers after an Orioles infield prospect was traded to the Mets (add “selfish” and “ego” to the jackass theme above) were much more instructive.

Let’s get back to Arnold. You wouldn’t know it from reading most of the gibberish published lately, but the guy was a human being. And, actually, his flaws are entirely uninteresting. He had a weakness for the flesh? Set him next to every other rich and powerful man in history. What’s only interesting here is the length that “journalists” have gone over the years to cover up, or even excuse Arnold’s behavior.

Some books on Arnold late in his life gently addressed this stuff, but the recent obits skirted it entirely or covered it with the old “sex is on my face” trope (and you can be sure that Arnold made this comment the way Yogi Berra said the 47,000 quips attributed to him). Callahan’s writeup on Arnold was the most blunt, but even he sugarcoats it with a “boys will be boys” story.

Some journalists, and my revered Dan Jenkins is the absolute worst on this score, barely even hide their intention to use the pen to protect friends and to take on others they doesn’t like. Or those who wouldn’t cooperate over the years. How else to explain Jenkins never touching the issue in all the words he’s spilled on Palmer but lambasting, with unabashed glee, Tiger for similar transgressions?

I came across an interview Michael Bamberger gave to NPR a day or two after Arnold passed. It entirely uninteresting, until Bamberger responded to a throw away line from the host at the end.

“And what else is there to say about the life of this genuinely happy man?”

“Happy? “Arnold was not happy. He had a deep darkness, emanating from some of his notable failures on the course, that he carried with him to the end.”

Now this isn’t entirely news to those paying close attention, but never had I heard it in such stark terms. And one wonders where this theme was in the 1,500 words Bamberger had just written for Sports Illustrated. Bamberger, and everyone else who did know Arnold in the way that Boswell claims is necessary to write on a subject, didn’t just bury the lead. The ignored it.

Why?

Professional self preservation, I presume. How else to explain why it took Richard Ben Cramer, a man who didn’t make a living on sports, to finally explain DiMaggio. And someone like Mark Kram, on the eve of checking out of the game entirely, to put out the only honest profile on Ali. Something, it should be noted, that even Gary Smith, while still in the employ of the machine, hadn’t been able to do.

What this all proves is that Boswell’s throw away in the chat was 180 degrees off. Outsiders, particularly those disconnected from the subject at hand, are always the most insightful.

So, if you care at all about the people playing these games, discard the traditional fare and look for a detective. Best, an underground one.

79 and done…

While golf’s chattering class fixates on technical issues that no-one cares about, like the bounce on Tiger’s wedges, the definition of the ‘yips’, and now, how best to activate one’s glutes, it is much more interesting to look at Tiger’s demise in comparison to the other greats of the sport.

But before doing that, let’s first all accept that it’s over. If the history of this game has taught us anything, it’s that once the ability to score is gone, it’s gone. It doesn’t come back, regardless of the age, health, or desire of the participant. Tiger can spend the next 18 months doing nothing but chipping and driving – and for that matter can head back up to Isleworth and shoot 62 every week with Cookie and Arjun and the rest of that crowd – and it won’t make an iota of difference. This is crystal clear to everyone outside of his biggest sycophants – you know, Phil Knight, Steiny, everyone in the golf media not named Dan Jenkins – and arguments you hear otherwise are a distraction. Tiger may have a swan song – although it’s increasingly looking like the 2013 Players was just that – but he is not winning 19 professional majors, and even Sam Snead is sleeping safer now.

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In just about every other sport, it’s simple. The hero ages, loses a step, fights an injury, struggles to hang on, and cries when he says goodbye. Jeter was the last to go through this, Peyton will be the next.

But golf… is different. Tom Watson more or less stopped winning at 34. Snead, an outlier, was a threat into his 50s. People like to fawn over the ’86 Masters, but Jack was done as a consistent winner more than six years before, in his late 30s. Arnold and Trevino just a bit later, in their early 40s. And then, most intriguingly, you have those that wake up one day and find they can no longer hit a golf ball during competition, the most prominent being Seve, but lesser players such as David Duval and Ian Baker Finch fit here too.

Jack Nicklaus, in a moment of rare insight – presumably all those legendary interviews he gave to Dave Anderson and Jenkins were off the record – once quipped that his biggest advantage over the field was that he didn’t drink. But it wasn’t a joke; alcohol certainly derailed, or at least suppressed, many a career, perhaps most notably Watson’s. Tiger may imbibe at times, but I sincerely doubt alcohol is his problem. If it is, his enablers have done a heroic job of hiding it.

Earl Woods – who predicted Tiger would stall at 14 majors, by the way – famously said that only a bad back or marriage would scuttle Tiger’s career.

You could say that both did in Jack, although everyone accepts that it was the appeal of family life that dulled his interest in competing. I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate though; it seems to me that Jack was more interested in becoming a titan of industry – perhaps not dissimilar from Hogan – and being recognized as the smartest guy in the room, something he couldn’t do by winning a few additional Andy Williams San Diego Opens. I also think losing repeatedly to Watson and Trevino on the biggest stages in the 70s damaged his ego irreparably, but again, I wasn’t sitting in on all those annual Winter caucuses with the press in West Palm, so I don’t know.

But back to Tiger. It’s not his back (or knee, or achilles, or glutes, or anything else related to his body.) He’s recovered from his few serious injuries – let’s remember, five wins in 2013 – and the rest have always carried a whiff of self-protection or ego inflation. It is no secret why the fastest men in the world inevitably clutch at their hamstrings once beaten, and it’s hard to think of any golfer that didn’t have to deal with some type of back issue.

So that leaves Elin. And while I do think Tiger’s breakup is ultimately to blame for the turn his career has taken, it hasn’t unfolded in the manner Earl, or most, would have predicted.

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Jack once explained – maybe he is the best interview of all time – that Gladwell’s excellence theory doesn’t hold with putting, that a golfer inevitably becomes worse over time, irrespective of practice, because one needs to be sure in order to putt. And, of course, the aging process is synonymous with creeping doubt.

Callahan’s book, the best ever written on Tiger, makes two things clear. First, Tiger has been coddled from day one and as a result is permanently immature and insecure. We’re not talking as a competitor here, but as a human being. The ridiculous behavior he exhibits – the insufferable entitlement, the tipping, the big timing, the inability to take any joke, the mentality that made it ok to stiff the widows of Jackie Robinson and Payne Stewart – that riles up the Jenkins types so much, is a self-defense mechanism. Tiger, if nothing else, is the anti-Arnold, never comfortable in his own skin.

The second thing that comes out of Callahan’s book, and some of Diaz’s stuff, is that Tiger surprisingly is not a bad person. He loved his Dad. He respected his parents. And, he’s often felt the sting of loneliness.

The problem is that, for most, there really is only one way to become the best in the world at anything. Have you ever looked at Lance Armstrong? Or Justine Henin? Stacy Lewis? Really looked at them? While they were winning? These are not people you’d ever want to rely on for a favor. Don’t think you’d ever want to share an elevator or cab with them either.

In this vein, Tiger’s personal life wasn’t an aberration. It wasn’t a distraction either. It gave him confidence, fed his ego, quieted his insecurity. And it was of a piece for a man who must have realized at a very young age, perhaps somewhere around the time of the first junior amateur, that if he was going to approach the expectations already hardening, that he would need to be ruthlessly selfish.

Thanksgiving evening 2009 upended Tiger’s world. Any certainty he had, about who he was, and how he lived, could only have been shattered. He was embarrassed and ridiculed on a level never seen before, for behavior, quite frankly, ignored or even lauded in earlier generations. Tiger, who had always played the victim card, now actually had a reason to feel under attack.

But more importantly, maybe, for the first time, Tiger recoiled at who he’d become. Maybe, with Elin gone and two kids to raise he decided the old way was unsustainable. Maybe he realized the pursuit of excellence was the problem, at least the way he was going about it. Maybe he came to understand that the right way to win is not the right way to live. And maybe now, like Seve well before his illness, he is discovering there is no other way to win, at least for him, and “it”, whatever “it” is, is not coming back. Ever.