The Chosen One
Simon & Schuster
$21.00, 201 pages
What better way for a writer to make a splash than to grab onto the coattails of Tiger Woods? Hard on the heels of Tiger's best-selling how-to manual -- called simply, How I Play Golf (Warner Books, $34.95) -- author David Owen delivers The Chosen One, a biography of the 25-year-old golf phenom. It's a perfect companion to Woods's own instructional tome, both in terms of its subject matter and in its admiring, uncontroversial tone.
The book's subtitle -- Tiger Woods and the Dilemma of Greatness -- is taken from a New Yorker magazine essay Owen published in August, 2000, and is at least partly apt. In five short chapters, which maintain the tenor of a long essay, Owen dwells at length on the exploits of the athlete who by the time his career is over could become the greatest golfer in history.
How great? "Sportswriters sometimes define golf's elite as those players who succeed in winning at least one tournament annually for several years in a row," Owen writes. "Since turning pro, Woods has averaged one victory every few weeks." It's hard, though, to find many dilemmas in Woods' seemingly charmed life -- unless, or course, you count the pressures that come with being No. 1 and the awkwardness initially occasioned in the golf Establishment by one so young, so accomplished, and so not exactly lily-white. Being a mix of several races, Tiger resists being labeled black, though he wants to introduce more color into golf.
Tiger, we learn, isn't only a gifted athlete but also a public figure who has made virtually no missteps: He has amassed a fortune, thanks to his 35 tournament wins (including non-PGA victories and six major PGA titles) and the commercial endorsements he does for Nike, Buick, and others. But he amazingly seems to have remained true to his simple upbringing. As his father, Earl Woods, describes it, "Tiger was made to be a good person, and that was first and foremost in our family."
For instance, Tiger, whose real name is Eldrick, remains close to his mother and his father, who are married but live separately. Absent from his life story are the tales of drinking, drugs, and sex that trail many professional athletes -- including some in the mild-mannered sport of golf. In their place are numerous testimonials to Tiger's work ethic. If there's a fault in this remarkable human being, Owen discovers, it's probably his yen for perfection: "He has always been impatient with people who don't work as hard as he does," Owen writes.
For the most part, The Chosen One -- a biblical-sounding title that Owen says actually stems from what "tour player Mark Calcavecchia called him at the 2000 British Open" -- is a quintessential book for fans. Especially for those who already know everything about their hero but want to read more anyway. It could be that not everyone knew that Tiger's fame is so great that his bodyguards accompany him to the bathroom at tournaments. But aside from that, Tiger's life as viewed through Owen's eye seems extremely familiar -- and a little mundane.
Just as father Earl said, Woods' parents stressed such values as "honesty, etiquette, patience, and discipline." (For more comments from Earl Woods, see "Tales from the High and Mighty".) Earl, an African American, met his second wife and Tiger's mother, Kultida, a Thai office worker, while on a tour of duty in Vietnam. Earl kept little Tiger with him while he played golf, and when his son swung a club before he had "mastered the finer points of walking," Woods senior says, he "realized he was the steward of an extraordinary talent." Having listened to Earl Woods at length, Owen finds that he "views his son as proof that thoughtful parenting is worth the trouble."
Owen delicately balances his attempt to bring Woods to life with an effort to protect the golf master's privacy outside the game. Mindful of the boundary Woods has erected between reporters and himself, Owen brings the reader only to within what Tiger would regard as a safe distance. In the end, however, it's just a little too safe, and the real Tiger Woods, including whatever warts he has, remains an elusive figure.
How big a failing that is won't be clear for years, until a definitive biography of Tiger is written. In the meantime, we may all have to settle for the image of Tiger as a stereotypical American hero -- one whose prowess is sustained by relentless practice, patience, drive, and most important, the one factor that can never be learned, even in golf: talent. At a time when hardworking heroes are back in vogue, maybe there's nothing wrong with that.
By Karin Pekarchik in New York