Back when it seemed that Tiger Woods was finished as a golfer – which might have been ten days ago, but we’re going further back – he bought combat boots. “They were black, made by the outfitter Backhawk, popular with ex-special ops guys who become contractors and mercenaries.”
Woods was infatuated by the Navy Seals and went to their hidden mountain training facility east of San Diego – one visit in 2006 was 28 days after the death of his father, Earl, who had served in the US military.
He began training with them. And the more he struggled on the golf course, and after his personal life “split open in the most public and embarrassing way”, the more he flirted with the idea of “completely killing off the character he played in public [to] disappear into the world of special operations”.
He began doing four-mile runs in his combat boots, “wearing Nike workout pants or long combat-style trousers, depending on the weather, pounding out eight-and-a-half minute miles, within striking distance of the time he needed for BUD/S [Basic Underwater Demolition/Seal, the Seals’ training school].”
These and other killer details are in “The Secret History of Tiger Woods”, by Wright Thompson, from his new book, The Cost of These Dreams. It’s a collection of his best sports writing and the Woods chapter features alongside others which, in the finest tradition of great American long-form sports writing, stay with you long after you have finished reading.
It was interesting to read the Woods chapter this week, because Thompson’s reasonable assumption, when writing in 2016, was that Woods was finished. He was at least in limbo (or purgatory): “Somewhere between a professional golfer and a retired celebrity.”
For Thompson the combat boots were more than symbolic: “The boots were inevitable, in hindsight. You can’t insert something as intense as the Seal culture into the mind of someone like Tiger Woods and not have him chase it down a deep, dark hole.”
Thompson does something similar in his writing. Golf is hardly mentioned in the chapter on Woods. His mission is to understand the person, not the public figure. In pursuit of this mission he is the most sympathetic and empathetic of writers, and yet he will include unflattering details, such as the time Woods had lunch with the Seals and didn’t offer to pay. “We are sitting there with Tiger f****** Woods, who probably makes more than all of us combined in a day,” one of the Seals tells Thompson. “He’s shooting our ammo, taking our time. He’s a weird f****** guy.”
Michael Jordan, the subject of another chapter, is a friend of the golfer, and tells Thompson: “I think [Woods is] tired. I think he really wishes he could retire, but he doesn’t know how to do it yet, and I don’t think he wants to leave it where it is right now. If he could win a major and walk away, he would, I think.”
We’ll see. The pictures painted by Thompson of Woods, Jordan and his other subjects are intricate and nuanced but there is a common theme, one that’s suggested by the book’s title: the cost of being so driven, particularly when a sporting career ends. On Woods, Thompson writes: “The real work of his life – how to deal with having been Tiger Woods – will begin only once he accepts that his golfing career is finished.”
Similarly the chapter on Jordan is about the former basketball star trying to come to terms with being Michael Jordan. “It’s a process,” Jordan says. “It must be strange to be locked in combat with the ghost of your former self,” observes Thompson, who is more than sympathetic to Jordan, but can still remark that, “He can be a breathtaking asshole.”
It’s the detail that makes the writing so vivid. Jordan and Woods are both chronic insomniacs, claims Thompson. Jordan can’t sleep without noise. He’s also obsessed by Westerns, Unforgiven being his favourite. “Every night he does the same thing: turn the bedroom television to the Western Channel. The cowboy movies will break the darkness, break the silence, allow him to rest… The film on the screen is Unforgiven. He knows every scene, and sometime before the shootout in the saloon, he falls asleep.”
Another chapter is on Lionel Messi and his relationship with Rosario, his home city. It tells you more about Messi than a thousand interviews. Rather than speak to him, Thompson makes a pilgrimage to his city, 200 miles north-west of Buenos Aires, searching “for hints at whatever might be going on inside Messi”, because: “Nobody who is great at something is normal.”
In Rosario he finds virtually no trace of their famous son, though Messi, who left for the Barcelona youth academy when he was 13, appears increasingly drawn to the place as he gets older. “Growing up in Rosario might not have shaped him, but leaving it certainly did,” Thompson writes. My favourite chapter is about a sportsman who was never famous. “Shadow Boxing” is about one of the 50 boxers who stepped into a ring with Muhammad Ali, and the only one who has disappeared. Thompson goes to extraordinary lengths to find “Sweet Jimmy” Robinson, entering another deep, dark hole – Overtown, a neighbourhood in Miami that’s “methodical in its assault on hope”.
Sweet Jimmy was last seen here, occupying the pool hall, hanging out on the streets, but he is like a ghost. Over six years – six years! – Thompson tries to trace Robinson. He talks to locals, he puts up posters, he volunteers in the kitchen at Camillus House, the homeless shelter, he visits cold case detectives and the medical examiners’ office where they try to name unidentified dead bodies.
“In the beginning, I wanted to sit across from Jimmy and have him tell me about his life,” he writes. “Now, near the end, I just want to find a body.”
Robinson proves elusive, yet it’s a sort of miracle that, with so little to go on, it isn’t a rough sketch that Thompson draws of Sweet Jimmy but a fleshed out, high-definition portrait of somebody who stepped into the ring with Cassius Clay at Miami Beach on February 7, 1961 and was knocked to the canvas after 94 seconds.
l The Cost of These Dreams: Sports Stories and other Serious Business, by Wright Thompson, is published by 535 (Blink Publishing), £12.99