When Hank Haney got the call from Tiger Woods asking him to be his swing coach, he didn't have to think about it long. Coach Tiger's swing? It was like giving acting tips to Meryl Streep or advising Muhammad Ali on how to jab and move. It was like showing Ted Williams how to hit the curve or helping Eric Clapton play the blues.
How difficult could it be?
More difficult than it looks. That's what Butch Harmon, Tiger's previous coach, told Haney when he took over for him.
Harmon was right and then some. While coaching Tiger from 2004 to 2010, Haney was never entirely comfortable working with the enigmatic star — when to say something, when to leave him alone, how the star would accept his corrections and suggestions, how to react to his anger and deal with his awkward and prolonged silence.
Now he has written a book about the experience — "The Big Miss." After reading it, you'll never look at Tiger, or the golf swing, or, for that matter, any prodigy the same.
There was considerable controversy when the book was released, because Haney's six-year stint as Tiger's coach coincided with the sex scandal that rocked Tiger's (and the pop culture's) world. My first reaction when I heard about the book: With friends like this ...
But the book is actually kind and doesn't stoop to sensationalism. It also doesn't cover a lot of new ground. It merely confirms that the public Tiger is pretty much the private Tiger. Unfortunately.
He's inconsiderate and remote.
He lacks empathy.
He has no real friends or confidants and seems incapable of it.
He's quiet and self-contained, for better or worse.
He's egotistical and self-centered.
He is lonely and isolated even in the company of others.
In other words, he's exactly like almost every superstar celebrity, especially prodigies, where the world is laid at their feet, their life's path is set before them and the pressure and attention is stifling.
Like so many others -— Britney Spears, Michael Vick, Michael Jackson, Lindsay Lohan, Mike Tyson — he self-destructs. In the wake of his father's death, he goes off to participate in numerous risky training exercises with Navy SEALS and, at least in Haney's estimation, suffers a serious, career-altering knee injury.
Then, of course, there were the numerous affairs that brought him so much shame and ultimately cost him his wife and children. It's difficult to resist the connection back to his father, who served in Army Special Forces and was reputed to have strayed from his marriage.
By the time you finish the book, if you can't feel some empathy for Tiger, then you have Tiger's heart. Haney writes his way to that realization late in the book when he observes, "Tiger always had a wall up, behind which I'd long imagined there was some kind of personal turmoil. As I reflected, I realized that I'd never thought of Tiger as happy."
And that's sad. Tiger is driven to play golf and has been since his youth, when his life was plotted for him under his father's direction, but it is a joyless enterprise. It was only later he seemed to want to choose other things — he seriously considered trying to join the SEALs.
When he doesn't win, he's downcast, when he wins, it was what was expected and all joy is muted. There are almost no highs. Life is empty; life is waiting for the next Major, filling in the hours with video games (Navy SEALS is his favorite) and weight lifting. He is left only with one mission in life: The quest to catch Jack Nicklaus' record 18 victories in majors, once considered a certainty and now practically unattainable.
What we didn't know is that, at least from an aficionado's point of view (Haney's), Woods is far from a perfect technician. He struggles with his swing and constantly seems to experiment with it.
If you're hoping to pick up a few golf tips, forget it. Haney lost me when he started explaining in detail the technical aspects of the swing and what he was trying to teach Woods. I had an easier time understanding Walter Isaacson's biography of Einstein when he explained quantum mechanics and the relativity theory. After reading about swing planes and center points and head position, blah, blah, blah, I'll be lucky if I can ever just make contact with a golf ball again.
It wasn't until the end of the book that I discovered there was a glossary for all the golf terms, but by then I no longer cared. If Tiger struggled with it, then what's the point?
Ultimately, weary of trying to read Tiger's moods, Haney quits (Tiger tries to claim it was a mutual decision). It was revealing that one of Tiger's adviser's told Haney that he couldn't quit, that he was one of Tiger's closest friends and Tiger needed him. This was news to Haney and to the reader.