Keeping Score

How a Novel Could Help Turn Around Tiger

Two Sports Illustrated writers pen a work of fiction in which a Tiger-like fallen hero earns redemption just by being real. What if Woods did the same?

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AARON JOSEFCZYK / Reuters / Corbis
AARON JOSEFCZYK / Reuters / Corbis

In The Swinger, a new novel by Sports Illustrated golf scribes Alan Shipnuck and Michael Bamberger, the protagonist, a phenomenal multiracial golfer named Tree Tremont, holds a press conference at Augusta National Golf Club before the Masters. It’s Tree’s first tournament since a sex scandal rocked his personal life and tarnished the reputation of the most marketable athlete on the planet. A tabloid, the Eye of the World, exposed Tree’s all-too-many trysts, and when his wife, a fiery Italian former bikini model named Brenda, heard the salacious details, she clubbed her husband in the face with a fireplace rod, then divorced him.

For months, the world has been waiting for Tree to talk about the whole affair. Augusta’s press room is filled to capacity. (One of Tree’s mortal sins, the public learned, is that he once had sex in the hallowed club’s wine cellar.) The cameras start clicking, and to the shock of the assembled reporters and the millions of people watching the event on television, Tree totally unburdens himself. “There are things about me that I’d rather you hear from me,” he says. He tells everyone he is shedding his business conglomerate — Tree Corp. — thus ridding himself of all handlers. He castigates himself for the transgressions.

(See a list of the top 10 disgraced athletes.)

“O.K., the really crazy part,” Tree tells the media. “There’s no easy way to do this, but I think it’s important for you to hear it from the source. I had 342 different sex partners outside my marriage.”

In their roman à clef about Tiger Woods, Shipnuck and Bamberger thinly disguise as fiction plenty of gossip they’ve heard over their four combined decades covering the PGA Tour (SI, like TIME, is published by Time Inc.) But, Shipnuck assures me, Bamberger and he pulled that 342 number out of thin air, just to have a little fun.

What’s more relevant to the story and to the reader — including, possibly, Woods — is the way Tree approaches his postscandal life. The authors’ idealized version of Woods comes totally clean about his past mistakes. There are no staged interviews, no clipped or dodgy answers. Tree lets his guard down, even cracks a few jokes about the absurdity of his situation. He starts enjoying the company of his fellow players and — gasp — the fans. He wins that Masters, his game even gets better, and yes, fans fall for him all over again.

(Read about Tiger Woods’ press conference.)

Real life, of course, is much more complicated. But reading The Swinger, you can’t help wonder, What if Tiger were more like Tree? When Woods returned from a four-month exile in 2010, there was talk of Tiger 2.0. He said he’d be more relaxed during his round, that he’d cut the on-course cursing. The media expected him to connect better with fans.

But since his return, Woods has barely changed — except in one very notable way: he no longer wins. The cameras have caught his foul mouth. After his thrilling final round at this year’s Masters, in which he took an early, old-Tiger-like charge before missing a few short putts down the stretch, he offered curt replies to questions from CBS reporter Bill Macatee. Woods still communicates with his fans through bland postings on his cookie-cutter website. He has taken to Twitter, but his missives are dull (“Very happy for Darren Clarke, well deserved win,” Woods tweeted after the British Open, as if someone who outshoots more than 150 other pro golfers could possibly be undeserving of the victory).

(Watch TIME’s video “Taking On Tiger Woods at His Own Game.”)

The real golf world also offers a sharp contrast to Woods. Golf’s new wunderkind, Rory McIlroy, has tweeted shots of himself chugging Jägermeister — straight from the bottle. After his collapse at this year’s Masters, he delighted fans by tweeting a picture of himself and winner Charl Schwartzel on a plane. “Glad one of us has a green jacket on!!!” McIlroy wrote. Imagine Woods ever doing that, ever being so self-deprecating? Heck, try to imagine Woods flying on a plane with another player.

McIlroy, who went on to crush the field at the U.S. Open, is golf’s darling. “Tiger talked about doing things differently,” says Shipnuck. “But if anything, the moat around him has only gotten bigger.”

This week, Woods cut ties with his longtime caddie, Steve Williams, whose surly on-course demeanor — he once snatched a camera from a spectator for snapping a picture of Tiger during his backswing and chucked it in a pond — won him few fans. (Williams said he was “extremely disappointed” by the timing of the decision and wasn’t shy about sharing his grievances. “Obviously, working through a scandal, he’s had a new coach, a swing change — the last 18 months have been very difficult, and I’ve stuck by him through thick and thin,” Williams told Television New Zealand. “I’ve been incredibly loyal. And then to have this happen — basically you could say I’ve wasted two years of my life, the last two years.”

(See a brief history of Tiger Woods Scandal.)

Some observers might sympathize with Williams (who was Woods’ caddy for 13 of his 14 major championships) and view his firing (as he clearly does) as another example of Woods’ questionable postscandal behavior. But it’s possible that this change is a signal that Woods has turned a corner. “I think it’s an important move,” Shipnuck says. “The people around Tiger may not be culpable for his misdeeds, but they certainly didn’t help keep him out of trouble. A new caddie will offer a fresh voice and perspective between the ropes. Maybe he can be the friend and confidant Tiger apparently didn’t have before.”

We don’t know if Woods’ current struggles are more related to his health (he has missed the U.S. and British opens with a bum knee and has not indicated when he will return), fading skills or his fragile psyche. So even if he were to loosen up, there’s no guaranteeing he’d start playing like Tree. But what does Woods have to lose? “What people crave from Tiger is intimacy, is authenticity,” says Shipnuck, who in his years covering the tour has seen glimpses of Woods’ humorous, more human side. It’s there, he swears. “People want to cheer for him, but he hasn’t given them a reason to, both on and off the course.”

So if you’re Woods, why not grab this chance at reinvention? “Ultimately, we’d all benefit,” says Shipnuck. “And he’d benefit too.”

Just ask Tree.

See pictures of Tiger Woods’ best victory moments.

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