PGA – BOOK REVIEW: HANK HANEY’S “THE BIG MISS”

The feelings I’m left with after reading Hank Haney’s book “The Big Miss” were ones I wasn’t expecting.

I would have never anticipated that I would feel disturbed, confused, and disappointed by Haney, rather than illuminated and informed by his account of what it was like coaching Tiger Woods, the world’s greatest golfer at the peak of his prowess.

The trouble stems from the fact that Haney goes beyond describing his golf relationship with Tiger during the time he coached him (from 2004-2010) and instead, splatters the pages with his often personal (and embarrassing) viewpoints of Tiger’s behaviors as a person.  He does this by adding a recounting of what I presume were confidential private moments he had with Tiger personally, Tiger’s former wife Elin, his Mother & Father, children, and caddie Steve Williams.

And, if that isn’t bad enough, Haney’s opinions of Tiger were often very negative.  He paints an overall picture of Tiger as a difficult, moody, revengeful, distant, egotistical and uncaring person who is wrapped up into his own world and cares nothing about anyone else.

Better yet, I’ll use Haney’s own words (on page 132) of how he described Tiger’s qualities: “selfishness, obsessiveness, stubbornness, coldness, ruthlessness, pettiness, and cheapness”.

But, probably the worst of all was Haney’s revelation on page 133 that when Tiger was asked to assess 2006, he said Tiger: “called it his worst year, because of his father’s death.  That comment might have been a bit calculated, the thing he knew other people would be impressed to hear.”

I just can’t help wondering why Haney would do this.  Why couldn’t he just stop at giving us his assessment of Tiger’s swing, explain why he changed it, and describe what he did to try and inspire Tiger over the years?  Further, I wonder why he couldn’t just chock up Tiger’s tough mental attitude to something that was bred into him at an early age which helped him compete in golf and bled into his personal life?

It is true that Haney does afford Tiger several accolades in his book by saying that as a golfer he is a “genius”, “great” and the best ball striker he’s ever seen, as well as admitting that he was Tiger’s “biggest fan”.  But, I can’t get over why Hank Haney included all that negative personal stuff about Tiger Woods, even if he thought it the truth about him at the time.

My sense is that Haney wrote “The Big Miss” as a way of revenge.

Working with Tiger Woods for Haney seemed to be something that could have bordered on hero worship.  At the time, Woods represented the pinnacle hero of the sport that Haney admitted he had an “obsession” with (page 22).

In addition, Haney had a long “fascination” with Tiger in his youth and thought that working with him would vault his career.  He seemed to want a piece of Tiger in a way that would make him famous.

Unfortunately for Haney, it didn’t go as he planned.  Tiger did not give him the adequate public praise he craved professionally, and Tiger would not befriend him deeply as he had hoped for personally.

The first evidence of this obsession Haney seemed to have with Tiger can be found right on pages 8,9, when Haney described his first meeting with a then 17-year old Tiger.  He thought he was “fascinating” and “like everyone in golf” was “excited to see him” not only because of his early accomplishments, but also because he was “famous”.  But, Haney seemed to be disappointed when at that meeting Tiger didn’t “care enough to engage (him) in the least” as Haney was an “adult, a trusted friend of his hosts, and own(ed) the establishment he’s visiting”.  Haney says that he didn’t “take it personally”, but from my own opinion, I think he did.

From Haney’s own account, that first meeting with Tiger was back in 1993. Since he remembers the event in such incredible detail, it must have made an impression on him.  In fact, on page 11, Haney admits that after that moment, he “(filed) Tiger under ‘ultimate case study.’ And that he knew “I’ll be studying him for a long time”.

Over the years following, Haney also admitted to keeping a close eye on Tiger.  He mentions watching him in 1996, in Tiger’s last year at Stanford when he won the NCAA individual championship (pgs 12-13).  Haney remembered the way Tiger played the round and provides Tiger’s quote after the tournament.

In the next several pages of the book, Haney goes into detail about his own game and how he “had a serious problem… one that was extremely frustrating because while I could fix others, I couldn’t fix myself”.  He admitted to having the “yips” and that anxiety was an issue.  He eventually figured out the problem and said “long-term, the real significance of what I went through is that it helped me teach Tiger.” Further, he says, “As luck would have it, I was being brought closer to Tiger.” (page 26)

I know that golf teaching is a very personal thing, but I find it interesting how Haney tries to find a link with his emotional past and Tiger Woods.  Like it was destiny.

It’s similar to the incident Haney described on page 179. It was the final day of 2008 US Open and Tiger was struggling to putt. Haney said he was watching Tiger from a distance at a corporate tent and found a penny on the floor.  He thought about what his mom used to say “Find a penny, pick it up, and all day long you’ll have good luck.”  So he bent over to pick up the penny and Tiger made the putt.  Haney said he kept it all the next day when Tiger would go on to win the championship.  Like it was destiny.

Later, while coaching Mark O’Meara, Haney talked about several Tiger sightings at Isleworth, where Mark & Tiger both lived and were friends.  Haney said his “role” was “one of privileged observer”.  He knew Tiger valued his solitude at Isleworth and kept in the background because Tiger was being coached by Butch Harmon at the time, someone whom he had great respect for.  But, he still “enjoyed getting to know Tiger in those early days”.  He admitted that Tiger seemed a “little more innocent, a little less guarded, a lot less cynical than he’d become”, but “sometimes I even felt a little sorry for him”.

However, Haney went further by saying, “But I also realized my attraction to Tiger was about his being ‘Tiger Woods’ – something bigger and more mythic than the young man himself.  What drew me to him was his being potentially the greatest golfer of all time, not his personality.  Because of my passion for understanding the game, Tiger was going to be interesting to me no matter what he was like.” (page 30) Very telling.

Further on, as Tiger was winding down with Butch Harmon & not improving in his golf game, Haney indicates that Mark O’Meara recommended him as a coach to Tiger.  Surprisingly, Haney includes the conversation in quotes (pg 36).  Since the conversation took place on Tiger’s private jet just between O’Meara and Woods, how did Haney know what exact words were used?  Even if O’Meara told him what was said, did Haney then put the words down in a journal?  This was early 2004.

On the day when Tiger called him to ask him to be his coach, Haney describes it as the day “my life has just changed forever.  I’m talking to Tiger Woods, the greatest golfer who’s ever lived, and he’s asking me to be his coach.” (pg 38)  He adds later, “I know the thing I’m looking forward to most is getting the opportunity to intimately understand Tiger Woods”.  (pg 39).

Standing on the curb just after his phone call with Tiger, Haney described feeling “stunned”, had “sheer amazement” and “euphoria”.  He also said he thought to himself, “As a golf instructor, I feel as though I’ve won the lottery.  I’m going to gain in stature.  I’m going to be famous.  I’m going to get to try out all my ideas on the ultimate student, and he’s going to prove them so right.” (pg 40)

Of course, I’ve never been a golf instructor and would probably be elated if Tiger wanted to hire me to be his coach.  But, Haney’s thoughts describe his impending relationship with Tiger as more than just a business arrangement.  Haney seemed to be expecting something out of the experience.  Namely, the world was going to be witness to his ideas as an instructor through his famous student.

This is the crux of where it seems to go wrong for Haney causing his seeming bitterness towards Tiger.   He seemed to set himself up for false expectations and in the end, blamed Tiger Woods when it didn’t come to fruition.

In fact, as their relationship rolls along, Haney says that Tiger fought back on much of his advice.  Even on the first day with Tiger, Haney “realized right away that [Tiger] was going to be a difficult student, that he wasn’t going to accept everything I said.”  (pg 43) .

Further, Haney said he realized soon that Tiger wasn’t as good a golfer as he thought he was.  He said he received Tiger as a “diminished golfer” in 2004 “who’d lost many of his old advantages over the other top players.” He admitted that if Tiger had not improved and won more, as his new coach, “I was going to get the blame”.

This explains why Haney seems compelled to go into such fine detail in subsequent chapters about who he thought Tiger was as a golfer and what his many weaknesses were, including revealing that Tiger was later “distracted” by his obsession with being a Navy Seal (Chapter 5) and the fact that he hid injuries from Haney that were caused by secret military “sojourns”.  Haney also goes into length about Tiger’s being “inordinately interested in muscle-building”… “for a golfer” (pg 149) which he claims affected his touch in the short game and putting.

Basically, if Haney was going to storm the world vicariously through the world’s greatest golfer, he realized it wasn’t going to be easy and in fact, may not happen at all.  So, Haney justifies in the book what he had to deal with and blames much of Tiger’s lack of success with him as a coach on Tiger himself.

On the personal side, Haney often comes across as a jilted lover in much of his description of his and Tiger’s relationship.  He seemed to crave affection and closeness with Tiger, but it was not reciprocated. And, while he seemed to understand that Tiger wouldn’t let anyone “get close” (pg 73) and that his “self-centeredness” helped him on the golf course, Haney still seemed to think “a kind of communication would evolve, but it never did.”

For example, even if they spent a lot of time together on/off the course, Haney mentions that Tiger was always distant.  He provides examples like when he would often eat dinner at Tiger’s home with him and Elin, Tiger would often get up from the table when he was done & simply leave.  Haney also describes occasions when Tiger would often get a popsicle for himself, but never offer any to him.

Haney also describes moments when Tiger would be warm and generous on the golf course (offering opinions on his golf game), but as soon as they would go back home, it was “awkward” with Tiger.  As a result, Haney admitted to wanting more “substantive life conversations” with Tiger and “welcomed that” (pg 77).

When it all came to a head for Haney was just after Tiger’s 2009 “disgrace” or public exposure of his multiple marital infidelities.  The incident had Tiger away from golf for awhile and off to a clinic in Mississippi for “therapy”.  When Tiger got back, Haney seemed to feel a sense of hope that the whole experience would make Tiger a “more self-aware and contented person”.

Further, Haney said that during this time, Tiger would occasionally open up to him and revealed “intimate” thoughts, the likes of which he never heard before from Tiger.  Haney seemed to be excited that he could finally break through to him.  He offered him lots of support (page 205), but it wouldn’t last long.

During the 2010 Masters when Tiger tried to make a comeback, the golf wasn’t coming easily for Tiger and his negative attitude towards Haney made him snap.  In the end, Haney finally realized that he wasn’t going to break through to Tiger the person.  He wrote, “For six years, I’d adapted to the way Tiger chose to be, even when I found him difficult.  I had much to gain.  I wanted to be part of golf history.  I wanted to better understand what it took to be great.  I wanted to contribute to greatness.”

Further, Haney goes on to describe on page 217 that it was Tiger’s “concept of friendship” that caused him to end his relationship with him.  He hated that Tiger “threw the term [of friendship] around so liberally, using it to describe his relationship with people he barely interacted with, that I had to reassess what ‘friendship’ really meant in my case.”

Still, one can’t help but to think Haney saw the writing on the wall.  Steve Williams’ relationship with Tiger was getting bad and about to end.  And, Haney was in fear that he would be “fire[d]”. (page 217) He said “I always knew that day would come”.  Perhaps Haney wanted to end it on his own before Tiger had a chance to do it.

Of course, Haney wanted to let everyone know (via Chapter 8) that even after all the negativity he experienced with him, Tiger had a better winning percentage with him than with Butch Harmon, despite the fact that he won more majors with Harmon.  Haney also tries to make us believe that if he had tutored Tiger at a younger age like when Butch had him (page 234), he may have fared better.  He seems to try and theorize that Tiger may have had a greater lack of improvement with him because he received an “older Tiger” with more “pressure” and “greater sense of restlessness robbing him of his focus”, making him a “more difficult athlete to coach when I encountered him”.

Finally, as if to put bullets in a dead body, Haney gives us his “wish list” of how things could have been different with Tiger (pages 235-236).  All of that tells me that Haney never really lived in the reality of the situation.  He had built up expectations for himself and for Tiger Woods, and their relationship together, all of which were probably never attainable.

The bottom-line is that Haney wanted to use Tiger to put his arms around “greatness”, but he couldn’t get close.

So, who would I recommend this book to?  Only to those persons who turn their heads to look deeply at car crashes or other similar disasters on the side of the road.  Because that is what this book feels like to me.

While I was interested in learning more about Tiger and his golf game, I didn’t want it this way.  I don’t like feeling used by the author who wanted to put forth his arrogant and weird desires for greatness via what accounts to me as simply a distant superstar.

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