Slaying the Tiger: A Year Inside the Ropes on the New PGA Tour

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9780553390667: Slaying the Tiger: A Year Inside the Ropes on the New PGA Tour

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER · In Slaying the Tiger, one of today’s boldest young sportswriters spends a season inside the ropes alongside the rising stars who are transforming the game of golf.

For more than a decade, golf was dominated by one galvanizing figure: Eldrick “Tiger” Woods. But as his star has fallen, a new, ambitious generation has stepped up to claim the crown. Once the domain of veterans, golf saw a youth revolution in 2014. In Slaying the Tiger, Shane Ryan introduces us to the volatile, colorful crop of heirs apparent who are storming the barricades of this traditionally old-fashioned sport.

As the golf writer for Bill Simmons’s Grantland, Shane Ryan is the perfect herald for the sport’s new age. In Slaying the Tiger, he embeds himself for a season on the PGA Tour, where he finds the game far removed from the genteel rhythms of yesteryear. Instead, he discovers a group of mercurial talents driven to greatness by their fear of failure and their relentless perfectionism. From Augusta to Scotland, with an irreverent and energetic voice, Ryan documents every transcendent moment, every press tent tirade, and every controversy that made the 2014 Tour one of the most exciting and unpredictable in recent memory.

Here are indelibly drawn profiles of the game’s young guns: Rory McIlroy, the Northern Irish ace who stepped forward as the game’s next superstar; Patrick Reed, a brash, boastful competitor with a warrior’s mentality; Dustin Johnson, the brilliant natural talent whose private habits sabotage his potential; and Jason Day, a resilient Aussie whose hardscrabble beginnings make him the Tour’s ultimate longshot. Here also is the bumptious Bubba Watson, a devout Christian known for his unsportsmanlike outbursts on the golf course; Keegan Bradley, a flinty New Englander who plays with a colossal chip on his shoulder; twenty-one-year-old Jordan Spieth, a preternaturally mature Texan carrying the hopes of the golf establishment; and Rickie Fowler, the humble California kid striving to make his golf speak louder than his bright orange clothes.

Bound by their talent, each one hungrier than the last, these players will vie over the coming decade for the right to be called the next king of the game. Golf may be slow to change, but in 2014, the wheels were turning at a feverish pace. Slaying the Tiger offers a dynamic snapshot of a rapidly evolving sport.

Praise for Slaying the Tiger

“This book is going to be controversial. There is no question about it. . . . It is the most unvarnished view of the tour—the biggest tour in the world—that I’ve ever read. And it’s not close.”—Gary Williams, Golf Channel

“A must-read for PGA Tour fans from the casual to the most dedicated . . . This book is certain to be as important to this era as [John] Feinstein’s [A Good Walk Spoiled] was two decades ago. . . . A well-researched, in-depth look at the men who inhabit the highest levels of the game.”—Examiner.com

“A masterfully written account of an important time in golf history.”—Adam Fonseca, Golf Unfiltered

“Absolutely marvelous . . . Ryan’s writing flows and his reporting turns pages for you.”—Kyle Porter, CBS Sports

“A riveting read.”—Library Journal

“Ryan’s fresh look is just what we golfer/readers want.”—Curt Sampson, New York Times bestselling author of Hogan

“Ryan does a fantastic job painting a thoughtful and accurate portrait of the new crop of heirs apparent.”—Stephanie Wei, Wei Under Par

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About the Author:

Shane Ryan has written about golf, college basketball, and baseball for various outlets, including ESPN The Magazine, Golf Digest, Deadspin, and Grantland. He also writes about music, film, and TV for Paste magazine. He grew up in Saranac Lake, New York, went to school at Duke University, and now lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his wife, Emily.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

Antalya, Turkey

Victor’s Sunday

Victor Dubuisson opened his eyes on that November morning in Antalya, Turkey—more than a thousand miles southeast of his childhood home in France, but on the coast of the same Mediterranean Sea—hoping for a career-changing victory. He rose in obscurity, ignorant of the season that awaited him—how he’d be shoved onto the biggest stages, paired with giants, and asked not just to walk alongside them, but to win. Ignorant, too, of how the next twenty-four hours would foreshadow the coming year, when a talented generation that had grown sick of waiting drove the sport madly into its new era.

Only the most intense American golf junkies had ever heard his name, and even they couldn’t predict what his day would hold. The anonymous Frenchman, holding the first fifty-four-hole lead of his career—a significant five-shot advantage—was up against the likes of Ian Poulter, Justin Rose, and his idol: the man who had supposedly inspired his love of golf in 1997 with one of the most historic wins in the history of the sport; the man who became golf’s foremost icon, and the high tide on which golf had soared for more than a decade; the one who cast a shadow over the game, even when he was hobbled, even when he was absent; the man who would be chasing the young Frenchman on the final day—Tiger Woods.

•••

I didn’t know Victor yet, and I couldn’t guess how his story would come to fascinate me in 2014. To call the quiet Frenchman inscrutable would be underselling the point—the man was a sphinx, and arranging the puzzle pieces of his life would prove to be a huge challenge. Information of any kind was hard to come by, and on the rare occasions when an interesting nugget slipped through the cracks, you couldn’t trust it. Every quote, and every biographical detail, only deepened the mystery.

A French journalist, for instance, warned me that he liked to exaggerate, and I should have heeded those words when I sat down to hear Dubuisson speak later that season. At Donald Trump’s Doral, Florida, resort, the twenty-three-year-old—with his shoulder-length hair, scruffy goatee, and sleepy eyes—told a room full of reporters that he had more or less finished school by age ten, and spent all his time at the golf course. When a puzzled journalist asked about his parents, he said they weren’t around, and then refused to elaborate.

The story shocked us, and if I had paused to really consider the information, it might have triggered my bullshit detector. After all, he came from France—still, at last check, a participating member of the modern world, and not a place where a ten-year-old vagabond can quit school, live alone, and devote himself to the lonely pursuit of golf. But my skepticism failed me, and I jotted the words in my notebook, happy for a precious sliver of biographical detail.

At that point, I still believed that any golfer not named Tiger Woods was a boring country club kid with no personality. I wasn’t alone. This is a persistent image, and it’s even cultivated by the people in charge. Golf doesn’t need to be cool. The game’s keepers want the faintest hint of the reckless and rash to attract new fans, but not so much that it costs them the old ones. Caution is paramount.

Considering this, you can’t blame me for assuming that the players themselves followed the same formula: offbeat in superficial ways, maybe, but safe and boring in all the ones that matter.

I was wrong. The truth is that professional golf, which exacts a greater psychological toll than any other sport, attracts a motley crew of neurotics. The human landscape of the PGA Tour is strewn with egomaniacs, obsessive-compulsives, manic-depressives, ADHD cases, narcissists, and zealots.

The question is, how did they get this way? Were the players always screwy, and did their afflictions prepare them perfectly for a sport that rewards a certain amount of mental imbalance? Or were they promising youths with bright futures who had their brains twisted into strange shapes by the prolonged tortures of an unrelenting game?

Whatever the case, I believed Dubuisson’s latchkey tale, and so did everyone else. It was odd, yes, but nobody questioned its essential truth. Honesty is at the core of golf’s image, and who could believe this blushing Frenchman was anything other than scrupulously honest? Anyone who saw him perform in front of a microphone—painfully shy, mumbling every answer, eyes fixed on the floor—would know he was incapable of fabricating even the faintest show of enthusiasm, much less an entire childhood. Clearly, young Victor was not trying to mythologize himself; he just wanted to get the hell off the stage. Why would he say something so provocative about his youth, and then refuse to elaborate, unless it was the truth?

What I didn’t know—what would take a year to discover—was that when it came to Victor Dubuisson, simple explanations failed. He had his honest moments, but he could also distort and dissemble with the best of them, and the glare of the spotlight made him react in strange ways. He loved and hated this new attention all at once, and the more famous he grew, the more the balance tilted toward hate. I saw the early stages of this when I asked him what he liked to do for fun.

“Like any young men do, I go to cinema,” he said. The barest hint of a smile, secretive and tight, had crept onto his face. “I don’t know.”

“What’s your favorite movie?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he repeated, and the smile tightened.

I smiled back, wondering if we had just shared some inside joke. I couldn’t quite understand. It would be months before I learned that when Victor smiled, there was nothing friendly about it. It was a sign of fear—of a bashful kid who senses someone probing into a private life he desperately doesn’t want to share. What seemed to me like an innocuous question, an icebreaker about movies, was to him a declaration of war. His smile was half defiance—“how dare you ask me a personal question!”—and half plea—“why won’t you leave me alone?” It was the smile of someone who had been cornered.

I didn’t put it all together until another French journalist, who had been tolerated by Dubuisson after good rounds and scorned after bad ones, laid it out for me.

“You saw Victor smiling at you?” he asked. I nodded. “It means he doesn’t like you.”

A truer picture of Dubuisson would take months to emerge, but in the meantime, we printed what we thought we knew: Eccentric Young French Golf Hermit Quit School at Age Ten, Lived Alone, Hates Media, Especially French, May Be a Deranged Paranoiac. In the golf world, that passed for a salacious story.

Even if he wasn’t a household name, Dubuisson’s résumé pegged him as a future star in Europe. Since turning pro in 2010 after reaching the number 1 amateur ranking in the world, he had managed twelve top-ten finishes on the European Tour. In the midst of this rapid ascent, he set the course record at St. Andrews, the most famous track in the world, with a 62, and by November 2013 he had earned more than one million Euros in a season. His résumé grew, and all he lacked was a win.

As he approached the putting green before his final round in Turkey on that fall morning in 2013—Dubuisson walks with a slow, duck-footed shuffle—he saw his idols spread out before him: Tiger, Rose, Stenson, Poulter. He already knew this was the biggest day of his career, but their presence hammered the point home.

The nerves hit hard on the first tee, but beneath it all were the seeds of confidence. His game had been sharp all week, and his lead was huge. With a good round—hell, even a decent round—nobody could catch him. As he prepared for his opening drive, he hoped simply that the first few holes would pass with no mistakes.

•••

Nine holes later, he had yet to make a birdie. That was the bad news. The worse news was that his playing partner, Poulter, had made three of them to reach -19, and Justin Rose had made four, plus an eagle, to climb up to the same score. Tiger Woods had made three of his own, but a bogey kept him at -17, while Jamie Donaldson lurked at -16.

The good news was that Dubuisson had not made a bogey either, and his overnight lead had kept him two shots clear of the field at -21. Not the ideal start he’d envisioned, but he was heading into the back nine with a lead.

A driver at the tenth, a short par 4, ended up in a bunker near the green, and though his angle wasn’t great, he nearly holed his wedge. A short putt gave him his first birdie of the day, and a bit of relief. But the field kept coming. Poulter birdied 11 to cut the lead to two, and when he bogeyed 12 to give it back, Rose was ready with a birdie of his own on 13 to reach -20. Jamie Donaldson, meanwhile, had taken flight on the back nine, with four birdies propelling him to -19, three behind the leader.

The dreaded moment finally came to pass on the par-3 14th. After missing the green with his tee shot, Dubuisson discovered his ball in an awful lie, from which he had no recourse but to hack out to fifteen feet. As he was preparing to putt, a roar came from somewhere ahead. Victor didn’t know it, but Jamie Donaldson’s tee shot on the 16th had just gone in the hole. The ace sent the Welshman to -21. When Dubuisson’s par putt sailed past the hole a moment later, forcing him to settle for bogey, he had officially blown his cushion.

Before he could catch his breath, Justin Rose birdied the 16th, and the three golfers now stood knotted at -21. Four holes remained.

Losing the big lead had a paradoxical effect on Dubuisson—it calmed him down. The burden he’d carried all day was gone; now he could just play.

His second life began on the 15th hole, a 337-yard par 4. After watching Poulter hit a drive to the front of the green, he pulled his own driver and launched a long, straight bomb of his own. It showed tremendous nerve at a critical time, and with his next shot, a chip that stopped three feet from the cup, he displayed the pinpoint short game that would make him famous later that year. He knocked in his birdie putt, and followed that by stiffing an iron into the par-3 16th, leaving himself ten feet for another birdie. He two-putted for par, though, and after his drive on the 17th, Jamie Donaldson finished his round with yet another birdie, tying for the lead at -22 with a brilliant Sunday 63.

With two holes left, Tiger and Poulter had faded, and Justin Rose finished with a bogey. Donaldson was the last opponent standing, and Dubuisson needed just a single birdie for his first win—or, alternatively, just one bogey for a devastating loss. He hit his approach on 17 to about thirty-five feet, which seemed to take him out of birdie range—even the best putters in the game don’t sink more than 10 percent of their putts from outside twenty-five feet.

As the putt ran toward the hole, he could tell the speed was perfect. He felt like he’d pulled it a shade left, but as it ran closer and closer, it broke slowly back to the right. Dubuisson watched the putt track, and at the final moment, it curled one last inch, caught the outside lip of the cup, and dropped. He pumped his fist downward, frantically like he was punching an invisible tabletop.

“Seventeen was the big one,” he told me later, “as you can probably tell by my reaction! I laugh at that when I watch it again but it was a really massive moment.”

In truth, the reaction was far more muted than most players would allow themselves with even less at stake. For the shy Frenchman, though, it passed for jubilation.

He took this energy to the 18th hole, a shot ahead of Donaldson and needing only a par for his win.

He managed to keep his first two shots in play on his final hole, leaving himself a short pitch to the flag. Par was almost a guarantee at that point, but standing over his third shot, he felt more nervous than he ever had in his career. It was easy, yes, but easy just meant there was so much to lose.

He backed off the ball, took two short practice swings, settled his body, and took aim. The ball rose lightly over the edge of a greenside bunker, landed on the green, and trickled toward the pin. By the time it stopped, he had left himself a two-putt that even the most anxious professional golfer couldn’t screw up.

He wouldn’t need the second stroke—he holed the birdie to win by two. Dubuisson removed his black Titleist visor, shook hands with Poulter, wiped his brow, and then fled in terror as three friends raced onto the green to douse him with champagne.

Over the next year, Dubuisson would leave his indelible mark on the game, intriguing and baffling and impressing us along the way. For now, he simply conducted his television interviews with that enigmatic style—a raised eyebrow, a Gallic shrug—the look of a man who would be happy to conceal his mystery forever.

What none of us knew, as 2013 wound to a close, was that he was in the vanguard of a movement that would come to transform the sport. Soon there would be others like Victor, young and fearless, waging war on their idols. Many of them were under thirty, and those that weren’t, like Bubba Watson and Sergio Garcia, belonged in spirit to the electric, eccentric successive generation. To a man, they embodied the passion that Tiger Woods had introduced to golf almost twenty years before.

Which was no accident—Tiger was their example, and the man they looked up to as children. He was bigger, badder, and meaner than his opponents, and he inspired a class of players who molded themselves in his image.

When I spoke with Jim Furyk at the Masters, he told me that he actually tried to hide the fact that he played golf in his high school days.

“It was a nerdy, goofy sport to play, and a lot of the kids that weren’t athletic played golf,” he said. “I was embarrassed by it.”

What Tiger did, on an international scale, was to make golf exciting for a new generation. He brought power and style to the sport, and he dazzled the kids who watched him in his prime. Those kids grew up, and they followed his lead. The moment Tiger won his first green jacket, he had anointed his successors—the same children who would one day compete on the same battleground, but with the crucial advantage of youth.

In early 2014, Tiger’s aging body got the better of him, and peers like Phil Mickelson were too battered to pick up the slack. In the vacuum, the balance of power shifted to the young. It spawned a year of evolution, and the season’s defining moments of brilliance and infamy belonged to players like Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth and Martin Kaymer, Patrick Reed and Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson and Jason Day.

Golf’s most exciting season since Tiger’s prime was imminent, and it was presaged on that November Sunday with a victory by an elusive Frenchman on the Mediterranean coast.

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