And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths …
The Tragedy of MacBeth
Act I, scene 3 132-3 (1606)
This year’s Masters demonstrated, once again, the truism that nobody watches golf without Tiger Woods: last year’s Masters, played without Tiger, had the lowest ratings since 1957, while the ratings for this year’s Saturday’s round (featuring a charging Woods), were up nearly half again as much. So much is unsurprising; what was surprising, perhaps, was the reappearance of a journalistic fixture from the days of Tiger’s past: the “pre-Masters Tiger hype story.” It’s a reoccurance that suggests Tiger may be taking cues from another ratings monster: the television series Game of Thrones. But if so—with a nod to Ramsey Snow’s famous line in the show—it suggests that Tiger himself doesn’t think his tale will have a happy ending.
The prototype of the “pre-Masters” story was produced in 1997, the year of Tiger’s first Masters win: before that “win for the ages,” it was widely reported how the young phenom had shot a 59 during a practice round at Isleworth Country Club. At the time the story seemed innocuous, but in retrospect there are reasons to interrogate it more deeply—not to say it didn’t happen, exactly, but to question whether it was released as part of a larger design. After all, Tiger’s father Earl—still alive then—would have known just what to do with the story.
Earl, as all golf fans know, created and disseminated the myth of the invincible Tiger to anyone who would listen in the late 1990s: “Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity,” Gary Smith quoted him saying in the Sports Illustrated story (“The Chosen One”) that, more than any other, sold the Gospel of Woods. There is plenty of reason to suspect that the senior Woods deliberately created this myth as part of a larger campaign: because Earl, as a former member of the U.S. Army’s Green Berets, knew the importance of psychological warfare.
“As a Green Beret,” writes John Lamothe in an academic essay on both Woods, elder and junior, Earl “would have known the effect … psychological warfare could have on both the soldier and the enemy.” As Tiger himself said in a 1996 interview for Orange Coast magazine—before the golfer put up a barrier between himself and the press—“Green Berets know a lot about psychological torture and things like that.” Earl for his part remarked that, while raising Tiger, he “pulled every dirty, nasty trick I could remember from psychological warfare I learned as a Green Beret.” Both Woods described this training as a matter of rattling keys or ripping Velcro at inopportune moments—but it’s difficult not to wonder whether it went deeper.
At the moment of their origin in 1952 after all, the Green Berets, or Special Forces, were a subsection of the Psychological Warfare Staff at the Pentagon: psychological warfare, in other words, was part of their founding mission. And as Lamothe observes, part of the goal of psychological warfare is to create “confidence” in your allies “and doubt in the competitors.” As early as 2000, the sports columnist Thomas Boswell was describing how Tiger “tries to imprint on the mind of every opponent that resistance is useless,” a tactic that Boswell claimed the “military calls … ‘overwhelming force’”—and a tactic that is far older than the game of golf. Consider, for instance, a story from golf’s homeland of Scotland: the tale of the “Douglas Larder.”
It happened at a time of year not unfamiliar to viewers of the Masters: Palm Sunday, in April of 1308. The story goes that Sir James Douglas—an ally of Robert the Bruce, who was in rebellion against the English king Edward I—returned that day to his family’s home, Douglas Castle, which had been seized by the English. Taking advantage of the holiday, Douglas and his men—essentially, a band of guerrillas—slaughtered the English garrison within the church they worshipped in, then beheaded them, ate the Easter feast the Englishmen had no more use for, and subsequently poisoned the castle’s wells and destroyed its supplies (the “Larder” part of the story’s title). Lastly, Douglas set the English soldiers’ bodies afire.
To viewers of the television series Game of Thrones, or readers of the series of books it is based upon (A Song of Ice and Fire), the story might sound vaguely familiar: the “Douglas Larder” is, as popular historian William Rosen has pointed out, one source of the event known from the television series as the “Red Wedding.” Although the television event also borrows from the medieval Scot “Black Dinner” (which is perhaps closer in terms of the setting), and the later incident known as the Massacre at Glencoe, still the “Red Wedding” reproduces the most salient details of the “Douglas Larder.” In both, the attackers take advantage of their prey’s reliance on piety; in both, the bodies of the dead are mutilated in order to increase the monstrous effect.
To a modern reader, such a story is simply a record of barbarism—forgetting that medieval people were, though far less educated, equally as intelligent as nearly anyone alive today. Douglas’ actions were not meant for horror’s sake, but to send a message: the raid on the castle “was meant to leave a lasting impression … not least upon the men who came to replace their dead colleagues.” Acts like his attack on his own castle demonstrate how the “Black Douglas”—“mair fell than wes ony devill in hell” according to a contemporary account—was “an early practitioner of psychological warfare”: he knew how “fear alone could do much of the work of a successful commander.” It seems hardly credible to think Earl Woods—a man who’d been in combat in the guerrilla war of Vietnam—did not know the same lesson. Nor is it credible to think that Earl didn’t tell Tiger about it.
Certainly, Tiger himself has been a kind of Douglas: he won his first Masters by 12 shots, and in the annus mirabilis of 2000 he won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by 15. Displays like that, many have thought, functioned similarly, if less macabrely, as Douglas’ attacks. The effect has even been documented academically: in 2008’s “Dominance, Intimidation, and ‘Choking’ on the PGA Tour,” professors Robert Connolly and Richard Rendleman found that being paired with Tiger cost other tour pros nearly half a shot per round from 1998 to 2001. The “intimidation factor,” that is, has been quantified—so it seems jejune at best to think somebody connected to Tiger, even if he had not been aware of the effect in the past, would not have called his attention to the research.
Releasing a story prior to the Masters, then, can easily be seen as part of an attempt to revive Tiger’s heyday. But what’s interesting about this particular story is its difference from the 1997 version: then, Tiger just threw out a raw score; now, it’s being dressed in a peculiarly complicated costume. As retailed by Golf Digest’s Tim Rosaforte, the story goes like this: on the Tuesday before the tournament Tiger had “recently shot a worst-ball 66 at his home course, Medalist Golf Club.” In Golf Digest, Alex Meyers in turn explained that “a worst-ball 66 … is not to be confused with a best-ball 66 or even a normal 66 for that matter,” because what “worst-ball” means is that “Woods played two balls on each hole, but only played the worst shot each time.” Why not just say, as in 1997, Tiger shot some ridiculously low number?
The answer, I think, can be understood by way of the “Red Wedding”: just as George Martin, in order to write the A Song of Ice and Fire books, has revisited and revised many episodes of medieval history, so too is Tiger attempting to revisit his own past—a conclusion that would be glib were it not for the very make-up of this year’s version of the pre-Masters story itself. After all, to play a “worst-ball” is to time-travel: it is, in effect, to revise—or rewrite—the past. Not only that, but—and in this it is very much like both Scottish history and Game of Thrones—it is also to guarantee a “downer ending.” Maybe Tiger, then, is suggesting to his fans that they ought to pay more attention.