November 21, 2019
Roaring Back: The Fall and Rise of Tiger Woods. By Curt Sampson. Diversion Books. $26.99.
Some people love reading about celebrities whom they will never meet and never interact with, imagining themselves in circumstances in which they rub shoulders (or other body parts) with people who are famous primarily for being famous. Some people love reading about sports figures whose abilities to bash into each other at high speed while wearing loads of padding and helmets, throw a round ball through a hoop, swing a long piece of metal or wood, or otherwise perform acts wholly unrelated to non-sports-figures’ lives, have made them extremely rich. And some people love reading about sports figures who are celebrities, a sort of two-in-one fantasyland of imagined interaction.
For those people, there is Roaring Back. As the subtitle clearly indicates, this is about Tiger Woods, who is famous for being famous and also famous for succeeding at golf – not that he always succeeded, which is what makes the “fall and rise” portion of the subtitle possible. Like innumerable other fan-centric books, Curt Sampson’s is hagiography disguised as journalism, or at least as informational communication. Sampson is a longtime, well-respected golf writer, and his book is very clearly targeted at people who are knowledgeable about professional golf and fascinated by its intricacies and by the major players in it. The “celebrity” elements are actually somewhat downplayed here, with little attention given to Woods’ divorce and the multiple affairs that led to it, or to his eventual treatment for sex addiction – the kind of information over which celebrity worshippers positively drool. But that material is widely, maybe too widely, available elsewhere, and although Sampson needs some of it for “fall” material, his primary interest is in Woods’ “rise.”
The specific occasion of that “rise” is Woods’ victory at the 2019 Masters tournament, which golf writers unanimously proclaimed to be one of the wonders of the age. Sampson spends a lot of time giving detailed, indeed very detailed, information on that event. For example, he writes extensively about the Par Three 12th hole of the Augusta National course and its importance to Woods’ eventual victory. It helps, a lot, to be comfortable with golf jargon and Sampson’s constant use of it in his descriptive passages: just in regard to this specific course, he writes about Rae’s Creek, the Amen Corner, and much more. Sampson’s discussion of the Augusta National course comes entirely from an insider’s perspective – this is not a book for anyone unfamiliar with the nitty-gritty of professional golf or uninterested in its minutiae. It also helps to know a bit about some golfers other than Woods, especially Brooks Koepka, Tony Finau and Francis Molinari, who were neck-and-neck with Woods (to mix a horse-racing metaphor with golf) well into the last round of the 2019 Masters.
Sampson inserts himself into his narrative from time to time, perhaps trying to personalize rather than “celebritize” matters for readers, but these sections come across as awkward: “Relationships require skillful give and take to work, as well as luck, magic, and some other element hidden to me, perhaps astrology.” However, his writing about golf is punchy (a boxing metaphor there) and very much in-the-know – and is quite clearly aimed at others who are equally in-the-know, or wish they were. And as usual with what is essentially a rah-rah book about someone’s heroic deeds (and do not tell a rabid sports fan that celebrity sports people are not heroic), the book concludes with a kind of “what’s next?” speculation, as Sampson wonders whether the “rise” of Woods will lead to still greater things in the future or will prove to have been a pinnacle of recovery after which matters will remain, at best, static, or will deteriorate either slowly or more quickly. Anyone who thinks about those possibilities with a “who cares?” attitude is emphatically not in the audience for Roaring Back. With its eight pages of photos inside and its big picture of an exuberant Woods dominating the cover, this is a celebrate-the-celebrity book in which the importance of professional golf and its players is never to be questioned, much less analyzed or debated. It is strictly for people intrigued by those players and how they play, not for anyone wondering why any of this matters.