On Tuesday, New York Times best-selling author Jeff Benedict, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Armen Keteyian, a CBS correspondent, released a far-reaching project — an unauthorized biography of Tiger Woods.
The tag-team of Benedict and Keteyian interviewed more than 250 people about golf’s most polarizing character. "Tiger Woods" received glowing reviews from the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg Businessweek and The New York Times. It's currently No. 7 on Amazon's top new releases list and No. 17 overall.
On Wednesday, amidst interviews at ESPN, Benedict spent an hour speaking with the Deseret News about his deep dive into the life of a man he calls “a living legend” and the confidence he has in the accuracy of his reporting.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DN: How did you even find some of these people like Mike Mohler, the man who dug Earl Woods’ grave, who you open the book with?
JB: (Laughs) There’s not really one answer to that. ... The simple answer I guess is that once you know the stories that you want to tell in the narrative, you start figuring out the places you’re going to focus in your writing, you just try to identify people in those sections who can help tell those stories.
There’s a lot of people in this book that we didn’t know when we were doing our research, like Peggy Lewis, the woman who owned the house in Augusta that Tiger stayed in, or Dina, his high school girlfriend. Those were sources that we found as we were researching and coming across and we tried to interview a lot of those kind of people because they’d never talked before. Like the sexton at the cemetery, no one had ever interviewed him. No one had ever interviewed Peggy Lewis. No one had ever interviewed the guy who taught him how to scuba dive. We tried to find lots of people like that who could tell compelling stories and who had never spoken before.
DN: The New York Times review ... compared the book to a Christopher Nolan movie and said, “It makes a sweet sound, like a well-struck golf ball.” The only criticism it seemed to have was that it might be too confident. I sensed your confidence in the book. How are you able to be so confident that you and Armen got this right?
JB: First of all, you have to be by the time you turn it into your editor. If you’re not then you shouldn’t turn it in. If you have doubt about the accuracy of what you’ve written, then you shouldn't be showing it to your editor and saying, “Let’s publish this.” So that’s the result of three years of grinding and then polishing and fact-checking and going through the rigorous process of making sure that the people you’ve talked to, that you’ve quoted them accurately, that the things they’ve said are actually true, that the documents you’ve pulled say things that are real. We had done all that. There were things that we also learned that we weren’t as confident about and so we didn’t put them in the book.
DN: What do you think is to be learned from Tiger’s life about parents’ influence on their children?
JB: That’s a big question. There are a lot of parents in this country and I’m sure in others that would love to see their child, boy or girl, grow up to be a collegiate athlete or an Olympian or a professional athlete in some sport, tennis, football, whatever. And parents are always looking for ways to give their children that advantage or the edge to be better and there is a part of that in this story where you see two parents who literally dedicated everything to turning their child into the greatest golfer who has ever lived and on that score, they succeeded. And you can see the things they did that enabled that to happen. And obviously, you can judge for yourself whether it was worth it.
DN: As a family man yourself, did reading and researching how Earl treated his son or how Tiger behaved in his marriage, did that ever get under your skin at all?
JB: No, it didn’t. To be totally honest with you, when I was a beginner, I might have answered that question differently and said "yes." But no, and that’s just because I have a better understanding and appreciation for the responsibility of a journalist today.
What he did ... that’s actually already known to the reader, that he did those things. What’s not known to the reader is why he did those things. So what we’re focusing on is the “Why?” and when you’re focusing on the why, you can’t go into that with an eye toward judgment. If you go into it already disliking this person because he’s cheated on his wife a hundred times, that’s going to actually taint the way you process and write about the why question. It slants your writing in a way that’s actually not only not good for the subject but it’s not really good for your reader either.
DN: Do you think taking a deep dive into Tiger’s life will have any effect on your life from here on out?
JB: Absolutely. That happens with every book or every major story. I wouldn’t say that about an 800-word piece in the New York Times or something, but when you spend six months profiling someone and you really get into their life, or three months on a book, it absolutely affects my life.
DN: In what ways would you say it affected your life?
JB: Sometimes I would get in bed at night and I would just be grateful that I grew up the way I did. I thought about that a lot working on this book. I grew up in a pretty simple, modest home. We didn’t have much and my parents didn’t go to college. I lived in a blue-collar neighborhood but working on books like this, not that I didn’t already know this, but it’s a reminder that I was really lucky, fortunate to grow up where I did.
It also made me think about my relationship with my family, with my own kids, with my spouse. It’s hard not to think about those things when you’re working on projects that are this intimate. It also made me think a lot about the way we judge people. I couldn’t help thinking about that because Tiger Woods has been scrutinized more than anyone I’ve ever written about and Armen and I didn’t want to be those guys who were doing that again. We didn’t want to just write something that was judgmental. We wanted to write something that was understanding and there’s a huge difference between the two. Frankly, it’s a lot easier to just judge and hammer than it is to try to understand and then write with some degree of empathy. And yet, write with honesty. It’s not like you can skip over the warts. You can’t do that.
DN: There’s quite a bit of profanity in the book. Were you ever uncomfortable with the amount of profanity or was there conversation regarding how much to include?
JB: The short answer to the first question is no. ... It’s a biography about a living legend so the authenticity of that story is critical to the success rate of that book and of how it will or will not resonate with the reader. And one thing that would destroy the credibility of this book immediately is if it didn’t ring true to the legions of people who know pieces of this man’s life, so that was a pretty easy call in terms of how we dealt with that in the narrative.
DN: You have a reputation for doing whatever it takes to get a story. I was watching a speech you gave where you talked about sleeping on a cot in Compton.
JB: (Laughs) I remember that.
DN: And you also once said that you hid in the back of taxi to get onto an Indian reservation while writing “Without Reservation.” What drives you to work so hard to get a story as a journalist?
JB: I think one of the most important things for storytellers, whether you’re making a documentary film or writing a book, is you have to be endlessly curious. I think curiosity is obviously not something you can teach in journalism school. ... And in a book like this, there’s a lot that you have to be curious about. In other words, you can’t just be curious about Tiger. You need to be curious about all of these ancillary players in his life that you’re also writing about. You’ve mentioned all of these anecdotes with all of these different people, we need to be just as curious about those people and those stories because we’re writing about them, too. So I think it’s just a desire to be complete.
My dad was a plumber, which isn’t very glamorous and nobody cares what plumbers do unless your toilet breaks, but the thing about my dad is he was a relentless perfectionist. I remember he used to polish with a rag the rings and the washers that connected the pipes to the back of the toilet. And I would say, “Why are you doing that? No one can see that. It’s behind the dang toilet. No one will be able to see that.” But my dad was like, “I put it on there and I want it to shine.” And that’s how he was. So a lot of things we do in a book, people never see. They don’t see probably 90 percent of the hard work that goes into making the Tiger Woods book shine, things that Armen and I did that no one will ever know about.
DN: In the past, you’ve written several things about people who are members of the LDS Church. You wrote Jabari Parker’s Sports Illustrated cover story and you’ve also been vocal about social issues within the LDS Church. What do you see as your role within the church in regard to these issues?
JB: I don’t think I have a role within the church, but as a member of the Mormon faith, I think there’s a certain responsibility that comes with writing about certain issues that are relevant and meaningful to not only our church but to the public at large. The barometer for me to figure out what those issues are is very simple: It’s what all my colleagues in my profession ask me about the most. How do I know when I should write something that pertains to the Mormon faith? Pretty easy: When Armen and my 40 other friends that I work with who are not Mormons, when they want to talk about my faith, what are they asking me about?
DN: You’re very good at promoting the things that you’re writing about. What do you feel like is the secret to your success and what role does confidence play in that?
JB: Purely from a business standpoint, it doesn’t do any good to write something great that no one knows about.
There are hundreds, thousands of books published every year in the United States, non-fiction, full-length books. Thousands of them and if I tested you right now, I’d be surprised if you could name 12 by title. And you’re no different than the rest of us; that is a fact of life and culture. The quest is how to get your book to be one of those 12 that everybody knows about and it’s really important.
Writing is not just some art form where you sit around in your comfortable beach house and spin yarns. There’s a whole different element that’s a lot of work and it’s the part we’re in right now where you have to get out and market and talk about what you’ve written. And you have to do it on radio, you have to do it on television, you have to do it in digital formats.
I actually like that part because I enjoy talking to other journalists.
DN: It seems incredibly fortuitous that Tiger is playing well right now. How do you feel as a journalist seeing that timing come together?
JB: When we made the decision to publish the book in the spring of 2018, Tiger wasn’t playing at all. He was physically incapacitated and was out of golf so it’s not like we were some smart group of people sitting around looking at calendars.
We could not have foreseen that this is what would be going on now.
Then, as we got close to the deadline, we realized “Holy cow, this guy’s starting to play again.” And now we really had fire because we were starting to realize that, “Oh my gosh, this could come out around the time that we could be finishing." The original publish date was mid-May and in January, we decided as a publishing house to move that date up to now. It was a modest way to take advantage of timing.
DN: You don’t seem to shy away from being a Mormon. What role does faith play in the life of a journalist tackling projects like this?
JB: First of all, I’ve certainly never shied away from being who I am, as an adult. As a child, I was shy about a lot of things. My religion was one of them, but since I’ve been a professional, I’ve never ever shied away from who I am and trying to be true to that all the time.
For me, the area where there’s the most crossover is when I get into a theme like redemption. That’s a theme that I’ve had a lot of intimate familiarity with, partly because of the religion I’ve been raised in. It is the central theme of Christianity; that’s what it’s all about. I guess when I started latching onto that as a journalist, I don’t know if it was influenced by that but I certainly know that there was a connection to it. It’s made me think deeper and more richly about what redemption really means in the sense of Christianity and the Bible and the things that Jesus Christ said and stands for.
DN: After all the research and the writing, what did you think of Tiger?
JB: I came away from it with a lot more empathy for him. If I really button it up into one word, I would say empathy. You can’t have genuine empathy for someone unless you have some understanding of who they are. And I think that was the best thing for me — when I came away feeling like I understood him.
It’s easy to sit back and look at other people and layer our judgment over their life. And there’s so much danger in doing that. You haven’t walked in that person’s life. You don’t really know what you would do.
It’s sort of like spectators. When you’re sitting in the stands criticizing what someone is doing on the field, well, let me put a helmet on you and put you on the field and put the ball in your hands with everybody watching and let’s see what you do. It’s different and Tiger’s case really drove that point home for me in many, many ways. I just felt an immense amount of appreciation that I got to tell his story.
Postscript: On Wednesday, Woods' representatives, manager Mark Steinberg and chief spokesperson Glenn Greenspan, responded with a 648-word statement, saying that the book is “littered with egregious errors” and that Benedict and Keteyian “can’t even manage basic truth and accuracy," according to Golf.com.
The statement, which Golf.com described as "sharply worded," said that the authors "gave us no chance whatsoever to verify any of the material, which resulted in a long string of errors in the book."
It also reads: "Most of the thoughts and feelings that they attribute to Tiger are either second-hand or flat out made up. It's hard to imagine that two guys who have never met or spoken to Tiger can legitimately guess what he or his family were thinking."
Benedict responded to the Deseret News with a statement that reads in part: "We weren’t surprised by their reaction. This is a classic case of trying to kill the messenger without actually acknowledging the message. Between January 2016 and February 2018, we made repeated attempts to interview Tiger himself through his representatives, Glenn Greenspan and Mark Steinberg. As we write in our book, they imposed conditions for Tiger’s cooperation that no serious journalist would accept.Comment on this story
"As for our sourcing and research, as responsible biographers we are very open in our book about the use of Tiger’s own extensive written and public statements as a crucial source of insights, facts and reflections. We credit these and other previously written books and articles about Tiger Woods for providing valuable reference and verification for our narrative. ... But let us be clear: We stand by the accuracy of our reporting and are proud to have produced a critically acclaimed book that answers a question many have asked for many years: Who is Tiger Woods?"
The authors also addressed the issue on ESPN’s Outside The Lines. Editor's note: The author, Morgan Jones, attended Southern Virginia University where she took a writing class from Jeff Benedict in 2007. She went on to work as an intern for Benedict for two semesters in 2008.