Book: Young Tiger Woods warned to stay away from Michael Jordan

Tiger Woods,” the new book about — get this — Tiger Woods, is a trove of biographical detail, a comprehensively reported behind-the-scenes look at a man who’s tried to control his public image at every turn. For Woods fans, it’s an incisive look at the way both nature and nurture combined to create one of the most singleminded, hyper-competitive athletes in history; for his detractors, there are plenty of examples of Woods acting in a less-than-sterling fashion. [UPDATE: Woods’ camp has issued a statement sharply criticizing the book; more on that below.]

One of the consistent themes early in the book involves the way that observant people both on the golf course and in the boardroom could see Woods coming from miles away. His preternatural talent and his ever-increasing stash of trophies gathered force long before Woods turned pro with the famous “Hello, world” Nike campaign.

John Merchant, the onetime family lawyer who helped keep the Woods family afloat during Tiger’s days at Stanford with some envelope-pushing financial schemes, was the first to take a look at Woods from a business perspective. And in one of the book’s more fascinating revelations, Merchant offered up a strong warning for the soon-to-be-pro Woods. Tiger, he recommended in 1996, should stay away from two particular athletes: Greg Norman and Michael Jordan.

“I don’t happen to have a lot of respect for Greg Norman as a person, because Greg will take advantage of you to keep his name in the paper,” Merchant said to Woods, according to the book. “He’s on the downside, and you’re on the up.”

A very young Tiger Woods and Greg Norman in 1995. (Getty)
A very young Tiger Woods and Greg Norman in 1995. (Getty)

Jordan, on the other hand, presented a more existential threat to Woods’ public image. “Michael can play basketball as well as anyone who’s ever played the game,” Merchant said. “There isn’t anything else that Michael is good at doing. Nothing! And he’s had too many years of being out there in public. So he’s going to try to use you.”

But while Woods had little trouble putting Norman in the rear-view mirror, Jordan was tougher to shake, for reasons both personal and logical. First, Woods had idolized Jordan for a decade; Woods was right in the elementary-high school wheelhouse when Jordan was winning his first trophies with the Bulls. Second, and more relevant, Jordan was one of the few people on Earth who could understand what it was like to live in the white-hot microscope of fame that Woods vaulted into, one of the few people who knew what it was like to have supreme skill but zero privacy.

“His first instinct at being in the spotlight was to become a recluse,” Jordan said of Woods. “Well, that’s wrong. Believe me, I know. You can’t just go on the golf course and when you’re done go back and lock yourself in your hotel room. I’ve been there; it’s miserable. You can’t just stare at the TV. You lose your sense of society. You’re not living life.”

You know what happens next. Woods lived life to the fullest, reveling in the perks of being a celebrity in places like Las Vegas, where celebrities are very well-protected. And Woods saw Jordan – whom many in the book described as “an aloof, arrogant star who embraced the word entitled with a capital E” – as an inspiration and role model.

“Everybody protected Michael back then because he was the best ever,” one Vegas source told the book’s authors. “Nobody ever talked about [the bad habits of] Michael. Nobody ever told on Michael. Everybody was scared of Michael. And Tiger learned from him.” The book notes Woods’ well-documented cheapness – “PGA Tour representatives were often quietly leaving $100 tips on Tiger’s behalf with locker room attendants at Tour stops to keep his parsimonious ways out of the press” – and while Jordan wasn’t the root cause of that, the book suggests his influence gave Woods a roadmap.

Woods, of course, is two decades past well-meaning advice now. And like Jordan, he’s getting a legitimate second act years after his championship run. We’ll have to wait to see whether Woods can return to his previous championship perch, or whether he’ll be golf’s version of Jordan-on-the-Wizards. Regardless, this is a very different world than the one Woods and Jordan inhabited in the 1990s, and what worked well for them back then might not go over quite so well now.

UPDATE: Woods’ agent Mark Steinberg and Glenn Greenspan, VP of communications for Woods’ TGR Ventures, issued a statement Wednesday afternoon decrying the book and its authors’ journalistic techniques. “Most of the thoughts and feelings that they attribute to Tiger are either second-hand or flat out made up,” the statement reads in part. “It’s hard to imagine that two guys [authors Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian] who have never met or spoken to Tiger can legitimately guess what he or his family were thinking … They insist that they ‘provide a wealth of new insight,’ but without any input from Tiger, Tida Woods, Mark Steinberg or those closest to him, that’s obviously impossible. It’s clear the sources they actually rely on are people that haven’t spoken or interacted with Tiger for many years, most with ulterior motives.”
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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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