Jun
10
2015
Book review: Shane Ryan’s “Slaying the Tiger: A year inside the ropes on the new PGA Tour”
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

Slaying the Tiger

First things first, before you even read this review, you should go and buy this book now. Like, right now.

Shane Ryan embedded himself on the PGA Tour in 2014 —  which we might look back on as the end of the Tiger Woods era and the true rise of the youth revolution — and spent the season traveling from one tour stop to the next, delving into the rising stars in golf with great detail and candor, which resulted in “Slaying the Tiger,” an honest and intriguing take on the highs and lows experienced by Tour pros, along with the often lonely nature of life on the road.

Ryan does a fantastic job painting a thoughtful and accurate portrait of the new crop of heirs apparent — and some of the slightly older group of guys who spent their early careers in the shadow of Woods.

The book is an insider look at golf’s youth movement and changing of the guard that includes amusing anecdotes of the dynamic between the media and players and their handlers. Ryan takes readers inside the press room, sharing snippets of what journalists gossip talk about amongst each other, yet never actually dare to put into print for various reasons, such as losing the favor and trust of the players and their entourages.

With enthusiasm and irreverence, Ryan explores the various personalities of these newer faces in the game and probes into their backgrounds via a bevy of sources, from their parents to their college coaches, to paint intriguing and colorful and sometimes brutally honest portraits of the personalities that have taken over the PGA Tour.

Among the players that Ryan profiles are (bold print via Ballantine Books):

*Twenty-one-year old Jordan Spieth, a preternaturally mature Texan carrying the hopes of the golf establishment 

 “Let me just say,” said Spieth. “I thoroughly enjoy the pro-ams, no matter what the other guys say.”

That was the great white hope in action. I wanted to tell him he didn’t have to lay it on so thick with me, but looking at him, I realized he was totally sincere. This, I thought, is why the keepers of the game love him so much — the crazy bastard actually means it.

*Rory McIlroy, the Northern Irish ace who stepped forward as the game’s next superstar

(Rory’s) silence affected Phil and Rickie. They flashed a glance or two at the bench where Rory sat, and they looked flustered–caught off balance by the fact that he hadn’t said hello. Once it became clear that there would be no words exchanged, they paced the tee box, stared ahead and tried to ignore the best player in the world. The cold shoulder from McIlroy presented them with two options –approach him and blow the thing wide open, or pretend as though it wasn’t happening. They chose the latter.

Their small pantomime grew into a full performance as Rory’s fixed gaze went unbroken. They knew to look upset would show weakness, so they feigned indifference. All the while, they must have been cursing the delays–they longed for the freedom of the fairway, away from this tension, while Rory could have stayed comfortably in that one spot, you sensed, for hours.

It was such a small moment, but I couldn’t forget it…

That, I realized, was the gift of total confidence — a liberating freedom from self-doubt, even while your enemies fight off their own demons and blindly reach for greatness. Rory had the ruthless intelligence of the gangster–the ability to reveal the neuroses in those around him and subconsciously exacerbate and exploit them. His presence dominated the tee box, and he never had to utter a single world. Everybody else–including two of the world’s best players–reacted to him…

…That day in Valhalla, on the sixth tee box, the essential Rory emerged–Rory the alpha dog. The man who owns the moment.

Now, Shane’s take on McIlroy is probably one of the very few parts of the book where I disagree with him. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve known Rory for 3-4 years longer and had one-on-one interactions with him (which Shane unfortunately didn’t get), so I don’t necessarily see Rory as this stone-cold killer. At the same time, Rory’s matured quite a bit in the last four or so years as a person and a golfer, and perhaps I just can’t see past the naive, pseudo-chubby boy I met in 2011. So, I’m not saying Shane’s analysis is wrong by any means — it’s actually quite interesting — but instead, I’m not sure it’s 100% accurate. However, it’s simply a matter of opinion.

*Patrick Reed, a brash, boastful competitor with a warrior’s mentality

Well, most of you are familiar with this story

Before the last round of his college career in the national championship against Harris English, a group of Reed’s Augusta State teammates approached English — one of the most well-liked, easygoing players in the sport — with an emphatic message: They wanted to win a national title, but they hoped English would whip Patrick Reed.

*Dustin Johnson, the brilliant natural talent whose private habits sabotage his potential 

There were times, I admit, when he baffled me. At one point, standing on a tee box, one of his pro-am partners approached to ask for an autograph.

“Is this kosher?” the man asked, holding out a yellow flag that was full of other signatures. Johnson barely acknowledged the newcomer as he signed the flag in an empty space.

“There you go,” he said.

“Will you just write ‘To Steve’?” the man asked, pointing to the signature.

Johnson agreed, or at least seemed to. Slowly–Johnson doe everything with the same languorous pace, as if he’s never been hurried or worried in his entire life–he took the flag and wrote “All the best” above his name.

The man looked again, and hesitated when he realized that the name “Steve” still did not appear anywhere in the signature. He gave it one more shot.

“Do you mind signing it ‘To Steve’?” he asked again.

Johnson slowly looked back. He peered at the flag again, still impossibly calm but a little perplexed, and spotted something.

“Well, they already got their name here,” he said, pointing to the upper-left corner, where another player had written “To Steve” above his own signature.

*Jason Day, a resilient Aussie whose hardscrabble beginnings make him the Tour’s ultimate longshot

Jason remembers his first house as an “old, broken-down home” on Dunsinane Street. The Days never had money to buy new toys, so the whole clan, including Jason’s sisters Yanna and Kim, would sometimes visit the town dump (“the rubbish kip, as Day calls it) to forage. On one trip, Alvin found an old three-wood somebody else had trashed. He had been a decent tennis player in his day, but a toy was a toy, and so he brought it home to his son. Jason was three then, and he took to the club immediately, using it to smash whatever object was handy. The first thing he hit was a tennis ball, and the family legend has is that Alvin declared, on the spot, that his son would be a champion some day.

*Keegan Bradley, a flinty New Englander who plays with a collosal chip on his shoulder

Keegan Bradley taught me an important lesson in 2014, which is that if you have to ask a golfer for an interview more than three times, you’re better off just forgetting the whole thing. By the time our endless miscommunications reached a climax at Bay Hill, we were both so annoyed at each other that a good outcome was basically impossible.

I approached him anyway, on the range, and with a sigh he agreed to make good on our plan to talk. I know now that I should have cut my losses and moved on; instead we marched to an equipment trailer and I made small talk that he ignored while texting his girlfriend. When we sat down, I tried to salvage some goodwill by apologizing for using up his time — a move that he probably saw as insincere, and only made things worse.

On the other hand, the fact that our interview was conducted under duress allowed me to observe a trait of Bradley’s that rarely sees the light of day — the chip on his shoulder. He is a connoisseur of old insults, and uses his resentment as fuel.

*One of my favorite chapters was on Matt Every, who is the exact opposite of the average Tour pro that spouts one cliche after another in interviews. In fact, Every is just the opposite.

When I asked him if he felt “lucky” in the general sense, and then clarified that I didn’t mean “lucky” in the way that outsiders use it—as in, oh, he’s so lucky to be a professional golfer—it set him off on a tangent.

“I’m glad you said that, because it pisses me off when people write, ‘Oh, that guy, I can’t believe he’d say something like that, he should be privileged to play on the PGA Tour!’ ” he said. “Like I got fucking picked out of a lottery. I mean, I’ve worked my ass off to be here. It’s not like they handed me this spot, you know?”

You can read more excerpts from the chapter on Golf.com.

*Ryan rips into Augusta National, likening the operation to North Korea, and basically writes what a fair number of journalists have wanted to say, but for fear of being banned from covering the Masters again, no one — except Ryan — would dare put it into print.

When I finally arrived, things got even stranger. I strolled around the course on Wednesday with a media member who I’m sure would prefer to remain anonymous, and he stopped me on the back nine.

“Look down,” he said. “You see any pinecones?”

I thought it would be easy—the loblolly pines were everywhere, and so was the pine straw—but I couldn’t spot even a single pinecone. What I did see were black men in white jumpsuits, one assigned to each acre, tasked with scooping up any piece of litter—which, to Augusta, apparently includes pinecones—the minute it hit the ground. It was a site, I imagined, that would have delighted Roberts.

“Now look around,” my friend said again. “Find a squirrel.”

I couldn’t find a squirrel. Nobody seems to have any explanation for this, besides the questionable theory that squirrels prefer softwood trees and Augusta doesn’t let softwoods like the native sweetgum grow on the grounds.

“Now look up,” he said, obviously having performed this patter before. “Notice any birds?”

Read the full chapter over at Deadspin.

*Anyone who has made fun of one-hit wonder Derek Ernst should feel like an incredibly terrible human being.

To me, he represented the underbelly of the Tour — a perfect example of golf’s fickle nature, where you can be plucked from obscurity in a moment of glory, and then spend years fighting like hell not to lose your dream. I saw Ernst not as a subject of pity, but someone in the midst of a desperate war that would reach its conclusion in 2015, his last chance on Tour. Until then, the preparations for that moment fascinated me — a statistical outlier trying to capitalize on his good fortune.

When we finally met up, he was open about how the negativity had hurt his feelings. You can read the sensitivity on his face, and if you didn’t know any better, you might guess he was too soft for the competitive life. When people are mean to him, as they have been his whole life, it hits him right in the gut because he actually can’t conceive of why it’s happening, and he reacts with childlike astonishment. While most of us grow tough hides when we encounter cruelty, and maybe even become a little mean ourselves, the whole process seems to take longer for Ernst.

“It’s kind of like, wait, what did I do?” he told me. “It hurts, you know?”

Finally, my favorite chapter has to be on Victor Dubuisson. Perhaps the most shocking revelations (and the best part of the book) from Shane’s reporting is about the mysterious, slightly paranoid Frenchman who appears to despise the media.

Ryan got in touch with Victor’s dad, Alban, via Facebook, and the two exchanged multiple messages. While Victor’s past still remains somewhat of a mystery, it’s absolutely absurd some of the facts that Ryan unveiled.

A typical example of Alban’s posts:

I am proud of his success, but when he says he didn’t have a family, it’s absurd!!! It makes me want to puke to read all this bullshit. Without his grandfather, his mother and myself, he would never had his dream come true. It’s pathetic!! My Facebook friends who followed his rise will be able to testify to it, I hope, but that’s life and I wish him the greatest of success. He is and will always be in my heart. 

***

I reached out to Alban, and we began corresponding over email. With the help of a translator, a native Parisian–I began to piece together the story of Victor Dubuisson.

What I discovered was that even very basic details of his accepted biography are wrong. In every story written about him at home and abroad, for instance, his birthplace is listed as Cannes. In truth, he was born on April 22, 1990, at the Clinique St. Georges in Nice, and though his family moved several times, they never once lived in Cannes. Victor only moved there himself after he turned pro, and was apparently content to tell any journalist who asked that he had been born and raised in the city.

Now, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The chapter only gets more intriguing and perplexing and often humorous.

That said, you should buy the book on Amazon and read it now. As I mentioned, it’s a wonderful read and you’ll fly through the entertaining pages filled with Ryan’s wit and deft writing.