By Hank Waddles
Imagine that it’s the spring of, say 1931, and you’re starting to think that Babe Ruth just might end up being one of the best players ever to grip a bat. The recent downturn in the economy has left you without a job, so you figure, hey, why not spend the year following the Babe – every game, every at bat, every swing. You drive to places like Boston and Philadelphia, take the train to Washington, and ride busses to Detroit and Chicago. Along the way, you make friends in the bleachers in Cleveland, catch a series with a cousin in St. Louis, and sleep on couches in all corners of the American League. Your bank account feels the bite of your mission, your wife and children become strangers, and close friends question your sanity, but somehow it’s still worth it. I mean, this is Babe Ruth we’re talking about, right? If you could, you’d go back in time and do it in a heartbeat, wouldn’t you?
Now flash forward to 2008 and the Babe Ruth of this generation, Tiger Woods. Writer Bob Smiley shadowed Tiger for every swing of every hole of every tournament in places like San Diego, Augusta, and Dubai, and the result is an extremely engaging book, Follow the Roar: Tailing Tiger for All 604 Holes of His Most Spectacular Season. Last week Bob was kind enough to spend some time talking about his journey. Check it out…
BronxBanter: One of my favorite aspects of the book was that it wasn’t just about Tiger Woods, it was secretly about you, so I thought we might start with Bob Smiley. How important was golf to you when you were growing up?
Bob Smiley: It was really important. It was the first and really only sport I could every really play with my dad. I mean, I played little league and basketball, but golf was something that he taught me how to do when I was eight years old. We would go out and he would try to teach me the point of the game, but I would purposely hit it in the sand trap so I could play in the sand. He really wanted me to embrace the fact that golf is fun and when you get older you’ll appreciate the challenge of it. So for me it was always just a great place, and I had so many memories with my father as I was growing up. When my parents split up when I was a teenager that sort of remained the one spot, even to this day, where he and I still see each other is on the golf course.
Banter: Do you remember the first time you beat your dad?
Smiley: I don’t. I think what’s sad is that I can tell you more about the first time Tiger Woods beat his dad. [Laughing.] But there was a stretch when I was in my teens when I went from breaking a hundred to breaking eighty in the course of a summer or four or five months. What’s cool is the memory I do have is how getting beaten by me, I’ve never seen him more proud.
Banter: So you golfed for a bit at Princeton, right?
Smiley: Yeah, I played all four years in high school and was captain of our golf team. I got to be pretty good, sort of a low single-digit handicap, and went off to Princeton. My freshman year I had no intention of playing golf, but the roommate that I was just randomly assigned with was one of the new freshmen recruited for the golf team. So sophomore year he said, look, you gotta try out. And if this is a Pac-10 school or something, no way I’d make it. But shooting in the 70s was good enough to make the Princeton team, and I had one not-so-glorious semester on the team that was a lot of fun. But it also sort of drove home the fact that, alright, I’m not gonna be going pro so I should focus more on writing and what my real passions are.
Banter: That was my next question. So what led you to writing? When did you make that realization?
Smiley: Definitely my sophomore year. When I went to school I majored in politics, and after a year and half or so of taking all sorts of classes, I realized, “Gosh, I hate this!” It was sort of these circular arguments that have been going on for two hundred years that no one really wins, except maybe every four years in an election when someone thinks they win for a few days until the arguments start up again. So I was looking at sort of what I was doing in school, and Princeton was home to the Princeton Tiger, which is the second oldest college humor magazine behind the Harvard Lampoon. I was really involved in that, and had more fun staying up all night with fifteen or twenty guys putting together a magazine and making each other laugh, and I realized, man, if there’s a way that I can make a living writing and making people laugh, how much cooler is that than sitting with a bunch of other politicians trying to hash out debates that you’ll never win?
Banter: So did you go directly to Hollywood?
Smiley: It’s funny. My sophomore year I switched from politics to English as my major and picked up a minor in theater and started doing a lot more writing and playwriting and got to take some great classes with guest playwrights and stuff like that. So by the time I graduated I knew that I wanted to return to Southern California where I grew up and pursue TV writing. So my first job was just a gopher/production assistant on a TV sitcom called “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.” There was no writing in my job at all. It was picking up lunch and coffee and trying to make the writers happy, but it gave me a chance to look in on that world and see how these guys structure a story and what makes one joke better than another. So I sort of worked my way up, and a few years later I was able to write a first-page script for a sitcom called “Yes, Dear” on CBS, and that led to a full-time staff job the next year.
Banter: So how long did you stick with that? That series was around for a few years, right?
Smiley: I came on that show in its third season, and it ran for six, so I was there for four years, the last two on the writing staff. My old boss used to refer to our show as toxic waste for CBS because the critics didn’t like us, but we were so cheap and our ratings were so good that they couldn’t find any justifiable way to cancel it. But it was a blast, and again, it was a dozen writers sitting around the table all day making each other laugh. It was so different compared to friends of mine who had gone the I-banking route after college. Sometimes the hours were the same, but the things we did at work were so bizarre. I remember one time we were sitting around trying to figure out a story, and one of the creators of “Yes, Dear,” a guy named Greg García, who went on and created the show “My Name is Earl,” we’re sort of just beating our heads against the wall trying to figure out the story, and finally Greg just looked up and said, “Does anybody wanna go bowling?” And so here it is at 11:30 in the morning, and we all get in our cars and drive to the bowling alley and go bowling for a couple hours, have lunch, come back, and resume our thoughts around the table. Doing stuff like that to sort of get yourself unstuck. But it was great. “Yes, Dear” went off the air at the end of ‘05. The demise of the sitcom had been coming for a while, so that was, to some degree, the end of that stage of my writing career.
Banter: I had another question about that actually. Listening to you talk, I was wondering something. As you’re sitting in this room with all the writers, what was that like for you? I don’t know what the lag time was, if it was a couple weeks later or a month later that you saw your actual script on TV. How rewarding is that as opposed to when you’re writing a book. This is months and months of your life, as opposed to that quick turnaround with the sitcom.
Smiley: Obviously when you’re writing a book, you’re writing the book by yourself. TV is so collaborative. I think a lot of people outside the TV world think that if your name’s on the script then you did one hundred percent of the work. The way it really works, usually you come up with story ideas as a group, and once the story gets approved, then usually you get assigned that story and your boss says, alright, go off and write an outline and write a forty-five or fifty-page script. So you write the script, but then of course it goes back to the same dozen writers. Now as a group you end up re-writing the script. And then comes shoot night and you end up pitching jokes on the fly. In an ideal situation, when your show that you wrote finally airs, you hope that you can see your stamp on it and your long list of jokes that were in your first draft and stayed all the way to the end, which is really cool, rewarding, and great to hear feedback from people. But a book, it’s all you. If people love it, it’s you. If people hate it, there’s nobody else to blame.
Banter: Which brings us to Tiger. I spent about two or three holes tailing Tiger at Riviera one year along with my pregnant wife – which I wouldn’t recommend, by the way – but it was enough to know how crazy it is in his gallery. What made you decide to spend even that first day with him, before you even had the idea for the book? Initially you went out to spend one day with him for an article on ESPN.com, is that correct?
Smiley: Yeah, every year during the off-season Tiger would come up to Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks for his annual invitational tournament, and I didn’t even know if I wanted to go – and that sort of goes back to a question I’ll get to later – but I was not necessarily a huge Tiger fan. But my wife said, “Look, we’re not doing anything today, you’re essentially still unemployed, just go have fun.” ESPN’s editor at the time, Jason Sobel, said, “Go along, take some notes, see if anything interesting happens.” So I did, and all Tiger did that day was shoot a 62, set a tournament record, flirted with 59, and this was on a Friday. By the end of Friday, after that 62 the tournament was over. He had built up such a huge lead. And I had a blast just meeting people outside the ropes and experiences like that that made me think, this is fun as a golfer, even though I’m not a huge Tiger fan. I knew this would be fun for a lot of readers to experience secondhand.
Banter: So then that article was well-received, but how did you then make the leap, or make the commitment, I guess, and convince someone to go along with that to do this for every hole for the whole season?
Smiley: Part of it was a few weeks later for Christmas I received the A.J. Jacobs book, The Year of Living Biblically. That’s the story of A.J.’s attempts to live an entire year living out the Bible as literally as possible. It’s sort of what’s called a “stunt book” in the publishing world. But based on the feedback I’d received from my first Tiger article, I thought, wow, what a great adventure it would be to do this all year. It really wasn’t until around Christmas time that I really put those pieces together. What happened from there was just a total fluke blessing. My TV agency that represents me for TV writing also has a book publishing wing. So they put me in touch with one of their book agents, I pitched him the idea over the phone, I had a proposal to him the next day, and two days after that the proposal was out to fourteen different publishing houses. So from me thinking, hey, this might be a funny idea, to having it in the hands of fourteen publishers, was about a week. It was sort of insane. And then there were no final deals in place leading up to Tiger’s season opener down at Torrey Pines, the Buick Invitational, but I figured I could drive to San Diego, I could do that one on my own and hope that a deal closes. The morning I was leaving to drive to San Diego, Harper Collins officially came on board and said, hey, we want you to do this, it would be fun.
Banter: In the beginning, you were not a Tiger fan. It seems like there a lot of people out there who are just kind of tired of him, I suppose. But the end result is that the book almost reads like a love letter to him.
Banter: Maybe that’s a little bit extreme, but talk about your conversion.
Smiley: Well, it’s funny you say that, because a buddy of mine who’s a screen writer gave me some advice. He said, “As absurd as this seems, think of this as a romantic comedy, on some level, between you and Tiger.”
Banter: Yeah, that’s kinda how it reads.
Smiley: You’re right, there’s an element of that. Starting off… To say that Tiger and I were competitors is a gigantic exaggeration. We just both grew up playing golf in Southern California. He was always far better than anybody else. So I knew of Tiger from when I was a teenager. He became inescapable. And then in college he started winning the U.S. Amateurs, and he was already at that age sort of seen as “The One.” To me, as a teenage guy, personally you get intimated by that and you find lots of reasons to dislike somebody. For me it was Tiger’s coldness and his dad, some of the crazy things his dad said about how Tiger would change the world. A lot of eye rolling, I think, by a lot of people. And just Tiger’s coldness on the course. You know, he wasn’t an Arnold Palmer kind of guy, waving to the crowds. And so for me what I sort of learned over the course of the year watching Tiger, among other things, was me kind of coming to respect and appreciate what Tiger’s doing as a golfer, and also understanding that the personality he needs to succeed is not Arnold Palmer high-fiving people. For Tiger, in his mind, to pull off his goal, which is to surpass Jack Nicklaus and be the greatest golfer ever, he needs to be serious and he needs to focus. Off the course he’s a different guy.
Banter: Going in, you obviously knew the same thing that I did, which was that Tiger is the best player in the world, but by the end you seemed to have an even deeper appreciation. By the end you were rooting for him, actively, but also it seemed like you had more of an appreciation for him, just as a player. What did you see up close that I might not see watching on TV?
Smiley: When you’re watching TV, they show Tiger hit a shot. You cut away to Phil Mickelson, you cut to this guy, cut to that guy, you come back. Tiger’s settling in over the putt, he hits it, and it goes in. And it all just seems far too easy and robotic and unrelatable. Unrelatable to us everyday hacks. And so one of the things I saw on a bunch of occasions was just the incredible thought and brainpower that goes into Tiger working his way around the golf course. It’s not just tee up the ball, rip it, it goes down the middle, it goes on the green, you make the putt. There’s a lot of strategy. There’s reading the wind, and almost even overanalyzing to the point where sometimes maybe he even overthinks a little too much. But appreciating the fact that how hard it is for him to really do what he does. It’s not as easy as he sometimes makes it look. It’s not easy, and it’s certainly not easy to do it as consistently as he did it in 2008.
Banter: This was a really great season for him, but probably for you it was good in some ways that his season was cut short, but did you ever think about what it would’ve meant had Tiger won the grand slam last year and you were there documenting every hole?
Smiley: Absolutely. Even though I wasn’t a Tiger fan when the year started, there were a lot of things I’d seen and heard and read that made me really convinced that before he ever started the year that he would have a great year. And it was the fact that ending the 2007 season, he’d won – and I might get this wrong – three out of his last four events. And I’d witnessed him pull away at the Tiger World Challenge in December, and his caddy had said he’d never seen Tiger play this well. And then looking at the four majors as they were set up in 2008, they were, for the most part, all on courses that Tiger’s had some success on. So all that put together made me think, man, if there were a year for this to happen this would be it. I was prepared for a good season. The grand slam would’ve been amazing, but what was funny was after Tiger won his four events in a row in ’08, the conversation changed from “Can Tiger win the grand slam?” to “Can Tiger win every tournament he plays?”
Banter: I remember that, yeah. Do you think we’ll see Tiger win a slam?
Smiley: Man… It’s hard. Just looking at how he’s already done in 2009 makes me appreciate even more what he was able to do in 2008. I’d love to see it happen, but it’s gonna have to happen in the next three or four years when he’s still sort of at the peak.
Banter: The last author I interviewed was a guy named Arnold Hano, who’s eighty-six years old. He wrote a relatively well-known book about the World Series game where Willie Mays made his over-the-shoulder catch. He’s old enough that when he was a kid he actually went to Yankee Stadium and watched Babe Ruth play. So we were talking about this, and he talked about how he was a Giants fan growing up in New York, but he was also a Babe Ruth fan. He would go see the Yankees because Babe Ruth was playing. What I said to was that I always tell people – and I love Tiger Woods, for a lot of reasons – but I tell people that you should watch him because this is Babe Ruth. We’re watching Babe Ruth. Is he that good? There’s all this debate: Is he the best golfer? Is he maybe even the best athlete? Where do you stand on that now?
Smiley: This might not be a unique statement, but what’s interesting about golf is that compared to other sports, it’s an individual sport. It’s so easy, obviously, to say he’s the best player now. But I think it’s not a stretch to say that he’s the most dominant golfer of all time, especially when you consider the field for events in this era are sometimes a hundred and fifty players. Back in the Bobby Jones era the fields were a lot smaller, and the number of golfers in the world that were actually talented enough to win regularly was pretty small too. Here, living in 2009, it’s not unusual for kids from age three to start being groomed to be top-tier athletes. So there certainly are plenty of people gunning for Tiger, gunning to be great, and the fact that he’s been able to continue being as dominant makes it all the more impressive, I think.
Banter: So what was it like following him at the Match Play?
Smiley: It was cool to be back, it was great to see him in action. He made his return by hitting his approach shot on the first hole to about five feet and making birdie. And then on the second hole he hits driver, iron to three feet for essentially a tap-in eagle. In that moment I was…
Banter: Were you surprised? Or were you just, okay, here he is, this is what he does?
Smiley: I was surprised that he started that hot. Let’s be honest. A lot of things Tiger says, intentionally there’s a lot of gamesmanship in a lot of things he says to intimidate his opponents. And that goes into his winning strategy of never, except for the U.S. Open last year, revealing a weakness. And so Tiger comes into the Match Play saying he’s great, everything feels great, and you sort of wonder if that’s true. So when he starts off birdie-eagle, all of a sudden there was this thought of, wow, he really is better than he was before. But then after walking eighteen holes, I sort of felt like, okay, I’ve seen his return, but I don’t need to do this again. I didn’t feel like I was learning any other great lessons or there was another adventure to be had. It kind of felt like, okay, I’ve done this, time to move on. So I left on Thursday. I left on Thursday morning before Tiger’s second round and driving home I got a call to say that he’d lost, so apparently I left at the right time.
Banter: Or maybe, the wrong time. Maybe you were the good luck charm.
Smiley: And now watching him struggle at Doral, I guess that argument could be made.
Banter: You mentioned the U.S. Open, and I couldn’t let you go without talking about that. I think it was one of the more phenomenal sporting events that I remember seeing, and that’s just from watching it on TV. What was it like for you being there? I know you were writing a book and you were kind of a reporter, but you still were pretty much a fan.
Smiley: By the time U.S. Open came around I was a fanatic, and I write about this in the book. Tiger actually seemed to be fine. He had actually seemed to be fine, because he had just come off his knee surgery at the Open, and he seemed to be fine all the way up until his tee shot at 18 on Thursday. I was with a guy named Craig Nelson whom I’d met at the Buick Invitational at the beginning of the year, and he came back and joined me for Tiger’s return at the Open. We were standing there behind the 18th tee and Tiger hits his tee shot and hits a nice beautiful high fade in the middle of the fairway, and yet Tiger didn’t bend down to pick up his tee, he didn’t twirl his club. He just sort of acted dead. He turned around and walked stiffly but normally back to his caddy. Just from watching him all year, I knew that something was wrong and knew in a second that his knee was bothering him, that something wasn’t right. What was cool for me as a Tiger fan and as a writer, is that the U.S. Open showed a lot of people, including me, that Tiger has real struggles, and kind of what I said earlier, that winning for him is not always easy and that he’s not invincible. So then to recognize that and then to see him still find a way to win anyway was the greatest U.S. Open in fifty years. And again, like golf can be, it all came down to a putt here, a putt there, that if they hadn’t gone in, nobody would be telling this story.
Banter: I think for me, the most amazing thing about that was the Monday playoff. I’m a school teacher, so I was at work teaching that day, and a friend of mine and I had gotten someone to pipe the broadcast into our rooms so we could watch, and we were calling back and forth after each hole. And what was amazing to me was as I’d be walking around in between classes or at lunchtime, how many people were talking about it, people who were not golf fans, not even sports fans. My wife was here at home with my parents, and they were watching. It just was amazing how many people were focused on this.
Smiley: Yeah, a buddy of mine works in Dallas, he works for a big hotel company. So many people in their corporate offices were trying to watch the streaming coverage on-line that it slowed down the internet for everybody in the entire building to the point where they had to send out a memo telling everybody: you can only watch the U.S. Open in the following four locations. I heard similar stories from a lot of people. Something about it resonated. It was the fact that it was the great Tiger Woods…
Banter: And Rocco!
Smiley: And Rocco! The underdog of all underdogs, and a guy who is the complete opposite to Tiger, personality-wise, on the course.
Banter: And don’t you think that he was really the perfect opponent? If that had been Mickelson it would’ve been big, because he’s the main rival…
Smiley: But I don’t think people in your school would’ve been quite as gripped by it. There was something about either Tiger or Rocco that would appeal to somebody.
Banter: And I think it would’ve been as big a story – maybe even a bigger story – if Rocco had won. I don’t know if it would’ve resonated…
Smiley: It certainly would’ve been the greatest defeat of Tiger’s career, just when you think of everything he did, to then come up short. That would’ve been going against the great Tiger legend. But the fact that he came into 18 again knowing he needed a birdie on Monday, and he did it again.
Banter: I really did enjoy this book. It was a lot of fun.
Smiley: Thanks. It’s sort of weird. It’s the kind of book that, to be fair, when people hear about the book they ask, tell me what it’s like to hang out with Tiger, tell me about all your personal moments together. When I pitched the book I knew that I was dealing with a guy who’s about as hard to get access to as anybody. So when I originally pitched the book, Harper Collins said, make this a memoir, make this about your journey. And then after Tiger’s year started taking shape and he won his first four events, it quickly became, “Well, also make this the definitive chronicle of Tiger’s year.”
Smiley: Obviously, who wouldn’t have loved to have Tiger come along and say, let me let you into the fold for this year? But I knew that was a low percentage possibility.
Banter: That was one interesting part of it, like I said at the very top of this. It was about you and your journey, and you were literally chasing Tiger, following him. Not that you were trying to get access to him all the time, but there was always that possibility out there.
Smiley: Yeah, in a perfect world the perfect Afterword for this book begins with me writing, “So I finally met Tiger Woods…” We’ll see. It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibilities, so we’ll see.