Tiger’s friendship with Jordan and Barkley a victim of the famous solo car crash
As Woods dealt with his divorce and sex addiction, he put his famous friends on hold
Tiger Woods’ most recent return to golf involved a painfully long 10-month wait. His path to the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, which begins Thursday, was lined with physical and psychological rehabilitation, false starts, reduced expectations and, finally, a tee time.
Yet, for some of the people once close to Woods, the wait can be measured in years.
Charles Barkley hasn’t heard from Woods since before that November night in 2009, when that Cadillac Escalade and the rest of Woods’ life crashed into a fire hydrant and a tree. Michael Jordan somewhat re-established a relationship with the world’s most famous golfer more than seven years after the public meltdown of Woods’ private life. But he hasn’t spoken to him in many months.
Sources close to both Jordan and Woods, on condition of anonymity, say Woods hasn’t called since Jordan’s rare candor in an ESPN The Magazine article about Woods in April 2016.
And even then, the friendship was never as close as it had been before 2009, when Jordan believed he had a genuine big-brother influence on Woods’ life.
“To this day, I don’t have any idea what happened,” Barkley said earlier this year. “After that … thing, he just stopped talking to us. That’s all I know.”
Barkley, the most thick-skinned of the three — who takes as well as he gives in his analyst’s role on TNT’s Inside the NBA — still bristles about the sudden end to their friendship.
“I could understand if he was trying to get back with his wife at the time and she said, ‘Hey, get rid of all your old friends,’ and he called and said, ‘This is the situation,’ ” Barkley continued. “I would’ve understood that. But I just wish he would have been man enough to call and say that. To just disappear totally was disappointing.”
Woods, who turns 42 next month, gave up golf for a time after “that thing”: the one-car accident near his Florida home, the tabloid dissection of the numerous infidelities that eventually ended his marriage, his reported recovery from sex addiction at a prominent clinic in Mississippi and, finally, the painful public admission about it all in February 2010 before a camera lens.
He also put on hold or gave up many friends from his old life, including Jordan and Barkley, who in the mid- to late 1990s welcomed Woods into their large-living club.
In the ESPN article, Jordan lamented that Woods was still consumed by what others think about him, that guilt and regret still ruled his thoughts. “That bothers him more than anything,” Jordan told writer Wright Thompson. “It looms. It’s in his mind. It’s a ship he can’t right and he’s never going to. What can you do? The thing is about T-Dub, he cannot erase. That’s what he really wants. He wants to erase the things that happened.
“The thing is, I love him so much that I can’t tell him, ‘You’re not gonna be great again.’ ”
Beyond losing famous friends, Woods eventually lost his wife, Elin, full-time custody of their two children, millions in endorsements from companies afraid to gamble on the man they had marketed as a family man and dropped as a serial adulterer, and, of course, the Lasik-precise focus of the only golfer seemingly capable of eclipsing Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 major PGA titles. (Between 1997 and 2008, Woods won 14. Between 2009 and this weekend, he has yet to come close to winning another.)
It’s not uncommon in Elite Athlete World for big personalities and monstrous stars in other fields to forge close relationships based on the mutual experiences shared by so few — Jay-Z and LeBron James, and Jimmy Butler and Mark Wahlberg come to mind. It’s also not uncommon for some of those friendships to wane as lives and goals change. Just like with normal folks.
But there was something about the thought of stars who went simply by their first names, Tiger and Michael, both chiseled into any Mount Rushmore of sports superstars, supporting one another through the madness of Crazy-Famous World. Barkley is a Hall of Famer in his own right. But more than that, he was the social elixir of the trio, the guy who had everybody rolling with whatever he said.
“I still think he’s the greatest golfer ever, and I still root for him,” Barkley said. Asked whether he was ever bothered by the perception that people like him, Jordan and former longtime bachelor Derek Jeter, who reportedly introduced Woods to the first of his publicly identified mistresses, were negative influences for someone in a committed relationship, Barkley flatly said no.
“That never bothered me, because I had no idea what was going on in his private life,” he said. “What was funny was people close to him called me and asked me if I knew if that stuff was going on. I said, ‘Wait a minute, I see the guy three times a year. You see the guy 100 times a year. If y’all didn’t know what was going on, I didn’t know what was going on.’ ”
A call to Woods’ representative was not returned for this story.
But Notah Begay III, who has known Woods since they were adolescents playing in junior tournaments and remains one of his closest friends, was candid earlier this year about the relationships he saw Woods develop with Jordan and Barkley.
Acknowledging he wasn’t around the three after they began to fraternize (except at a couple of charity golf tournaments), Begay said, “After the scandal and the subsequent divorce, I think Tiger just felt like he needed to move in a different direction. There wasn’t any one incident or something said or anything.”
Begay added, “The most interesting thing about those relationships was the fact that you had a 19-year-old kid who was on top of the world, that was basically palling around with guys 10, 12 years older than he was.
“It’s just a different perspective, from that of a 30-year-old multimillionaire — that’s been a superstar for quite some time, that’s used to the lifestyle, used to the attention, used to the scrutiny — to that of a 19-year-old that’s just becoming accustomed to it.
“Maybe it wasn’t the best situation for Tiger to put himself at the time, but it’s hard to say no to people that you look up to in sports. I don’t know anyone 19 who would say, ‘I don’t really feel like hanging out with Michael Jordan or Charles Barkley.’ Not only are they good guys, but they’re funny, they’re fun and they knew how to live that lifestyle.”
More than a decade later, Woods was going through the end of his marriage with the entire world intimately familiar with the multiple affairs that caused the breakup.
“Again, I don’t think it was anything personal,” Begay said. “Tiger needed a change. That was it.”
Begay has maintained his friendship with Woods, a relationship going on nearly 30 years now, because of deeply shared history.
He grew up Navajo in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The only full-blooded Native American ever to play on the PGA Tour, he’s now an analyst on the Golf Channel. He met Woods when he was 12, and they were often the only two golfers of color playing in national junior tournaments.
Woods’ father, Earl, looked out for him, Begay said. He made sure a cash-poor Navajo boy had rides to the course, dinner and other necessities. The two kids, who both ended up at Stanford, stuck together on their way to adulthood and beyond. Begay has battled his own demons, spending time in jail for multiple DUI arrests in 2000. He can relate to some of what Woods went through.
“I’ve been criticized for sticking through it with him, but that’s the definition of friendship,” he said. “You don’t just embrace the relationship when things are great. Friendship is tested through adversity and hard times.
“It wasn’t just the divorce and the scandal. I’ve sat at dinners with Tiger early in his career when he lamented to me about how it’s tough to live with the constant scrutiny of the media and people’s expectations. I’ve always just tried to be a very fair sounding board for him. Sometimes I say things he doesn’t like or doesn’t agree with, but he knows it’s coming from a genuine place. And I think that’s what’s kept us close.”
Begay said he never discussed with Woods whether many of his former friends were jettisoned because of any 12-step program he might have undertaken in 2009 during his treatment. But he added, “That is a logical recovery path. Anyone that goes to a [rehabilitation center], that’s one of the first few things you do: You admit your lack of control, you establish some sort of faith component and then you try and reconstruct your life so it’s conducive to your new lifestyle.”
The truth is, Woods was never the extrovert that Barkley and Jordan were. He was more of the bashful loner from grade school whose par-5 grin grew wider when the cool kids let him be a part of their world.
Until he outgrew that world. Or kept searching for something more meaningful in it.
“He has … no companion,” Jordan said last year. “He has to find that happiness within his life, that’s the thing that worries me. I don’t know if he can find that type of happiness. He’s gonna have to trust somebody.”
Begay understands how pride can get in the way of continuing those relationships, especially among stars with healthy egos.
“To be fair, all athletes are sensitive,” he said. “Tiger is at times sensitive. Michael is at times sensitive. Charles is the least sensitive. But they’re all relatively young. Things come full circle. Who’s to say they won’t get to a place where they’re friends again? You say you’re sorry and you pick up where you left off. That’s a true sign of a friend.”
Barkley doesn’t lose sleep over it anymore. But he wishes he would hear from Woods himself one day.
“Like I said, he could have called me and said, ‘I’m trying to get back with my wife and I’m getting rid of all my friends,’ and I would have said, ‘OK, cool, bro. I totally understand it.’
“You know, I thought we were friends. But for a guy to just disappear like that, it made me step back. Because I thought I was a good friend to him.”
Asked what the basis of his friendship with Woods was really about, Barkley pauses for almost 15 seconds.
“You know, that’s a great question,” he finally said. “And I don’t know how to f—ing answer it. I’m not sure. To this day, I’m not sure.”