Feinstein: Woods' Memoir Will Reveal Nothing

Reporters need access and honesty, John Feinstein says, and these days, they rarely get either

John Feinstein
October 22, 2019 - 9:50 am
Tiger Woods

USA Today Images


I get asked all the time what sport I enjoy covering the most. My answer’s always the same: college basketball—with an asterisk.

I’ve been lucky enough to cover the Final Four 40 times, dating to 1978, when I was just out of college and was working as the night police reporter at the Washington Post. I’d been a summer intern in sports the previous summer and, when there were no slots available in the sports department, I was offered the chance to stay on as the night police reporter.
I jumped at it. It was the Post and this was three years after Richard Nixon had been forced to resign, in large part because of the reporting done by the Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Reading “All The President’s Men” convinced me that I wanted to be a reporter. I saw the movie three times on the day it opened—seriously—and my goal in life became to work at the Post someday. Okay, realistically, my goal was to work there by the time I was 30.
But when I got the internship, I had one goal: do my job so well that the paper wouldn’t dare not hire me. It was the greatest summer of my life. I never took a day off. Didn’t want to. The desk I was assigned was right outside the door of what was then Woodward’s office.
Early in the second week of my internship I “broke” a story—reporting that the Washington Diplomats were going to fire their coach. I’d been assigned to cover the local NASL team while regular beat writer Donald Huff was on vacation. I got the story largely because no one else cared much—the Washington Star’s beat writer had told the Dips’ PR guy, Terry Hanson, not to call him at home unless the franchise was folding.
So, when Hanson realized I had the story, rather than protect one of his two beat writers, he didn’t bother to call. “Just following orders,” he said later.
This was June. At the time, Washington didn’t have a baseball team and so, sports editor George Solomon stripped my “scoop” at the top of the sports page. The next morning, I looked up to see Woodward standing at my desk.
“Hi John, I’m Bob Woodward,” he said, offering a hand.
The response that ran through my head was, “No s--- you’re Bob Woodward.” What came out of my mouth was something like, “hum-ana, hum-ana, um, yeah, um, okay.”
Woodward smiled. He was no doubt used to this sort of clever response from awed young reporters. “Just wanted to say, really nice job on the soccer coach this morning.”
Again, it was only later that I figured out what my answer should have been: “Yeah, thanks Bob; nice job on Watergate.”
Instead—as I recall—I came up with “th-th-th-thank-you.” Got it out on the fourth try. To this day, Woodward loves to tell that story.
I digress.
During my four years at Duke, the Blue Devils finished last or tied for last in the ACC. Seriously. You can look it up. But the year after I graduated, they added two superb freshmen—Gene Banks and Kenny Dennard—to Jim Spanarkel and Mike Gminski and came from nowhere to win the ACC Tournament and then make it to the Final Four. Hard to think of Duke nowadays as Cinderella, but that’s what they were.
Solomon sent me to the Final Four since Duke had made it—although I had to pay my own way to go. That was fine with me. I’ve only missed two since then.
Once upon a time, the Final Four was the weekend I looked forward to most every year. The games were great; the stories were terrific and it was then—as it is now—a gathering of the entire basketball world. I spent more time in the lobby of the coaches’ hotel than in bed.
I will never forget being on court right after Indiana beat Syracuse in 1987 on Keith Smart’s jump shot when Steve Alford found his way across the court as the nets were coming down and hugged me.
“Better be careful,” I said. “(Bob) Knight might see you.”
This was the year after I’d spent my “Season on the Brink” in Bloomington and Knight was attacking me on a fairly regular basis.
“Don’t care,” Alford said, laughing. “No games left to play.”
It all began to change when the NCAA, in its never-ending search for every dollar it could find, abandoned basketball arenas forever after the 1996 Final Four in the Meadowlands. It got worse in 2009 when the court was moved from a corner of the football stadium to the middle of the football field. Attendance went from about 45,000 to 75,000—or more—and the sightlines—for everyone—became much worse. Nowadays, there are exactly two people who sit at court level—the coaches, who are given little stools to sit on—while everyone on their benches looks up at the raised floor. The same is true of the media at courtside—although those given courtside seating has been cut way back.
More and more, covering the game at the big-time level has become more difficult. Most power schools have moved the media from courtside either to an end zone or somewhere upstairs. Am I spoiled? You bet. Part of covering basketball well at any level is sitting so close that you can feel the game. Frequently, that’s no longer possible.
A few years ago, Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon asked me why I didn’t come see his team play more often. “Because I can’t see from where the media sits,” I said. I wasn’t exaggerating. The media seats aren’t just in the end zone, they’re obstructed by one of the baskets. That’s not a-typical anymore. I haven’t been to a game at Syracuse for years, but I’m told the media now sits behind the band.
But that’s not really my point. When I was a young reporter, access to the players was an automatic. Game ends, locker room opens. When I covered the ACC, the league had very specific rules about when the locker rooms had to open and for how long. Now, almost no one opens the locker room. I give the NCAA credit for one thing: during the tournament, locker rooms are open. It isn’t easy to work in there because there are SO many folks with credentials, but it is still better than the interview room.
Interview rooms are a pox. I try to avoid them at all costs, though there are times when a game ends so late—as in during the Final Four and much of the NCAA Tournament—that you have no choice but to go there because by the time the key players get back to the locker room, you are almost out of time to write.
One reason I enjoy covering golf—it ranks second on my list—is because the locker rooms always open and there are no night games.
I spent last winter researching a book that will come out in March called, “The Back Roads to March.” It was about players, coaches and teams that aren’t on TV all the time—if at all. I loved every second of it. It wasn’t just that I had a good seat at every game I attended, it was that I never once had to ask a question in an interview room. I was given all the time I asked for with players and coaches. I sat next to benches and listened in on huddles; I was in locker rooms during games.

Exactly one player that I interviewed at length—Hofstra’s Justin Wright-Foreman—was drafted (second round by Utah). But I was given the chance to be a story-teller again, which is what I’ve always craved.
Telling stories is about access. That’s why “Season on the Brink” worked—it was all about the access Knight gave me. The same was true of, “A Good Walk Spoiled” and “A Civil War.” my book about the Army-Navy football rivalry, which is still the book that makes me most proud. That book was proof of a lesson Woodward taught me years ago when he became Metro editor and I was on his staff: you don’t have to be rich and famous to have a story to tell.
A couple of months ago, I got a call from a producer asking me if I would sit for an interview as part of a four-hour documentary that will air on HBO on Tiger Woods. My first response was: “Oh boy, what an original idea.”
Woods is the greatest golfer of all time but, until the day comes when he decides to tell the truth about his life, one of the least interesting people I’ve ever come across. (And don’t expect any great revelations in the memoir that’s just been announced). There have been numerous books and documentaries and adoring TV stories done about him.
The producer said they wanted to interview me because I’m one of the few media members who doesn’t appear to be awed or intimidated by Woods. Clearly, she was doing what smart producers do: sucking up to me to get me to talk to them. I am talking to them if only because my wife said: “It’s HBO, shut up and do it.”
I said to the producer the day she called: “Why don’t you do a documentary on Erik Compton?”
She had no idea who Erik Compton is. Few people do. Compton has had TWO heart transplants—the first at age 12; the second at 28 after a heart attack almost killed him. He came back after the second one to make it to the PGA Tour and finish tied for second at the 2014 U.S. Open with Rickie Fowler.
No athlete in any sport has ever overcome what Compton’s overcome. None. Zero. He’s also a bright, interesting guy. A storyteller with an amazing story to tell. I’ve wanted to write a book or do a documentary on him for years.
When I was still working at Golf Channel, I suggested to my boss a documentary on Compton. She looked at me and said, “I’m Erik Comptoned out.” They’d done a six-minute interview with him.
As of now, no one has come close to biting yet. They’re all too busy doing the 25th Tiger Woods documentary that will reveal nothing.
College basketball at the big-time level used to be a place where I could do my best work. That’s no longer the case. But I can still get great joy from the game—writing about the kids and coaches playing on the back roads. Trust me when I tell you that Chris Clemons has a great story to tell. So does Griff Aldrich.
Now, go look them up. Or, you can just wait for the book.
John Feinstein’s latest book is, “Benchwarmers,” the story of a sixth-grade girl who wants to play on the boys soccer team and is plenty good enough, but has to fight to get on the team because misogyny still lives in the 21st century. His book, “The Prodigy,” about a 17-year-old with a chance to win the Masters, is now out in paperback. And, his most recent work of non-fiction, “Quarterback—Inside the Most Important Position in Professional Sports,” is also just out in paperback. John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com