Earlier this year, Patrick Reed was accused of cheating and stealing in college in an excerpt from a book entitled Slaying the Tiger: A Inside the Ropes on the New PGA Tour, by Shane Ryan. That book releases on Tuesday, June 9.
Below, we speak to Ryan in an exclusive interview as he takes us behind-the-scenes of his “hold nothing back” book about the year he spent on the PGA Tour in 2014.
Note: If you have any questions for author Shane Ryan yourself, he will be conducting a chat in our forums on Tuesday, June 16.
Kevin Casey: This is your initial book. So for people who have not been paying attention can you explain the concept of Slaying the Tiger: A Year Inside The Ropes on the New PGA Tour and why it’s worth their time?
Shane Ryan: Sure—very simply, Slaying the Tiger is a look at a generation of young professional golfers at a transitional moment in the sport. I spent a year on the PGA Tour in 2014, traveling to more than 30 events (including all four majors and the Ryder Cup), with the goal of getting to really know rising stars like Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Patrick Reed, and the other prominent 20-somethings, as well as some (slightly) older players like Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, and Sergio Garcia. The model for my book was the classic A Good Walk Spoiled by John Feinstein, in the sense that I wanted to document a full year on Tour and tell a variety of stories, rather than focusing on a single player or issue.
Slaying the Tiger ended up being quite different from that book, but the chronological structure is similar. The biggest difference is that I took a gamble on a narrative—that 2014 would, in fact, be a transitional year, and that Tiger Woods would begin to fade as the young players started to win tournaments… in some cases, very big tournaments. I knew when that day came, golf would face a lot of questions. What happens when the Tiger bubble bursts, and the security he’s brought for almost two decades is suddenly gone? Can a new generation, inspired as children by Tiger, collectively pick up the slack, even though participation and interest is dropping across America? Are they good enough, and interesting enough, and tough enough, to shoulder that burden?
In that sense, I tried to capture a really dynamic moment in the game, but the gamble was uncertain—if Jim Furyk, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, and Tiger won the four majors last year, it would have been pretty bad for me. But as you see, betting on the youth revolution paid off, and continues to pay off into 2015.
KC: You had a little bit of experience ahead of 2014 covering golf. Still, you were very much a newbie to the PGA Tour beat scene when you started your year-long book odyssey. You must have had an idealized concept of what traveling and covering the Tour week-to-week would be like. In what ways did the actual experience match your vision and how did it differ from your expectations?
SR: Yes, very much a newbie—I had covered the 2012 Ryder Cup, the U.S. Open and PGA Championship in 2013, and the 2013 Accenture Match Play Championship, and that’s it. I don’t think I necessarily had an idealized view of what the travel would be like—deep down I knew it would probably be exhausting and difficult—but I think I have the useful skill of willfully ignoring the magnitude of a project at the outset. I think shutting off your mind at the start is necessary to avoid going crazy or just giving up. Also, I was grateful just for the chance to write a book, and knew how lucky I was to even be in that position. So to complain or worry too much about the fear and anxiety (which are very real) would have seemed ungrateful. The difficulty I faced is the good kind of difficulty, because it means you’re in the thick of something exciting. In terms of expectations, I think I had very few, for the same reason—I tried to make my mind into a blank slate for my own mental health.
However, one thing that surprised me was the difficulty of actually landing interviews with players. I assumed that working for an ESPN outlet and having a book deal would smooth my way even with the top players, but I was very, very wrong. With few exceptions, I had to hustle and be persistent and basically swallow my pride on a daily basis as I tried to secure just 30 minutes with these guys. I joked with other media members that it felt like I was leading two lives—in the rare weeks when I was home, I had a wife who loved me and great friends and supportive family, and on the road, I was looked at as an annoying pest who was wasting the precious time of millionaires. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but some days it felt that way. At times, it could be a disheartening slog, and on the dark days I was positive the book would be a dismal failure and I’d never write for money again. But then a week would come along when I got a great interview, or had a front row seat to watch true greatness, and I’d feel the hope rising again. I think there were enough of these days to help me keep my faith, and believe that the book would be good.
I would even say that the initial lack of access was a blessing in disguise. Knowing I had to scrape for any and all details, I made it my business to be around these players at every possible moment, on the course, in the media center, on the range. I was always looking for that perfect detail, and I think the hyper-focus I brought to this process, due entirely to the fact that I had no other recourse, actually wound up giving me a more complete picture of each player over the course of a year.
KC: Did the conception of the book change at all as you were writing it? You’ve mentioned before that this “lack of access” issue you came across could be an angle that could help differentiate your work from previous golf content.
SR: I think what differentiates this book from other golf writing is a hard commitment to the philosophy of “hold nothing back.” I came to a crossroads as I was writing when I had to make a choice: Do I omit certain details in order to toe the line and protect a theoretical future career in golf journalism, or do I stick to my original plan and deliver the kind of raw, honest, unfiltered look at the PGA Tour that I had imagined from the start? I like to think I would have chosen the second path no matter what, but the fact is, the way the golf journalism world is constituted today, there was a very slim chance of landing that plum lifetime gig even if I wanted it. So it would have been stupid to “protect” my future career by writing cautiously, since that future career is pure imagination.
That made the decision easy—I had total freedom to take risks, to be funny, and to be honest in a way that might make people uncomfortable or even angry (which we’ve already seen with the Patrick Reed excerpt). Golf journalism can be very polite, and there’s sometimes a tendency to make saints out of ordinary, flawed people—maybe it’s a trickle-down effect from television, which by its nature tells saccharine stories of triumph and redemption. As for me, I wanted the complications, the absurdities, the ugliness, and the shades of gray—along with triumph and redemption, of course, but only when they were true. If I didn’t like someone, or thought they were a hypocrite, I wanted to say so, not just complain about it in the media center. And since I had no future to safeguard, I felt completely free to walk that honest path. I think when people read this book, whether they love it or hate it, they’ll notice the difference in how I write. This is not a cautious or conservative work.
KC: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about this young crop that you were able to refute in the book? What were the most important traits that became apparent from this group?
SR: I became convinced that the most important trait for professional golfers is the ability to become obsessed by the game. Nothing short of that will suffice, including athletic ability, natural talent, brains, or wealthy parents who buy you the best equipment and send you to the best academies. That’s one reason why I love golf so much—it’s such a temperamental sport that only a very specific kind of person can excel. And usually, they have to drive themselves crazy in the process. Aside from obsession, the next most valuable trait is a pathological competitive drive. After that, freedom from self-doubt, or, put another way, total self-belief (which makes for some interesting personalities off the course). Fourth, selfishness—the best players don’t give a (expletive) about anyone but themselves. Fifth, natural ability.
In terms of misconceptions, it really varies by the player, but one thing I’ll say is that I rarely met a golfer whose real personality jibed with the carefully constructed persona put forth by his marketing team, in conjunction with the willing apparatchiks of television and commerce. Discovering the difference took varying amounts of detective work, but was always worthwhile.
KC: Of course, we have to get into this Patrick Reed thing. It’s been clear that Reed’s college issues have been a closely guarded secret by those in the programs for a long time. How exactly did you go about investigating this when pretty much all of the direct sources had previously proven that they were not going to reveal anything?
SR: As you probably know, there are still some potential legal swords hanging over our heads, so unfortunately I’m a little constricted in what I can say. (I say ‘unfortunately’ because I’d love nothing more than to let loose on everything that’s happened—I think it would make for fascinating reading—but sometimes the real world infringes and you have to respect the wishes of people above you, especially when those people have your back. So as far as I’m concerned, I’ve written and said all I’m going to say about Reed’s past. For now, though, I think there’s more than enough information out there for people who are interested in the truth.)
But I think I can answer your question here—investigating these kinds of historical details and finding sources and achieving breakthroughs all happens because of persistence. Period. The things I reported were known by a lot of people, and with time and dedication and good luck, some of them spoke to me. There’s no magic formula except not giving up.
KC: How were you able to cultivate these anonymous but reliable sources that allowed you to penetrate the truth deeper than anybody else previously had?
SR: Again, persistence. And I had the advantage of time that a lot of beat writers don’t have. I could establish relationships, revisit them a month later, a month after that, and a month after that. It was a privilege of the book format, for sure.
KC: What are some of the most interesting or surprising findings from your research that the reader can look forward to in this book?
SR: You know, I think there are a lot of different angles. In terms of investigative reporting, the chapters on Bubba and Reed and Victor Dubuisson might be most interesting to some, while if you’re into humor you’ll like the Matt Every chapter and a few others. In terms of pure golf writing, my favorite chapter might be the British Open. Something about that week was really special to me, and I had a lot of fun writing about Rory’s victory. If you like strong opinions, the chapter on Augusta National will turn your head. In terms of profiles, Rory and Rickie and Jason Day and Jordan Spieth were all a pleasure to write. It really just depends what you like the best, but I’m really glad that there’s a lot of topical and stylistic variety in the book, because I think it makes it more fun to read.
KC: I’m curious about additional content that didn’t make it in as well. In one of your podcast episodes, you mentioned a chapter titled “Anger” that didn’t make the final cut. There were apparently some interesting stories about Ernie Els and Ian Poulter that you expounded upon in that podcast episode. What’s the breakdown of that chapter and the characters and stories it entails?
SR: As people who are still reading this interview now understand, I write long. So it’s no joke when I say that I could release a new book tomorrow, of about the same length, consisting solely of material that I cut from Slaying the Tiger. The original first draft I turned in would have been over 800 pages long, so you can imagine the horror my publisher and agent felt when they saw the monstrosity I flung down before them. I had to cut it in half, so that other half is still out there, waiting, like a twin separated at birth.
KC: Any other chapters or content that aren’t part of the book that you want to talk about so they see the light of day?
SR: A lot of the material will either come out in its current form, or be absorbed into new stories—a good example is the piece on Chris Kirk I wrote for Golf Digest after he won the Colonial earlier this year. There’s obviously new content there, but some of the “lost” book material made its way in as well. I hope at some point people will get to see a lot of the stuff that was cut. I didn’t cut it for quality reasons, but purely for space. There’s still some value there, even if I just end up posting a lost chapter or two on my blog.
KC: Even though I don’t think Matt Every really fits among the “new generation,” his story may have been one of the most compelling among the profiles in your book, with his bluntness and humor, and I really like that he’s in the pages that made it to print. Was there any other player who maybe didn’t totally fit as a member of the “new generation” that you really wanted to write about because of his personality? Or will some of these be part of the lost book material?
SR: Guys like Brian Harman, Brendon Todd, Kevin Stadler, Chris Kirk, Graham DeLaet, Hunter Mahan, Jonas Blixt, Webb Simpson, J.B. Holmes, and others that I can’t remember now had to be cut from the book for space purposes. But I hope those chapters can see the light of day somehow.
KC: Going along those lines, which golfer’s personality did you find was the most shocking deviation from what the public knew? For me, and I know he had only a very brief part in this book, Brendon Todd being so open and forthcoming really caught me off guard.
SR: Yeah, Brendon Todd is someone I really liked, and I didn’t necessarily expect him to be as open as he was. I didn’t have a ton of expectations coming in, so the players with big personalities, both positive (Jason Day) and negative (Bubba Watson) always surprised me. The most common thing I found were players whose actual personality was a bit more sour than the public persona, of which Bubba and Keegan Bradley were the two biggest examples.
KC: Your chapter on Augusta is definitely in line with the “not being cautious” approach. You don’t hold back on criticizing them here, and, as you relay in the chapter, they’ll strip credentials quickly for almost any little slight. Please name a list of events that are more likely to happen than you ever getting a Masters credential again.
- Donald Trump invites me to play a round with him at Doral.
- Bubba Watson hires me to write his biography.
- Tom Watson frames my chapter on the Ryder Cup and hangs it in his home.
KC: What do you think of the future for McIlroy-Spieth, a dynamic you wrote about for Golf Digest last month? Despite Spieth’s chapter being called “The Great White Hope,” you detail a few of his nuances, and there’s a part in the book where you mention how he couldn’t seem to get past bad bounces while Martin Kaymer shrugged them off and moved forward. That kind of reminds me of how Greg Norman used to view things as opposed to the more opportunistic Tom Watson (very loose analogy, though). In light of his winning ways in 2015, do you think that’s something Jordan has solved or will he continue to fight this his entire career?
SR: One thing I really like about my book, in retrospect, is that it documents Jordan Spieth in the moment before he broke through. If he has the glowing career I expect him to have, I think that part of his life will be easy to overlook, and so I’m glad I caught that moment in time. Because to answer your question, yeah, I think Spieth has already partly solved the thing that held him back in 2014, which is a testament to the maturity and intelligence of the guy…he’s conquered his demons, and he’s 21. That’s incredible. But as for insight into what he was like when he was on the verge, I think the book will stand out as a valuable document.
KC: What are your overall thoughts on the future of this young generation that emerged in 2014 and rolls along this year? How capable are they of filling the Tiger void for the coming decades?
SR: That’s the central question of my book, and since I end on a note of ambiguity, it makes sense to do the same here. Thanks for the great questions, Kevin.