In The Swinger, a new novel by Sports Illustrated golf scribes Alan Shipnuck and Michael Bamberger, the protagonist, a phenomenal multiracial golfer named Tree Tremont, holds a press conference at Augusta National Golf Club before the Masters. It's Tree's first tournament since a sex scandal rocked his personal life and tarnished the reputation of the most marketable athlete on the planet. A tabloid, the Eye of the World, exposed Tree's all-too-many trysts, and when his wife, a fiery Italian former bikini model named Brenda, heard the salacious details, she clubbed her husband in the face with a fireplace rod, then divorced him.
For months, the world has been waiting for Tree to talk about the whole affair. Augusta's press room is filled to capacity. (One of Tree's mortal sins, the public learned, is that he once had sex in the hallowed club's wine cellar.) The cameras start clicking, and to the shock of the assembled reporters and the millions of people watching the event on television, Tree totally unburdens himself. "There are things about me that I'd rather you hear from me," he says. He tells everyone he is shedding his business conglomerate Tree Corp. thus ridding himself of all handlers. He castigates himself for the transgressions.
"O.K., the really crazy part," Tree tells the media. "There's no easy way to do this, but I think it's important for you to hear it from the source. I had 342 different sex partners outside my marriage."
In their roman à clef about Tiger Woods, Shipnuck and Bamberger thinly disguise as fiction plenty of gossip they've heard over their four combined decades covering the PGA Tour (SI, like TIME, is published by Time Inc.) But, Shipnuck assures me, Bamberger and he pulled that 342 number out of thin air, just to have a little fun.
What's more relevant to the story and to the reader including, possibly, Woods is the way Tree approaches his postscandal life. The authors' idealized version of Woods comes totally clean about his past mistakes. There are no staged interviews, no clipped or dodgy answers. Tree lets his guard down, even cracks a few jokes about the absurdity of his situation. He starts enjoying the company of his fellow players and gasp the fans. He wins that Masters, his game even gets better, and yes, fans fall for him all over again.
Real life, of course, is much more complicated. But reading The Swinger, you can't help wonder, What if Tiger were more like Tree? When Woods returned from a four-month exile in 2010, there was talk of Tiger 2.0. He said he'd be more relaxed during his round, that he'd cut the on-course cursing. The media expected him to connect better with fans.
But since his return, Woods has barely changed except in one very notable way: he no longer wins. The cameras have caught his foul mouth. After his thrilling final round at this year's Masters, in which he took an early, old-Tiger-like charge before missing a few short putts down the stretch, he offered curt replies to questions from CBS reporter Bill Macatee. Woods still communicates with his fans through bland postings on his cookie-cutter website. He has taken to Twitter, but his missives are dull ("Very happy for Darren Clarke, well deserved win," Woods tweeted after the British Open, as if someone who outshoots more than 150 other pro golfers could possibly be undeserving of the victory).