The golfer and celebrity Tiger Woods is lauded and praised in many circles, but even publicly available information tells you that his character is much more complex than that. Prior to his infidelity scandal that broke in late 2009/early 2010, he was seen in many ways as the model sportsman and family man, with a pristine public image and a beautiful wife and kids.
This all came apart when information about what he was really up to in his private life came out. We saw what the real cost of living a fake life and fake persona can be for someone trapped in this lifestyle, with all the money they could want but zero real happiness.
There are lots of personality profiles of Woods, but rarely is the word narcissist/narcissism ever used to describe him. This is strange because when we look at a complete picture of the real Tiger Woods, including his private life and behavior and background, we find so many traits and clues that point back to narcissism as being a key trait in his personality and makeup.
Therefore this is the angle we are going to take in this longer post – applying some psychological theory on the formation and operation of narcissism to Woods’ earlier life, matching this up to his behavior up to and including 2011, and also looking at the issue of narcissism and change, since there are some who argue that he is a different person now.
A Working Model of Narcissism and NPD
Let’s set the stage by laying out a working, applicable model of how full blown narcissism, also called Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), is formed from childhood. We will then apply some of these points to Tiger Woods’ documented life, as there is a lot of cross-over.
Of course opinions differ on how narcissism is created; indeed some people argue that there is more unknown about this than there is known. However, certain common threads are seen time and again in the past, when we put the pieces together of how an adult narcissist got to where they are in terms of personality structure and the way they relate to others.
We will detail here a very sensible and logical explanation from the Sam Vaknin/Richard Grannon school of thought on NPD (Vaknin in particular is an authority on this, having been diagnosed as a narcissist twice, and has huge knowledge of personality disorders in general).
- Narcissism is often thought to originate from excessive un-boundaried spoiling and objectification in childhood, or else from an alternating pattern where one parent berates and abuses, whilst the other spoils the child to try and compensate.
- Common motifs here are a message of “you’re special” (in excess), “you’re important”, “you’re superior”. Sometimes there may be over the top messianic talk of the child’s “mission” or “purpose”, or of being “sent by God”.
- If this happens over a prolonged period of time, it will crush the real self and identity of the child (this is especially applicable to Woods). An image is being projected onto them that isn’t real.
- The common factor here is objectification – whether being abused or idealized, the child is treated not as a real human being but as an object to be used for the parent’s gratification.
- Over time the child’s real self is discarded, and a “narcissistic shell” self is presented to the world in it’s place.
- The real human emotions of the child are also hidden away inside the narcissistic shell.
- Over time, these authentic emotions atrophy and die inside the shell.
- From this point on, you have full blown NPD, where the person can engage and interact with others in a seemingly normal way on the surface, but where there are no real human emotions left.
- NPDs are then simply robots operating from a series of defense mechanisms designed to prop up their false, grandiose, shell self. They are constantly seeking “supply” from others to do this.
- The corollary of this is that they are psychologically allergic to any kind of real, authentic emotions or human engagement. As Vaknin himself points out, narcissism can be seen as a denial of the true self
Moreover, Vaknin distinguishes between cerebral and somatic narcissists; with the former generating supply by what they do with their minds, and the latter drawing supply from what they do with their bodies (beauty or accomplishment). Under this distinction, Woods falls more into the somatic category, being an exceptional athlete and sportsman who draws supply from the adoration and attention he gets from his sporting achievements and athleticism.
Some Common Signs of Narcissism in Tiger Woods
Now let’s apply some of the traits/patterns listed above to the life and documented personality of Tiger Woods, plus some other common narcissistic traits. Through this section we’ll often refer to the books Hank Haney (his former swing coach), Steve Williams (his former caddie) and Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian’s “Tiger Woods” biography of him from 2018. We’ll also link off to them at the bottom of the post for interested readers to pursue.
Objectification and/or abuse in childhood – A key factor in the formation of narcissism, where the child is objectified, often by being excessively admired and told he is special in an over-the-top, grandiose, exaggerated and repetitive way. See the Messiah Complex point below for more on this, but Tiger was from a very early age groomed for golf and told he was (and would be) something very special. This kind of excessive, un-boundaried objectification crushes the real self of the child, because they are not seen as who they really are – warts and all – but a false self image is projected onto them. Over time, their real self gets lost under all this. It is not healthy to put kids onto a pedestal too much, as it does not help a healthy, well balanced identity form. His later behavior is proof of this.
However, the upbringing can also alternate between objectification/idealization and abuse as well, and this appears to have been the case with Tiger, with his father also engaging in cruel, invalidating and abusive treatment of him to “toughen him up” for competition. His early life also appears to have been carefully controlled by his Dad especially, and he wasn’t allowed to veer off into anything that wasn’t part of his Dad’s grandiose “plan” for him.
Grandiose self image – This is actually more complex in Tiger’s case, because the usual stereotype of the narcissist is that they have an image of themself that is false and has no bearing in reality. In other words, they think they are something when they’re not. With Woods, this actually doesn’t hold true, because everyone who ever worked with him, including Haney and Williams, agree that he was a very special and unique golf player, in his ability to hit shots, his dedication to practice and fitness, and every other way he went about his game. And there is no denying that his abilities and accomplishments as a golf player were indeed exceptional and special. His superiority complex in regards to golf at least was justified in his earlier days for sure.
So in this case the image that was projected onto Tiger from his youth, was at least partially true, not false (the “messiah” and “change the world” nonsense from his father was the false part – we’ll cover that below). He was brought up to be an amazing golf player, and he was! It’s just that this seems to have been achieved at the expensive of allowing him a normal childhood where his real self could develop on it’s own, through an almost robotic programming and regimented life micro-managed by his parents which is bound to have deeper psychological effects regardless of the outward sporting success it can help deliver.
Also, in terms of grandiosity and entitlement, there is less evidence of this being displayed in the stereotypical “do you know who I am” way of the extroverted narcissist. Woods was more introverted, and so actually didn’t tend to do this, but still displayed a more covert form of arrogance and entitlement in his private life that is well documented in Keteyian and Benedict’s bio of him especially. His often rude and standoffish treatment of those in his inner circle is also indicative of entitlement and well documented by Haney and Williams.
Rejection of needs in childhood – Once again, the real self of the child is “crushed” though the repeated message of “Your needs do not matter. I/we know what is best for you, what your destiny is. You follow what we say, the path we have constructed for you. Not your own”. Over time, it leaves a sadness and grief in the person at the sense of a lost or stolen childhood, where their real needs were not met and they couldn’t do what they really wanted. Woods’ parents kept him to a very strict routine hyper-focused around golf, and did not allow him to compete in other sports or socialize much with other kids or just do “the normal things” that children and adolescents should be allowed to do. The grief (and rage) this can cause is often acted out in addictive behaviors, which may explain some of his later behavior in adulthood.
Parent “basking in the glow” dynamic – Is a specific aspect of the objectification point mentioned above, but needs drawing out as was very much present in his life with the behavior of his controlling and narcissistic father, Earl Woods. If you read the bio “Tiger Woods” from Benedict and Keteyian (2018), you will find constant accounts of his father using Tiger as a surrogate and drawing attention for himself off Tiger’s success. There are several accounts of him “taking over a room” and turning something which should have been a congratulation of Tiger into an “Earl Woods” show. In other words, basking in the glow of Tiger’s success to feed himself narcissistic supply. The actual needs and real self of Tiger are again suppressed and dismissed every time this happens; for Earl, it’s really all about him, not Tiger in these moments. Tiger is just being used to feed Earl “supply” by proxy.
Messiah Complex – Again very well documented in Benedict and Keteyian’s bio of him, where his father Earl engaged in constant dialogue with the media and others about how “special” Tiger was, how he’d been sent by God to fulfill a special purpose, to “change the world forever”, “be more influential than Gandhi” and other such over-the-top talk that cannot help but damage the real self of a person over time, creating a false, grandiose image of them that isn’t real. Whilst Tiger did amazing things to promote golf and make the sport more accessible to minorities, he was no Messiah, as his later behavior shows.
Emotionally limited and sterile – Another common feature of narcissists and the “Cluster B” disorders in general – their emotional range tends to be very limited and stunted. This leads them to live emotionally anemic and unfulfilled lives, even with apparent material abundance. His former coach Hank Haney expressed it this way with Woods:
“As I reflected back, I realized that I’d never thought of Tiger as happy. Whether with friends, business associates, other players, his mother or his wife – indeed, with just about everyone except an audience of kids at one of his clinics – he seemed to keep the atmosphere around him emotionally arid”.
The aspect of him being more open and authentic around kids is also documented by Benedict and Keteyian, and possibly hints at the sadness and grief at a “stolen childhood” that we mentioned above.
Glib and insincere – Common with narcissists and sociopaths, as their real self is long gone, so any interactions they have with others are not sincere and authentic, but either to manipulate others or to feed themselves “supply”. This seems most apparent in his documented interactions with women, where he strung along numerous women in affairs, making them think they were someone “special” to him, when he was doing the exact same thing with numerous other women around the country/world at the same time. See Keteyian and Benedict’s book, and also this documentary, for more on this.
Allergic to authentic intimacy and vulnerability – Again Hank Haney has good insights on this, documenting that even having worked with him up close for 6 years and even staying at his house many nights each year, he still really did not get anywhere near any kind of real intimacy or figuring out who Tiger Woods really was. He reports there was never much conversation, never mind any deep life discussions, even after his treatment in 2010. He remained insular and closed off right through their relationship. It also leads to confusing dynamics, where the narcissist themself may consider you a friend, others may assure you of this as well, but it never really feels this way to you. Haney sums it up like this:
“I always thought of Tiger as my friend, and he often referred to me as his friend…..But Tiger threw the term around so liberally, using it to describe his relationship with people be barely interacted with, that I had to reassess what “friendship” really meant in my case. An old confidant of mine, Sam Ainsley, once asked during one of our discussions about Tiger, ‘Hank, was friendship even available?’. And the hard truth was – even after his treatment – it wasn’t”
And another great quote from Haney on how shut off he was from others:
“Whether working on his game or in downtime, Tiger always had a wall up, behind which I’d long imagined there was some kind of personal turmoil. His scandal brought home the uneasy sense of pressure building that I’d always had around Tiger”
Narcissists always remain shut off from others to some extent once their narcissism is full blown. As Richard Grannon says, once the narcissistic shell is formed, there’s no way of getting through it:
“If someone has just narcissistic tendencies… some therapists have reported that an effective way of dealing with a narcissistic personality is if the coach says to (the narcissist) ‘This is costing you. You don’t have as many friends as you would do otherwise. You need to be kinder to people because it’s having an impact on your life’. And they’ll be like ‘OK, I want more friends, I’ll do it’, if they’re a bit narcissistic.
(With full blown) NPD, you’ve got this nice thick (narcissistic) shell, you ain’t getting through it, no one’s getting through it. To date, there’s nothing we can do (to fix it).”
Richard Grannon, Spartan Life Coach
Cruel and cold discarding of others – Very common with narcissists, as they don’t value people for themselves, but only the feelings and “supply” they can get off the people. The way Benedict and Keteyian document how he coldly and abruptly broke off with his first girlfriend of 4 years, Dina Gravell, is heartbreaking, but sadly typical of narcissists. They can drop people, even those they have known for years, without a second thought.
His father Earl also fired John Merchant, a lawyer who helped immensely in getting Tiger’s career off the ground in the early years, in a similarly cold and abrupt fashion after a disagreement, with no apology or thanks for his years of help. Woods’ discarding of long term caddie Steve Williams after well over a decade of loyal service, was similarly cold and lacking in humility and gratitude, at least as Williams recounts it.
Self absorbed and selfish – This is something that’s very apparent in Woods, and in fairness is what helped him to become such a ruthless and ferocious competitor. He cared little about the needs and feelings of others, to the point where he had no problem “closing out wins”; never too worried about how rivals felt or what they were doing, and always keeping a natural aloofness and distance, just focusing on himself.
However, he also carried this self absorption across into his personal life, again never really well tuned into the needs or feelings of others, just taking care of himself and rarely showing generosity or consideration towards others. Haney describes this well in his book:
“Self-centeredness went with the territory. Whenever I joined Elin and Tiger for a meal in their home, the moment Tiger finished, he simply got up and left without a word. If you were with him in a restaurant, when he was done – and he habitually ate fast – you were done. Whenever we got takeout food from outside the club (where he lived), I’d go pick it up, and I always paid”.
This strangely self absorbed behavior shows a kind of emotional immaturity and stuntedness from Woods, where he’s self-centered, but in a weirdly robotic way that he didn’t know how to “turn off” when not in competition. In fairness, Haney does document a few times when Woods does demonstrate some friendship and consideration, when his wife was having health issues, but they were few and far between, with selfishness and self absorption being by far the more prominent and common traits in Woods.
Addictive behaviors and infidelity – Is common with narcissists, because they are always seeking new sources of supply, and without the filters of normal morality, will easily cheat on partners and move on to new people who they consider a better source of supply at any one moment. Addiction is common because their baseline state is actually volatile and emotionally dis-regulated, and they will often latch onto substances or behavior patterns to try to control their mood. With Woods, the addiction and infidelity were combined, as is well documented by now with his multiple affairs.
Tempestuous and prone to mood swings – Haney’s book especially documents how moody and difficult he could be to work with. Many narcissists can appear to have it together, but in reality they don’t – their baseline state is one of emotional volatility and dysregulation, not stability. It’s just that some narcissists can fool others more easily.
Lack of Humility – Another very common trait among narcissists. The old Tiger Woods was certainly introverted and quiet, but could never realistically be described as authentically humble. Haney recounts how Woods called him as the infidelity scandal of late 2009 was unfolding, and instead of any kind of apology, contrition or humility, all he could come up with was “wow, the media are pounding me, they’re such vultures”. Given the lengths of his infidelity and the hurt caused to his wife and others, a normal person with a normal sense of morality and conscience would be sorry for what they have done, but this conversation with Haney doesn’t reflect that.
Even in early 2010 when he read his “apology” statement to the media and sponsors, some more astute observers noted that whilst it all sounded very good, his entire speech was read, word for word and without a single deviation, from a pre-prepared speech that was also given to all those in attendance. It was a carefully rehearsed statement and not delivered “from the heart”. Also ties in with the glibness and insincerity we mentioned above.
Toxic communication patterns – See all of chapter 10 of Haney’s book for the best account of this, where he engages in toxic communication patterns indicative of the idealize-devalue-discard cycle very common with narcissists in relationships with others when they start losing supply or simply get bored. They start verbally attacking people with covert “digs” and insults, uncooperative behavior and a general “moody-ness” and abrasiveness that’s very obnoxious to deal with.
This is worsened if the narcissist is not enjoying basking in the glow of their usual projected self/public image, as it was with Tiger at the time as his scandal had broken in 2009/10 and he wasn’t enjoying his usual unconditional support from the media and public, plus his marriage was falling apart. When life turns against narcissists, they can’t usually navigate it with the grace and class that more balanced people can. If their precious self image gets broken and their bubble burst, they’ll often take it out on others.
They can very coldly and abruptly discard even those they’ve been associated with for years, though Haney to his credit can see this happening and breaks off the relationship first, before Woods discards him.
Has Tiger Woods Changed? Can He Change?
In fairness, much of the material we are drawing on covers the life of Woods from childhood and adolescence up to around 2009-11, when the scandal around him was exposed and he lost several close members of his team.
Since then, one could argue he may have changed. Certainly, former coach Haney documents how even the treatment he underwent in 2009/10 had an effect in terms of bruising his confidence and reworking some of his bad habits, but he was still not any more open emotionally.
However, this needs to be put in context of how deeply rooted and resistant to change the narcissistic personality is. To undergo true transformation, a narcissist would likely need to spend years (not weeks or months) in intensive psychotherapy, with a therapist well trained in personality disorders, before any real core level change could occur.
The process would be very difficult and require a lot of patience on the part of both the client and therapist. Some therapists even report it can take years of therapy before a narcissist even admits to any vulnerability at all (just a tentative first step), never mind fully recovering.
Although Woods certainly has the means to do this, it’s unlikely that it’s actually happened. Rather, it’s more probable that certain behaviors might have been modified, but the core personality will still largely remain.
Narcissism expert Sam Vaknin is more in this camp, arguing that core level change is actually impossible once someone reaches the stage of full blown narcissism:
“This is no way to cure or heal or glue together this fragmented, shrapnelled personality… A personality disorder is a disorder of your entirety. It’s a disorder of all of you. It permeates every single cell of your being, of your psychology, of your psycho-dynamic. There is no way to change all of you. There are ways to change some behaviors and some traits, but never all of you.
Sam Vaknin – narcissism expert – see here
Moreover, it still appears that Tiger Woods lives a somewhat troubled life, with multiple incidents usually involving being under the influence of medication and other drugs while driving (see here and here), suggesting that even after his scandal, he’s struggling to find balance and harmony in his life. He’s also suffering ongoing injury problems which doesn’t help.
However, there are some people who do see a change in Tiger Woods now, viewing him as more open and authentic now versus the sombre, miserable, closed off Tiger from before his scandals, when he was hiding so much. Benedict and Keteyian are also very kind towards Woods in the later chapters of their book, suggesting that he has found a gratitude that wasn’t there before. It will have required a lot of work on his part to do this, but let’s hope it’s the case!
Moreover, we don’t want to beat up on Woods unnecessarily. The only reason I created this article was to use a well publicized and documented example of narcissism to help readers spot examples of this in their own lives, by drawing out common underlying themes and factors you will find in narcissistic personalities. Readers can consult the resources we link to below and decide for themselves.
It is also annoying though how lauded and put on a pedestal this guy was from the media, when we now know what he was really like behind the scenes. I think it’s time people took more control over this and decide for themselves who their heroes are, and who they look up to, and not be told who their “heroes” are by the media.
Essential Reading & Viewing
Let’s link to some good resources for interested readers who want to follow up on what we’ve covered and explore the narcissistic traits of Tiger Woods in more detail.
Recommended reading (affiliate links to Amazon):
- Tiger Woods by Jeff Benedict & Armen Keteyian (2018) – A superbly compiled biography that is very fair in the portrait of him – both good and bad.
- The Big Miss: My Years Coaching Tiger Woods, by Hank Haney, his former swing coach from 2004-2010. Very revealing portrait as he was one of the few people who saw him up close for long periods of time.
- Out Of The Rough by Steve Williams, Tiger’s former golf caddie until 2011. A more cautiously written book, but still reveals some of his narcissistic traits.
And regarding documentaries, most of the ones I could find where official looking, polished-production ones, firmly pro Tiger Woods, which seemed to be mostly PR exercises in blowing smoke up his backside.
There is little to no examination of his real personality or more dysfunctional background life story. This is no use in understanding who someone really is, but I did find one decent documentary that digs into the backstory of Tiger:
- Tiger Woods – Rise and Fall – actually covers the more unsavory sides to his character and life. Well made documentary with some revealing interviews from some people who were close to him.