A Masters without Tiger: It is not quite the case of an athlete dying young. He will almost certainly recover from the back surgery that kept him out of the tournament and play at Augusta again next year and, probably, for many years after that. He may even win again. After all, Jack Nicklaus won the Masters when he was 46 years old and Woods is only 38.
That win at Augusta was the 18th of Nicklaus’s major championships. This is a record, and one that has been Woods’s nearly lifelong goal to beat. That 19th is his white whale, and the quest has already cost him dearly. In body, soul, and riches.
He has fallen a long, long way since 1997, when he won his first Masters by 12 strokes. He finished the tournament at 18-under par. The record was 17, held by . . . Nicklaus. Woods, at 21, was the youngest Masters winner ever.
Television ratings and attendance at the course also soared into record territory. It was as though a new comet had appeared in the sporting heavens. Woods burned ever brighter, winning 14 major tournaments, four of them consecutively and becoming a first-order celebrity and major brand. He seemed to want to set endorsement records as much as he craved major tournament titles. His image was everywhere. Until it wasn’t.
The flameout was dramatic, tawdry, and sad. A sex scandal involving prostitutes and porn stars and embarrassing emails. A divorce from his beautiful wife and mother of his two children. The endorsements went away, and suddenly you could walk the long concourse of a major airport without his larger-than-life image selling you a watch, a car, financial expertise . . . anything. He had gone, almost overnight, from being everywhere to being nowhere.
It wasn’t the same on the golf course, either. His remorseless pursuit of majors stalled at 14, and he has played 22 of those tournaments, now, since winning one. The golf savants continue to say that he can do it, but then all of golf wishes devoutly that he were back in the hunt.
Among its other effects, the Tiger phenomenon had made golf into a sport that was followed by people who didn’t play the sport or, in truth, care much about it. It seemed far too slow—not to mention elitist—for mass tastes. But the overwhelming force of Woods’s personality and his undeniable skills drew fans who were followed closely by marketers.
But golf was not the most improbable sport brought out of obscurity and into the glare of mass appeal by the force of one athlete’s personality and talent. That would be bicycle racing before the advent of Lance Armstrong, who made it, and himself, into something approaching a cult. Armstrong won—indeed, dominated—in his sport as Woods did in his. He won the Tour de France a record seven times (in consecutive years), which is easily the equivalent of Woods actually winning those 19 majors. Armstrong not only demolished his competitors; he also beat death.
He was diagnosed with testicular cancer and told it had spread, giving him a 50/50 chance of surviving. This was before he won his first Tour de France. Armstrong used his celebrity to create the Livestrong Foundation, and he became the face of survival through defiance. Millions wore his jerseys and plastic wristbands—both yellow—in a show of solidarity and regard. He was, to them, more than a celebrity athlete. He was unconquerable will.
Through his long ride to glory, however, there had been rumors—widely and loudly broadcast—that his success was a case of winning through chemistry. That he was a doper. Armstrong denied it with characteristic intensity, threatening to sue and ruin some who published and spread the stories. He had been tested and declared clean. That was his story, and he was sticking to it.
And then, the rumors turned out to be the undeniable truth, and the entire edifice of celebrity and riches crumbled. Armstrong has lost some $75 million in future earnings. He finds himself on the other end of lawsuits, and were he to lose them all, he would owe more than $100 million. He has lost a lavish home in Texas. He is still defiant but reduced, now, to saying not “I didn’t do it” but “Everybody did it.”
Armstrong’s legal woes, even if every case goes against him, will be about money and reputation. If, that is, there is any of that left for him to lose. He will still be able to get on his bike and ride. He will not go to jail.
In that regard, the flameouts of Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong are less spectacular than the crash of Michael Vick, another athlete who had it all—or close enough.
Vick was the quarterback of the future. The hottest star in the grandest and gaudiest sport in the world, American professional football. The broadcast of the Super Bowl is the highest-rated show on television, year after year, and in 2005, Vick had fallen one game short of getting his team, the Atlanta Falcons, into the game. It seemed inevitable that he would get there. If not the next year, then eventually.
He was a new kind of quarterback. He could throw and he could run and he could throw on the run. The words “elusive” and “electrifying” became default modifiers for his name in the millions of words of excited commentary that were written and spoken about him and helped turn him, like Woods and Armstrong, into something more than a star athlete. Like them, Vick was a celebrity and a brand, especially in Atlanta, where he played and endorsed Coca-Cola, the iconic home town product, and where his face was ubiquitous. And he had the right face for it. He was movie-star handsome, with a smile that lit up his face so brilliantly it seemed just short of artificial.
But this was not the movies, and Vick revealed a bad boy side, occasionally, while the cameras of real life were still rolling. He made an obscene gesture to some fans who were heckling; was pretty nearly caught with some marijuana concealed inside a water bottle that he denied, not very credibly, was his. He lived fast.
But none of that prepared the world for his exposure as someone who liked to watch dogs fight and kill each other, who owned pit bulls that he gambled on in fights and on several occasions killed by hanging or electrocution after they had lost.
Vick, who had made more than $20 million the previous year, lost everything and went to prison.
He came back after his release, made all the right moves and said all the right things. The Philadelphia Eagles took a chance on him. But there are millions of fans who will never forgive him. He is now an aging quarterback on a troubled franchise. The Eagles recently traded him to the Jets, who already have their quarterback of the future, a nimble kid who may even be the “next Michael Vick.” Meanwhile, fans are petitioning the school where the Jets are planning to train this summer. They do not want the dog killer on their campus.
Is there a moral to these three stories? Perhaps only that a celebrity culture seems destined to produce an Icarus subculture. It is interesting to ponder the human capacity for self-destruction, even as we enjoy the games. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, Marine Corps ace and Medal of Honor recipient, modified that to “Show me a hero and I’ll show you a bum.” In sports, maybe you just split the difference.
Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.