The Magazine

Can You Forgive Him?

Next stop, Augusta, on the Tiger Woods rehabilitation tour

Apr 15, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 29 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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But .  .  . out among the larger public, the mood was still sour. In a poll conducted in February, ranking the least liked athletes, he finished third behind Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o, the Notre Dame linebacker and fabulist who had tugged heartstrings with stories about a dying girlfriend who, it turned out, did not exist.

But there was some good news. The year before, Woods had come in second in that poll, behind Michael Vick, who this year has fallen all the way to number seven. If a man imprisoned for running a dog fighting operation can be rehabilitated, however slowly, then surely the public can find it in its heart to forgive Woods.

Perhaps. But he doesn’t make it easy. There is the petulance on the course, where he will slam his clubs and curse after hitting a bad shot. It is the sort of thing that is especially distressing to old-school fans and golfers who think of that as the sort of behavior you would expect from a 15 handicapper on a run-down municipal course and egregiously inappropriate at Augusta, which is Bobby Jones’s course, after all, and he famously almost gave up the game until he learned how to control his temper and play like a gentleman.

And then, there is the cold, aloof demeanor. The icy distance. This, in contrast to someone like Phil Mickelson, who smiles almost compulsively and signs autographs, shakes hands, and connects with the fans. Woods, by contrast, seems to be saying to the fans that he is not out there to show them some love but to thrill them with some golf. They can like it or not, but probably they’ll like it because they won’t be able to help themselves. He makes an exception for members of the armed forces and will go out of his way to make the right gesture to, for instance, a veteran in a wheelchair who has lost limbs in combat and has come out to see Tiger play. His father, Earl, was with the Special Forces in Vietnam. The gesture is utterly sincere and in character.

He doesn’t owe the ordinary fan anything except the opportunity to watch the best there ever was. That, you suspect, is what it all comes down to. There isn’t anything special about an athlete wanting to win and being obsessively competitive. But there are not many who can imagine themselves as being the best there ever was and who routinely do things to validate, conclusively, the claim. Ted Williams said he wanted people to say that about him. That he was the best there ever was at hitting a baseball. He hit .406 one season to prove it. Michael Jordan wanted to be known as the best ever to play his game, and he played like that was the prize. Neither had what anyone would call a warm, extroverted, gregarious personality. It was better for fans to follow them not as people with whom they could share a friendly moment or with whom, indeed, they could make any kind of emotional connection. You could find something thrilling in watching Williams at the plate or Jordan bringing the ball down the court, looking to get open. Better that you didn’t know anything about them beyond what you experienced in that moment. The proper relationship being more like the one between mortals and gods.

The shame of the Woods scandal—and the celebrity culture—is that it has made that sort of relationship impossible. First came the slick sales job—husband, father, athlete, role model. That was a con. And people who bought in felt betrayed when it was blown. Then came the salvage job with experts like Ari Fleischer helping with damage control. This only deepened the cynicism, as Woods went through the various stages of image repair: apology, therapy, humility.

Please. We’re all adults here. Get back to golf.

You almost hope that the rehabilitation does not work. Woods should remain alone and aloof as is proper for the best that ever was. After he won the Arnold Palmer tournament at Bay Hill, Nike came out with an ad that showed Woods studying a putt with the fierce intensity he brings to the game. The words superimposed on that image read: “Winning Takes Care of Everything.”

It was, predictably, dismaying to many. Perhaps Nike should have used instead the famous line from D. H. Lawrence, “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”

Or maybe they could have settled on Mark Twain—“Golf is a good walk spoiled”—and really kept things in perspective.

But if you think golf is something more than that, you will find yourself watching Tiger Woods with fascination at the Masters, making his claim on the title: best there ever was.

You just don’t want to get too close.

Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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