Monday, November 7, 2011

It's Time To Give Tiger A Break

Nothing quite satisfies our collective desire for schadenfreude than the image of a powerful and rich person brought down low by scandal.  As the collected masses, we can stand in judgment of someone else's bad behavior while also confirming that just because someone has money and celebrity, it does not make them better than us.  Few people are more famous, or fell further, than Tiger Woods.  Never universally loved by the media or the public, but always respected for his ability, Woods's private life exploded into the public consciousness during the Thanksgiving weekend of 2009 when he crashed his SUV into a fire hydrant and was briefly admitted to the hospital.  Within a few days, tales of mistresses and kinky sex with everyone from porn stars to waitresses and the daughter of a business associate came out.  The media horde gorged on the story and made bit celebrities out of the various paramours Woods bedded.  Not long after, Woods made the cliché trip to "rehab," and much ink was spilled judging his private conduct and questioning what spurred it in the first place.

The nearly two years since the initial incident occurred have not been good to Woods.  The steady stream of embarrassing details continued for weeks after the initial story broke, his mea culpa press conference in February 2010 seemed robotic and canned and corporations, who had showered Tiger with millions in lucrative endorsement deals over the years, distanced themselves from him.  Any thought that Tiger could compartmentalize his personal and professional lives could never be truly tested because his golf game suffered too, because of (depending on whom you believe), a balky knee, constant tweaks to his swing and/or the psychological and emotional turmoil he was experiencing.  In truth, it was probably some combination of all three.  Tiger has not won a tournament since the crash and the steady stream of "firsts" that once had to do with his being the youngest/first to win .... (a major, the career grand slam,  $10 million in prize money in a single year, etc.) now focus on the negative (first missed cut, first time not ranked #1 in the world, first time not qualifying for Ryder Cup, etc.).

Not only has Woods's aura of invincibility on the course disappeared, but an undercurrent of disdain has leaked into the media and the cultural zeitgeist about him.  Questions about his veracity were understandable in light of the conduct he undertook; however, the reaction of many in the media to his behavior always struck me as both overblown and potentially hypocritical.  Tiger Woods did nothing that thousands (if not millions?) of married people do, and have done, since, well, marriage was created.  His sin was to be famous and rich and therefore subject to our judgment even as many who ripped him would not want their own dirty laundry revealed.  For a country where religion is never far from the surface, absolution for one's sins apparently does not carry over for the wealthy adulterer. 

Perhaps part of the fault lies with Woods himself.  Having been in the public eye from a very young age, his public persona was always opaque and distant.  That celebrities seek to control their image is not surprising, but Woods seems to take this endeavor to new heights.  His luxury yacht was christened Privacy and before the scandal, he rarely commented on his personal life, famously firing his first professional caddie, "Fluff" Cowen, for being a bit too open about his work for Woods in the wake of Tiger's 1997 Masters victory.  Woods's leeriness of the media made the after effects of his scandal that much more difficult to manage and address.  His personal contrition aside, it was not in his nature to explain himself to the public and certainly not about matters of the heart. 

On the other hand, and at some point, we need to acknowledge that the requisite pound of flesh has been extracted and let this guy get on with his life.  I think the inflection point occurred a few days ago, when Tiger's former caddie, Steve Williams, was quoted in the press as saying that the aim of his celebration after his new employer (Adam Scott) won a tournament that Tiger was also playing in was "to shove it right up that black a***hole."  Williams had gotten into hot water at the event itself a few months back by calling it "the best win of my career," conveniently omitting the more than 60 tournaments (including 13 majors) he had played a role in as Woods's caddie (not to mention the millions he earned during their time together), but this most recent utterance seemed intensely personal and over the line.  Perhaps Williams's statement is the tipping point when Woods ceases being a piñata.

This latest contrempt followed hot on the heels of another low point in Tiger's career.  Having fallen to #58 in the world (his 623 weeks as the world's #1 golfer are almost as long as the total run of the other 13 golfers who have held that spot in the 24 years the rankings have existed) and in need of time on the course and a decent performance, Woods entered the PGA's tournament in early October, a second-tier event that just a few years ago would have been below Tiger's standards to play in.  He finished 30th.  To add insult to injury, a fan threw a hot dog at him on the 7th green during the final day of the tournament.  This stunt was a bookend to a forgettable year that included missing the cut at the PGA Tournament, withdrawing halfway through the first round of The PLAYERS Championship (he was +6 through his first 9 holes) and just over $660,000 in tour earnings (by way of comparison, he earned more than $10 million in 2007 and 2009, and nearly $6 million in 2008, even though he missed the entire second half of the year with a knee injury).

His life off the golf course has suffered as well.  He reached an undisclosed settlement with his now ex-wife and little by little, other pieces fell apart too.  He put Privacy on the market earlier this year, the golf course design company he launched has yet to complete a course (three were in the works at one point but none have been finished) and the endorsement deals that once garnered him an estimated $90 million a year, shrank.  A number of sponsors either terminated their agreements with him or did not renew their contracts when they expired, including, Accenture, Gatorade, Gillette, and TAG Heuer.  In their place, the best Woods could do was a Japanese heat rub balm until Rolex signed him to a deal in October.     

Arguably, the harshest pill Woods has had to swallow is the loss of the aura he once carried on the golf course.  He is derided in the press, his talent questioned by his opponents, and the most important career milestone he hoped to achieve, surpassing Jack Nicklaus's record 18 professional majors, may now be out of reach.  Woods's public comments about his game bring skepticism because the results on the course do not comport with the claims being made and Woods himself seems to be either living in denial about that or is so contemptuous of the press that he does not think they can understand the work a world-class golfer puts into his game. 

And for all of this, I say, enough.  Enough of the morality police and enough of the parody that has become Tiger's life.  Enough of people trying to cash in and enough of the pot shots and criticism.  This man has been brought down low - he has experienced public humiliation, lost tens of millions of dollars and the respect of his peers and must live every day with the embarrassment of knowing that his private failings have not only been made public, but will be known by his children and anyone with a computer for the rest of his life.  Professionally, he has lost his ability, or at least the ability we associated with him, and likely lost the chance at the record he held most dear.  The burden of these things has to weigh on him, and maybe some believe it is karmic justice that they do.  Perhaps he was not sufficiently contrite or is just a venal monster who cares of nothing but fame, glory and sexual conquests.  Either way, Tiger Woods is now an object of ridicule, who can be dissed by his former caddie and have his play interuppted by a fan throwing a hot dog at him.  He is a shell of the person he once was and has suffered the moral, emotional and financial penalty of his deed.  It is enough.  Let him move on.

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