Tiger Woods: about a boy
January 2, 2010
THE first thing Tiger Woods needs to do if he wants to remake himself is dump all the enablers. By that, I don't just mean the jerk caddie. I mean the so-called mentors who taught him how to play rent-a-hostess in Vegas. I mean the fawners who laughed at his crude jokes, and looked the other way when he was rude, or penurious. I mean all of the apologists, even the well-meaning ones, who conspired to create such a towering phony.
There are a lot of questions surrounding Woods at the moment, from how many women to how long his indefinite leave from golf will last, but most of them are just side issues. The question that really matters, the pressing one, is this: When will Woods become a man? ''Let's please give the kid a break,'' said Mark Steinberg, Woods' agent, recently. Now, Steinberg is a nice guy who obviously cares about Woods. But his client is about to turn 34.
There is a pattern to the comments coming from Woods' friends. It's a pattern of excuse-making and denial, a continual reinforcing of the idea that he has a princely exemption from ordinary obligations, such as, say, growing up. Or honouring his vows while his wife is pregnant. Or answering questions about car accidents, and about why he sought treatment from a doctor who uses HGH.
Woods himself has invoked ''privacy'' time and again in his carefully crafted statements. But he and his overprotective pals are trying to sell us secrecy as privacy. He has a right to privacy, but what he did was lead a secret life, and that's what the tabloids are preying on so relentlessly. A violation of privacy is merely embarrassing. It's the violation of his secrecy that's destroyed his public persona. Big difference. The reason the story has been so engulfing is because of the sheer size of the gap between Woods' public image and his secret conduct.
Looking back over the last few years, it's easy to see how Woods arrived at this point. He has never dealt straightforwardly with his failings. The first sign of trouble was in a GQ article in 1997 by Charles Pierce, a portrait of a chilly, entitled prince who complained about photo sessions and uttered vulgarities. Instead of confessing to tastelessness and bad judgment, Woods issued one of those calibrated formal statements that deflected responsibility. It wasn't his fault; it was Pierce's fault for quoting him.
The Woods who has emerged in the past few weeks doesn't seem to have matured much since. He seems to have simply graduated from lewd jokes to lewd behaviour. While his public persona grew up, he never did.
Woods' puerile foibles wouldn't be any of our business if his sole entry into the public sphere were on a golf course. But Woods - and the huge corporate entities around him - spent the past decade creating an image. He sold himself as a principled family man. The entire premise of his endorsements was: Buy these products because this is someone you want to be associated with.
No one was forced to buy Tiger Woods apparel, or drive his car, or use his chosen credit card. But many people did. Woods created the iconic image - and now cries privacy when reality assails it. But he can't just say, ''This is what I want you to think of me as because that image is a more valuable commodity than the truth.'' There's a lot of salaciousness in the Woods saga, but there's also a valuable vetting of a powerful public brand.
Woods' true friends will help him narrow that gap, instead of perpetuating it. If Woods deserves some sympathy, and he does, it's because no one around him was able to help him do it before now. His identity from his formative years onward has been wrapped up in outward display. It must have been exhausting to carry around such pretense in front of millions.
It's a harsh judge who doesn't suspect that Woods' infidelities are more than just narcissism, but an expression of unhappiness. He is a confessed insomniac and he has been playing on a bad knee for several years.
But as a long line of other child prodigies can tell Woods, genius isn't a free gift. Those who fare best with it figure out how to grow up, and own up, even when everyone tells them how wonderful they are. Andre Agassi and Chris Evert are two who could help Tiger. Both made their peace with their robbed childhoods; both found a kind of authenticity within their public identities, especially once they quit trying to project invincibility.
There's inevitable dissonance in all of us between who we really are and what we show outwardly. But the athletes who seem healthiest and most balanced are those who have fewer reservations about sharing that with others. Interestingly, some of them become truly beloved. It may not be the best way to become a mass market endorser, but it's a decent way to build real relationships.