On Tuesday morning, Tiger Woods rolled his SUV and was hurt very badly.
By Tuesday evening, while he was still on the operating table, the latest instalment of the Tiger Woods redemption arc was under way.
Famous people wished him well and hoped to see him back at work. Headlines such as Can Tiger Woods Make Another Comeback? and Tiger Woods Car Accident Has Us Rooting for Another Comeback Story urged him forward.
The guy hasn’t even woken up yet, and people are already trying to drag him off the gurney: “You think five back surgeries sounds like a lot? Wait until you see my man win The Open on a right leg that’s 40-per-cent metal!”
I’m not an orthopedic surgeon. But even I know that if a 45-year-old athlete breaks his leg in so many places it requires pins and rods to put it back together, he’s not going to be the best anything in the world again.
But somewhere between his sex scandal and right now, Woods ceased to be an athlete, or even a person. Instead, he became an idea. He is man in search of vindication.
Vindication how? From what? No one really knows any more. All people know is that golf is his only route out of it.
Until Tuesday, Woods had been, by his own unique standard of public exposure, hiding out. He’d let doctors have another go at his wonky back and not told anyone about it. In one brief scheduled appearance, he said he’d like to be at the Masters in April, but couldn’t be sure.
He seemed to be in seclusion after an HBO documentary about him, titled Tiger, was released in January. I didn’t get around to watching it until a couple of weeks ago. I’ll say this much in its favour. It’s been a long time since anything on television offended me, but Tiger did.
It wasn’t the breathless repetition of Woods’s sexual peccadilloes or small faults of personality. It wasn’t the dredging of his relationship with his father, as though somehow the son is to blame for the parent’s shortcomings. It wasn’t even the pseudo-psychoanalytic gloss given to the whole exercise – at one point, Woods’s high-school girlfriend reads aloud from his breakup letter. Because scientists have proved the things we say right after senior prom define us forever.
What bothered me is that everyone, everywhere, wants to stick an oar in on this guy’s life. Tiger throws up people who are so peripheral to Woods that producers never bother to explain how they know him. They are “family friend” or “Tiger’s friend.” Most are eventually revealed to be former friends.
Would you feel comfortable with a guy who used to play golf with your dad when you were in grade school publicly discussing the roots of your sexual obsessions? Probably not. Most of us would agree that’s a bridge too far.
But Woods does not get that courtesy. Instead, his life and choices get turned over like he’s a serial killer instead of a guy who took too much advantage of his celebrity.
Can you imagine a deep investigative dive on Roger Federer, Tom Brady or Serena Williams in which their teenage romances were held up to scrutiny? You cannot. It wouldn’t happen. If it did, the PR sinkhole it created would consume everyone involved in its production, right down to the gaffers and second ADs.
But Woods is a special case. By Wednesday, the tabloid stories about his appearance in a recent interview (“bloated” and “zoned out”) were popping up. Trussed up in an ICU, his leg now apparently bionic, Woods is still a special case. Why is that?
His first mistake was becoming too famous. There is a gravity that exerts itself on any athlete who rises above a certain point, a deep cultural need to see them brought back down to the level of the rest of us.
You could argue that Woods got higher than any athlete in history. It was an alchemical combination of his prodigiousness, his racial exceptionalism in an all-white sport, his smile, his robotic ability to destroy the competition, his wealth and his butter-wouldn’t-melt public image. Woods was perfect. People love perfect, right up until they are given the slightest reason to hate it.
After the pack got hold of him and pulled him all the way down, Woods made the error of apologizing for what was none of anyone’s business. That emboldened people to butt even further into his life.
Woods inadvertently helped usher in a new online-based morality, wherein every time you do something I think is wrong, it is important that I go on public record registering my disapproval.
At first, Woods played to redeem himself. That was the storyline. After a while, the playing became the less important part of that equation because the redeeming was more interesting. Even after he’d won another Masters, that wasn’t enough. He has to keep coming back, and coming back, and coming back.
In any sane world, this would be it for Woods as a competitive golfer. He’s old and creaky. He’s never going to get anywhere close to his best again. I suppose it’s possible in some wish-upon-a-star way that he could win another major, but three more, enough to match Jack Nicklaus’s record? There aren’t enough stars to wish on.
If that isn’t possible, then what’s the point? What else can be proved?
People want to see Woods back because they aren’t done with him. Whatever their reasons – and you’d like to think most of them are well meaning – they want to see him jump through the same redemption hoop again. Not because of what it means to him, but for how it makes them feel for a moment.
Me? I’d like to see the guy let himself off the hook. He was the best there was, as well as a person who made mistakes. In other words, profoundly human. I don’t need to see him redeemed from that state.