By Mark Heisler
Tiger Woods is finally getting on with his life in this week’s Masters. If Monday’s press conference offers a clue, when he finally got it right, taking real questions and showing some if not perfect humility and the charm that was always his to flash when he saw fit, he’ll be fine.
Best of all, seeing as how he reigns over a subculture that doesn’t really care about anything but winning and having heroes to worship, he needs only be as good as he was to reclaim a lot of hearts.
The warm reception at his first round shouldn’t have been a surprise. Golf fans don’t pay $200 for a Masters ticket (face price before Woods’ entry drove it into the thousands), drive to the suburbs and walk around those exclusive country clubs to heckle anyone, even if a lot of them read about Tiger’s sexual exploits in the grocery store press, exploit by exploit.
Mark McGwire’s acknowledgment of his misdeed was much more open and more human than Woods’. Unfortunately, Big Mac is now just a Big Batting Coach, and can’t bring crowds to their feet with his majestic drives, prompting sports writers to reassess him in the context of continuing, quote, heroism.
Not that Tiger’s life can ever be what it was when he was the unquestioned, untainted, most famous, most admired, richest, greatest athlete of all time.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what he was raised to aspire to—for starters—so that will be harder for him than ordinary people can imagine.
Iconhood is a mystery to all but icons, but judging from what we can see them go through, it’s not as easy as it looks.
That, of course, is a surprise, in itself. Any instruction has necessarily come from people who were never icons, like Earl Woods, and have no reason to think it isn’t the best thing there could be.
Not that anyone in the history of stage parents ever took it as far as Earl, whose son wasn’t just going to give back to the community, but “do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity.”
So that was going to be Tiger, Abraham, Jesus, Buddha and Gandhi?
Actually, the best thing you could be is at peace with yourself, so whatever you have is enough and the rest of your life is win-win.
In Tiger’s case, that’s a lovely wife who has stuck with him this far, two kids, more money than they can ever spend and a job he lives.
In real life, things are very different in the stratified air of iconhood.
It’s actually a high-wire act with something more always to be won—or lost—whether it’s major titles or the biggest prize of all, the one quantifying and proving one’s pre-eminence over all others ...
Very few people have ever been around someone who was raised to believe he was destined for greatness and actually achieved it, since there can’t be too many on Earth at the same time.
I was as inner circle as press people got in Kobe Bryant’s first eight NBA seasons, which included the year he stood trial on a rape charge.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that someone whose whole life has been on crusade will never reach an end point in which he realizes he has captured all there realistically was to capture.
Both Woods and Bryant are demon workers with iron wills who will throw themselves at anything they target over and over until it’s theirs.
And if there’s something out there they can’t have, like the greatest popularity, or the most endorsements?
They just keep throwing themselves at it over and over.
Bryant has made an amazing comeback, professionally and commercially. The rule in advertising, which abhors mixed messages or inferences, used to be: Once you’ve lost your glow, it’s gone forever. Kobe was the one who broke it, having gotten a lot of his back, with his No. 24 jersey outselling all others, even LeBron James’ 23.
Nevertheless, there’s a ceiling Bryant keeps bumping his head on. When he broke Jerry West’s Laker scoring record, play-by-play broadcaster Joel Meyers called him “the greatest Laker ever,” starting a mini-uprising among local fans supporting Jerry West and Magic Johnson.
Like Woods, Bryant is well-spoken, capable of charming anyone he wants to, and has years of competition left to buff up his image. At present, Bryant is no more enamored of the press as a useful institution in society than Woods.
Bryant’s father, Joe, was an NBA player, and as the youngest child and first son, Kobe was the darling of his parents and two older sisters in a close, nurturing family.
Nevertheless, it was Kobe who chose his own destiny—at age 5, he once told me.
Woods was handed a golf club by his father but didn’t rebel at the regimen and expectations. He embraced them and believed in them, as he loved and believed in his father, whom he still quotes to this day.
Monday, Tiger said he finally figured out what Earl meant when he used to tell him, “Before you can help others, you have to help yourself.”
It’s Tiger’s new mantra, as he picks back up on his mission: saving the world.
“When I went through that period when my father was sick and my father passed away, it put things in perspective real quick,” he said Monday.
“And when my kids were born, again it put things in perspective. And what I’ve done put things in perspective.
“It’s not about winning championships. It’s about how you live your life. ...
“Going forward I need to be a better man than I was before. I’m trying each and every day to get my life better and stronger and if I win championships along the way, so be it.
“But along the way, I want to help more people that haven’t quite learned to help themselves, just like I was.”
I don’t think he meant he wants to help sex addicts, but it’s clear his messianic instinct persists, as does his controlling instinct and hunger for money.
Superstar athletes now compete for endorsements as keenly as for championships. Michael Jordan, the first athlete to become transcendent commercially, not to mention being the first black athlete to do so, made that the new measuring stick.
In the way of these things, Woods surpassed Jordan, becoming the first athlete billionaire, with an annual income estimated at $110 million-120 million, of which $100 million came from endorsements.
That’s a lot of money for just being you. Of course, Nike (main sugar daddy for Woods, Jordan and Bryant) insists they design their own shoes right along with the lab guys in the white coats.
What clearer sign of your pre-eminence can there be than free money?
Unless, of course, some other icon is making more.
No one will soon approach Woods’ $100 million annually. With several big-ticket endorsers dropping him (Gatorade, Accenture, AT&T) or no longer using him in ads (Gillette, Tag Heuer), he may or may never get back to that mark, either.
On the other hand, if he doesn’t have enough to live on, who does?
Not counting agents, PR people and the like, it’s only important to one man. Unfortunately, that’s Woods.
“Hopefully, I can prove to companies going forward I’m a worthy investment and I can help their companies grow,” Woods said Monday.
“I felt like I was representing companies well in the past but then again, I wasn’t doing it the right way.”
In the past, he was so busy representing companies he barely had time to do anything but play golf, and, of course, lead a secret life.
In 2007, Sports Illustrated assigned golf writer John Garrity, who had known Woods since he was 14, to spend six months following him around the world, from Hawaii to Dubai.
As SI Editor Terry McDonell wrote:
What Garrity found was not the kid who’s been fist-pumping his way through golf for the last decade but a man entering a new phase of life—advancing on Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors with a baby on the way, a new job, a new business, a controversial new tournament and without his father. It’s a story that’s as nuanced as its subject and easier to read—especially approaching the 2007 Masters Tournament, at which Tiger is going for his third straight major win.
Actually, as Garrity noted, Woods agreed to sit down with him one time in that six months, for 10 minutes.
Tiger sits on one side of a conference table. I sit on the other. A Nike Golf executive, a longtime acquaintance of mine, stands by the door. She checks her watch every minute or so to make sure I don’t take more than my allotted 10 minutes. ... So when Tiger confesses that he is a control freak, I have to fight the impulse to snort derisively. You think?
I’ve opened with a few seconds of small talk. I’ve told Tiger how much I enjoyed playing with him the previous week in the pro-am of the PGA Grand Slam of Golf. (“Cool,” he says, his expression giving no indication that he remembers.) We then get down to business. Or rather, we talk about business. For 9 1/2 minutes.
The world’s fascination with Woods continues. Monday, as when he made his first public comments in that stiff non-press press conference, all the news and financial networks carried it.
In the stock exchanges, where golf is what basketball is in the inner city and baseball is in the Dominican Republic, trading came to a halt.
The first time it happened, the White House press corps watched, aghast.
Tweeted CBS’ Mark Knoller: “Cant believe the major networks are providing live coverage of Tiger Woods’ statement.”
Tweeted ABC’s Jake Tapper: “I like @chucktodd’s idea that there should be a rebuttal to Tiger’s statement. Ladies?”
Now, however, the fascination with Woods is tabloid-edged. It doesn’t have to mean anything at all to Woods, unless he’s still bent on becoming, and being acknowledged as, a messiah.
In any event, Thursday’s drive on No. 1 will be the most famous shot in golf history, surpassing, oh, let’s say that 30-foot chip he rolled in on No. 16 en route to winning the 2005 Masters, the one that went about 20 feet, made a right turn of almost 90 degrees, trickled to a halt at the lip of the cup, paused, and dropped in.
It’s on again. Tiger, Tiger, burning up.
* * *
This just in: Setting a new standard for self-righteousness, Augusta national chairman Billy Payne lashed out at Woods the day before the start of the most-awaited tournament in the history of golf, going out of his way to turn his annual state of the Masters speech into an angry sermon with himself as the instrument of The Lord’s Wrath.
“It is not simply the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here,” said Payne. “It is the fact that he disappointed all of us and, more importantly, our kids and our grandkids.
“Our hero did not live up to the expectations we sought for our children.
“Is there a way forward? I hope yes. I think yes. But certainly his future going forward will never be measured only by his performance against par but by the sincerity of his efforts to change.”
Payne, of course, is best known for turning the 2000 Atlanta Olympics into the best demonstration of capitalism-run-amok before the rise of derivatives, putting events in the biggest possible venues, drawing crowds that overwhelmed the city’s flimsy infrastructure and turning the event into a two-week traffic jam.
Putting that aside, a few questions spring to mind:
Who died and made Billy the pope?
This is dignified Augusta National’s way of giving Woods a refuge, letting him return to his professional and get on with his life?
Did Payne really tell his kids and grandkids to follow the example of professional golfers? What about raising them, himself?
Now we’re supposed to start measuring Woods by more than his performance against par?
Why wouldn’t we have been doing it all along?
Because he won a bunch of golf tournaments?
I just wish Woods was free to pull out of the Masters on the spot, leaving Payne to wallow in his low-rated, who-cares-anymore? sanctity.
On the bright side, Payne just showed his real face.
Woods is just a guy, if an accomplished one, who messed up. Payne is one of those who made him into a living god and now thinks Tiger let him down, or in other words, the living embodiment of the Real Problem.
P.S.—Watch CBS, which just buried the replays of Butler’s Gordon Hayward fouling Michigan State’s Draymond Green at the end of their NCAA semifinal, do their ostrich act on this one.
AP / David J. Phillip