Death throes of an American hero

By Michael Wood

I don’t think the American public, as a whole, really understands the scope of the Tiger Woods scandal. Casual sports fans, and even some regulars, know who Woods is and they know that his crime was a huge moral issue, and that it would have an enormous impact on his professional life. They claim they understand.
But do they?

The answer, in short, is no. They definitely do not.

People don’t understand just how huge this scandal was. Tiger Woods was golf. He was bigger than the game. He wasn’t just the best at his sport; plenty of athletes are the best at what they do. Woods personified everything that Americans wanted the perfect athlete to be. He was smart, young, good-looking, edgy, fierce, and passionate. He always said the right things to the media, and yet, he kept his personal life out of the limelight in a way no other athletes of his fame could do – save for maybe the occasional Derek Jeter or Dan Marino here and there. Americans have this image of the perfect celebrity athlete in their heads, and in just about every way, Woods fit that image.

Woods has been famous since he started walking. We’re talking about a guy who was featured on The Mike Douglas Show swinging a golf club when he was two years old. Yes, two. From the moment he stepped onto the tour at age 20 and birdied his first professional hole, everybody who knows golf knew he would be great.
He set the Professional Golf Association on fire in his early years, winning two events in his first three months on tour and setting a myriad of records.

His first major victory? It was the 1997 Masters – the tournament of all golf tournaments. Oh yeah, and he was the first African-American player to ever be allowed on Augusta’s legendary course. Pretty impressive, but don’t forget that he set a course record at 18 under par and defeated the field by a record margin of 12 strokes. With an oversized driver in one hand and a $40 million contract with Nike in the other, he swept us off our feet. Fourteen major championships and a billion dollars later, the debate if he’s the greatest to ever play the game rages on.

Nike did a remarkable job promoting him, and his agent and advisors always made sure his press conferences and interviews went off without a hitch. He never exposed too much of himself, and off the course, you never heard a single negative thing about him. This, of course, happens today, but no athlete seems as untouchable as Woods was in his prime. He did everything right, checked every box on our criteria for celebrity athletes. He was an international brand that everybody could get on board with, and most did. He was, in our eyes, perfect.

Then, without any hint or warning, Woods’ personal catastrophe struck.

When news of Woods’ actions came out, the golf world, and to some extent, the entire sporting world came to a screeching halt. Everything stopped applauding this athletic hero, and everybody began to question him and other athletes held in such high regard. If Woods fell prey to adulterous temptations, then who was safe? Who would take his place at the summit of the sporting world? Can anyone? Can that picture of an American sports hero ever really exist again?

When something that significant happens, and it affects the entire sporting world’s population, I don’t think you can ever go back. Woods has made this harder for himself because he hasn’t won since being back on the tour, but I don’t think he can ever hope to be viewed as even close to the same person he once was.
People will never look at him the same because of the weight and gravity of his scandal. No endorsement deals, Saturday Night Live parodies, trick shot videos or major championships will fix what he has broken. And that’s the trust of everyone who’s watched him since he was two years old. You can’t get that back by saying you’re sorry and winning a few golf tournaments. No, the cut is much deeper than that.

Winning might solve his problems for a little while. He might avoid the questions about his personal life which he has never had to face before, replacing them instead with inquiries about how he chipped in for birdie from a bunker 25 yards away from the pin. He might even get asked how it feels to be back on top of the golfing world. To whichever reporter asks him that question after his next victory – he will win again, and you know somebody will jump the gun and bring it up – Woods should answer: “I’m not,” because he’s not.
Woods’ downfall is like that time your parents caught you misbehaving and said, “We’re not mad. We’re just very disappointed.”

Woods can’t ever speak at a press conference or give an interview again without being questioned, at least a little bit, by the world at large; they’re too disappointed in him and won’t believe him anyway – I know I won’t. The wound is too fresh.

Michael Wood can be reached at [email protected]