Commentary

This American Life: Tiger Woods

Tiger's return to golf this week at the Masters is a uniquely American story

Originally Published: April 4, 2010
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Tiger WoodsJamie Squire/Getty ImagesWill it be a resurrection or a circus act? Tiger Week at Augusta National starts on Monday.

Tiger Woods is America.

Rich beyond imagining. Ungovernable. Loved. Hated. Brilliant. Witless. Two-faced. Wanton. Thoughtless. Gifted. Smug. Pious. Addicted. Insatiable. Unfaithful. Courageous. Deluded. Craven. Devoted. Lonely. Weak. Strong. A model. Adrift. The sole remaining superpower of the age, unchecked, perpetually adolescent, rotten in its wanting, innocent of its dishonesty, ignorant of its dysfunction. Inspiring. Heartbreaking.

And maybe the best of its kind in history.

Redeemable? Or unforgivable?

Tiger Woods is America.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
AP Photo/Morry GashIt's rare to see Tiger taking much joy in his golf. Chances are, joyful moments will be even less evident this week.

We mark this Easter Week with his return to the Masters and Augusta National. Weirdly appropriate given the circumstance this year, in which Tiger Woods must walk the TV Stations of the Cross in order to mortify himself, then rise again remade in splendid reanimation. All this in order that he might restore a bright and simple faith to the hearts and minds of his fellow Americans. Or at least to the buyers and sellers of various goods and services.

And whether you're a cardinal or Ken Venturi, it's worth noting that the second Sunday of Easter Week, the Octave Day, next weekend's day of the fourth and final round, is also known as "Low Sunday."

Five-under might do it this year. Or 6.

How low next Sunday will be low enough?

Can any score remake Tiger Woods?

From the remarkable murk of TMZ to the reprehensible dazzle of Vanity Fair, from the gray, gray blogs of the great Gray Lady to the sunny squalor of a California kindergarten news conference staged by Gloria Allred, from the conventional wisdom to the convenient wisecrack, Tiger and the new idiot/industrial complex of name-above-the-title adulterers have become a magnificent franchise for every media outlet in the world. A Year of the Tiger money machine! On behalf of the global vampire press and its unlimited zombie readership, TW, I thank you. We sure can use the Web traffic.

[+] EnlargeGloria Allred
Frederick M. Brown/Getty ImagesYet another woman with a Tiger issue: Maureen Decker, his kindergarten teacher, at a news conference with attorney Gloria Allred on Friday.

I also note that if human cartoon Donald Trump is your last remaining ally, then, brother, you are sunk.

Divine intervention notwithstanding, can Tiger Woods even be saved?

In addition to asking the same moronic question again and again and again -- "Why do men cheat?" (Joke answer: "Because they're breathing"; scientific answer: "Because they're breathing") -- the sports-page moralizers and the broadcast hysterics have been trying these last few weeks to figure out who's at fault. Who made him fiddle with all those women? As in all morality plays and slamming-door comedies, blame must be affixed!

Lately, that seems to fall on Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan for having been "bad influences." Because what young, handsome, wealthy, famous American man would ever take up high-stakes gambling and low-stakes women without Mike and Sir Charles egging him on?

Responding to these ethical determinists have been the Freudians, who blame not the father figures, but the father himself, Earl Woods. The late puppet-maker is having his name dragged retroactively through the mud this week on the theory that an apple never falls far from the tree. (Actually, they get shipped all the way from Washington state, don't they? That seems fairly far. In the Oedipus myth from which these pop psych theories arise, however, the apple returns home to kill the tree with a sword -- then sleep with its own mother and blind itself with a brooch, etc. A classic.)

But the truth is that just as often as any child recreates the bad behaviors of a parent, another child shuns that pattern and chooses the opposite, rolling as far and as fast as it can away from that tree. So where does that leave us?

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods and Mother
Joe Skipper-Pool/Getty ImagesTiger's mother, Kultida, has been there all along to stand by her son, including at his reading of a statement in February.

Back at nature versus nurture! Again! Irresistible versus immovable! Fighting to another bloody draw! Pointless! Self-canceling! Cultural anthropology as UFC undercard!

But, then, interpretive moral subtlety has never been the strength of our promiscuous sporting press. It's all or nothing with us. One or the other! Black or white! Yes or no! Hero or Villain! Choose!

To say nothing of our hypocrisy, which elevates terrible, miserable, morally incomprehensible people -- in other words, people just like you and me -- out of the common muck only because they can hit a rock with a stick.

And we get away with all this because you demand it.

You say you expect nothing from sports -- except that sports entertain you, distract you, that they build and reveal character, that they ease suffering and bring joy and set examples for how to live and think and be in the world, that they simultaneously teach ambition and perfection and humility, that they transport us to the far horizon of what's possible, and that they represent somehow day in and day out and night after night after night what it means to be human. That's all.

And Tiger Woods, more present than ever in his recent absence, will hold yet another news conference Monday in order to answer for all that. To say what? To whom? No idea. To make more amends, I'm sure (per Step 9 of the 12). But unless he says he's selling that giant boat and donating every penny he earns for the rest of his life to the starving, or that he's devoting a summer to washing the feet of every leper in Mumbai, he will have said nothing much.

(Yes, that's unfair. Sorry. Amiable tater tot and nitwit John Daly never has to explain himself or answer for his failures, and is almost never asked seriously why he is the way he is, or does the things he's done. He's us. We recognize ourselves in his antics and serial catastrophes. Tiger remains stuck with the higher standards of the Chosen One, the hero. That's what all those additional zeroes on the paycheck are for. Amen.)

[+] EnlargeJohn Daly
Cameron Spencer/Getty ImagesWhy don't we demand explanations from John Daly the way we do from Tiger?

As such, the advice Tiger's been receiving in abundance these last five months seems to be only about repairing or repackaging the Tiger brand, not healing the broken spirit or saving the soul. Witness this super-secret IMG outline from last winter:

• Step 1 of the Ari Fleischer Plan for Tiger Woods: Hire Ari Fleischer.

• Step 2 of the Ari Fleischer Plan for Tiger Woods: Announce boots on the ground in Augusta. Capture Hootie Johnson in his spider hole.

• Step 3 of the Ari Fleischer Plan for Tiger Woods: Fire Ari Fleischer.

There seems to be no strategy at all now, except to show up, which is just as well. Only lately has anyone seemed concerned with the state of the man himself. Hence the stay in rehab.

And while I wish Mr. Woods good luck with that, it turns out that Tiger will have denied himself nothing. He simply took back up where he left off. He hasn't missed a single major tournament -- the only ones he cares about. So forgive me if I'd be more convinced of his Step 9 amends were he actually sacrificing something to make them.

And count me among those who still consider Jack Nicklaus the best who ever lived, and will continue to think so until that majors record is broken. It has to be the majors record, right? It can't just be total victories, because then we'd all be talking about Sam Snead. But nobody talks about Sam Snead. Which is too bad, because Slammin' Sammy played the game of golf with a great deal of joy. Tiger plays it with none.

[+] EnlargeSam Snead
AP Photo/Ed WiddisIf total victories matter, then so does Slammin' Sammy Snead.

And I think that lies at the heart of nearly all these troubles -- that there is something joyless and lifeless in Tiger Woods. That he is a profoundly lonely man deformed around his father's ambitions, that he is a man with a great physical genius and a withered little soul, who thinks of himself as a scorecard and a magazine cover and a revenue stream. (Remember, mythology is not just for the creation of heroes, but for the telling of cautionary tales, too. Maybe that's the last truth of Tiger Woods.)

The stately tournament with the soothing music will be broadcast in 3-D this year for the first time. Ironic, really, because if Tiger were a fully three-dimensional adult, we might have avoided all this.

And all due respect to my many colleagues and to those of you who think redemption begins and ends with playing well, but even the Masters is only a golf tournament. Neither winning it nor losing it can redeem Tiger Woods. Imprisoned by his imperfections, he is condemned like the rest of us to remain now and forever human. That will have to be enough. And for him, I'm not sure that it will be.

A man rises from the dust, is returned to the dust, tries to rise from the dust once again.

Thus will Easter Week grind on, and with it the endless remaking of our American character, a tradition unlike any other.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question "What are sports for?" You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com.

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