In an individual sport, can you cheer for the player and not the man?
Tiger Woods, befallen by infidelity and exposed as one of the world’s most successfully contrived personas, tees off today for the first round of the 2010 Masters.
This comes 13 years after a 21-year-old Woods shattered every record that matters in the 1997 Masters en route to a 12-stroke win and the front of the American sports conscience. That four-day foray inspired this chubby little 12-year-old to pick up golf. I suspect I’m not alone there. Tiger inspired a generation.
He also inspired this 24-year-old to spend his 2009 tax return on a new set of Nike irons, a Nike driver, a Nike golf bag and a pair of Nike golf shoes. All told, $900 spent without hesitation. I trusted the swoosh because I trusted Tiger.
Nike released its first commercial featuring Woods since his lie began to unravel last Thanksgiving. In the 33-second clip, Woods stares blankly at the camera while an audio clip of his deceased father plays. Earl Woods says:
Tiger, I am more prone to be inquisitive, to promote discussion. I want to find out what your thinking was. I want to find out what your feelings are. And did you learn anything?
Woods offers no answer. Apparently, his silence is supposed to speak volumes, but for many people, the commercial doesn’t land.
A silent Woods offers no answers to his father, but I would like to.
* * * * *
I want to find out what your thinking was…
When I heard news Woods was involved in an early morning car accident outside his home in the early morning after Thanksgiving, my immediate fear was Woods would never play again. I had seen a blurb on a sports gossip site somewhere days earlier about an alleged affair, but I didn’t connect the dots.
I was at a farmhouse with my dad back home in South Dakota. We were rooting through a storage unit and I found an old driver and a bucket of golf balls. I just had to take a few shots into this cornfield, because it had been months since I last played. How thematic — bonding with my dad, hitting some golf balls, not unlike a younger version of Tiger with Earl. My dad and I have experienced some good times on the golf course, and I’m not sure that would’ve happened without Woods.
We listened to the local ESPN Radio affiliate on the ride home as the story was breaking, and I thought, What if he never plays golf again? At the time, I thought that was the worst possible outcome.
…I want to find out what your feelings are…
Now that we’re here, at the tail-end of Tigergate, the tabloid frenzies and myriad mistresses coming forward, I’m left to wonder if I can cheer for Woods this weekend. It’s in my nature to forgive and for all intents and purposes, Woods owes no apology to me. We never took vows. I’m just a guy who decided to clear out emotional real estate for the monumental appreciation of a single athlete. That’s my fault. That’s on me.
Friends, family and co-workers have asked if I’ll cheer for him this weekend. I think I’m more cheering for the principle of forgiveness and rehabilitation. At this point, it would seem unbecoming to wish failure upon Woods. Lord knows he’s been through enough. I’m rooting for him in the way I would root for a prisoner who’s been released after serving his time or for a recovering drug addict clean after months in rehab.
I believe in redemption. I have the word Champ tattooed on my left wrist. My grandfather made that my first name, even sending postage to Champ Miller whenever a holiday or birthday rolled around. This was the same grandfather who took me to the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional in Bethesda, MD. We arrived Friday, round two, and I remember my grandfather pushing me through a gallery to the front row alongside the third-hole green. There stood Tiger Woods, a moving monument in white slacks and a lime green polo. Six-foot-one never seemed taller. Tiger mattered to me from that day until last fall.
My grandfather did some pretty despicable things in his day, but over time, he redeemed himself. Clearly, he left a mark on me.
That in mind, how can I not root for Tiger?
…And did you learn anything?
It’s just sports. These are just athletes.
Tiger Woods is a brilliant athlete who plays a difficult sport. As a fan, I get to watch him try and solve a game that stumps 99.9% of other golfers on a regular basis. As a fan, that’s all I get. That’s all I deserve. The personal stories, feature pieces, in-depth interviews — I don’t want or need them. No more buying into the brand of an athlete. Give me a performance, I’ll be sure to stand and clap.
We’ve all got demons. It’s hard to compare infidelity to a history of violence or drug usage or abuse or any other form of indiscretion. In some way, big or small, we’re all wrong at some point. Some of us, however, are never exposed. Far be it from me to level blame or disdain for Woods. Shame on me for thinking I “knew” him or even had the right to.
I’ve experienced a growing emotional detachment from athletes over the past few months. Even while my beloved Minnesota Vikings came this close to playing in the Super Bowl, my Orlando Magic push to get back into the NBA Finals and my Minnesota Twins enter a season of great expectations, I’m taking more interest in wins and losses, not who’s earning them. They can have their lives, keep their privacy. I just need a box score and a recap. I might just play some fantasy sports, too. Spare me the personal life details.
I can cheer for Tiger Woods, the player, without cheering for Tiger Woods, the façade. Above all, this weekend, I’m cheering for redempton.
Before a room crowded with media on Monday, Tiger was in rare form as he took on a barrage of questions built up from five months of silence. At one point, he said, “It’s not about the championships, it’s about how you live your life. I have not done that the right way for a while. I can be a better man going forward.”
I genuinely hope that’s the case. However, it doesn’t matter to me like it used to. That’s his family and friends’ concern.