By Mike Taibbi
I’m a golfer, and I can’t tell you how many times in the last dozen years or so I’ve thought or said—after another Sunday display of otherworldly golfing genius by the guy in the red shirt—‘Man oh man, what I wouldn’t give to be Tiger Woods for a week…’
Well, not this week. Not any week. Not anymore. I’m old enough to have had an AARP card for awhile and as far back as my teenage years I’ve been a reporter. That means I’m cynical, in the way of the old Chicago City News Service axiom, “…if your mother says she loves you—check it out.”
But I was never cynical about Tiger Woods, not from the first articles I read and fist pumps I saw as he burned his way through six junior and amateur championships; not through his ‘Are you ready, world?’ explosion onto the professional golf tour; not through his temper tantrums and his other displays of alpha dog arrogance. It was a champion’s arrogance, as I saw it, and he was a champion without peer in a sport that thrills me even as it presents its endless, maddening challenges. And it wasn’t just his physical prowess that I found mesmerizing: he was, as his father Earl was always eager to point out, the ‘mentally toughest’ competitor anyone could imagine, and that toughness… coupled with his abundant imagination and boundless calculation…propelled him and millions of fans around the world on his journey to unthinkable levels of excellence and attainment. Who would begrudge him his outsized success, as he became history’s first billion dollar athlete? He had discipline to match his matchless talent, we heard in the evolving biography from the Woods camp; there was no limit to what he might accomplish inside the ropes and beyond. Our admiration and belief? My belief in him? He earned it.
So I followed him: watched golf when he was in contention, and rarely at other times. Read or listened to his bland post-match comments, looking for clues to his genius; saw with satisfaction that marriage and fatherhood did no more to dull his competitive fires than did injuries or slumps; saw him cry in the embrace of his caddy when he took his first major after his father’s death, the British at Hoylake. Tiger was Tiger, so mentally tough, he’d always find a way — ruthlessly if necessary, expending passion only for the game—back to the rarefied air where he lived and breathed.
And it was clear to me too that he knew that even for him the clock was ticking, his days in the sun would be limited. “I’m not getting any younger,” he said once, in what played as a brilliantly self-aware commercial a few years ago. I felt privileged to be around during Tiger’s run, however long it lasted; I admired his consummate skill but also the way he lost with grace, doffing his cap, the way he respected his elders and the game’s history. I was sure there would be more to his story when competitive golf ended for him… something special instead of ceremonial golf or playing from the forward tees on the senior tour. He was disciplined, intelligent, so mentally tough, those words again; he’d control his story right to the end, some stumbles along the way but no big mistakes, and in the end we’d love the story he wrote.
It didn’t even matter that parts of his mythology had already begun to chip away. When Korean Y.E. Yang reeled him in at the PGA Championship in August, there went that whole red-shirt-on-Sunday-never-losing-when-tied-or-in-the-lead-at-a-major thing. And he couldn’t pull it off on two other major championship Sundays in 2009, when he was right there… and even missed the cut at the British! It was disappointing but OK in my book: after all he was coming back from major knee surgery, he still won six other tournaments during the year, he was still Tiger. The best golfer. The best story, beautiful to watch, his future guaranteed to keep dazzling us.
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At first, when my wife heard about that initial story in a supermarket tabloid, I told her it couldn’t be true. Tiger was just too smart to be unaware of how much he might lose by having a tawdry affair. I told her how ‘mentally tough’ he was, how his father had taught him from his toddler years to ignore every distraction so he could ‘…let the legend grow.’ Tiger? With that woman? It didn’t compute.
Then, a couple of days later, that weird accident and the first reports I got as an alert on my Blackberry that he’d suffered ‘serious injuries.’ I saw the words ‘unconscious… for several minutes.’ I must admit, beyond my instant fear that he might truly be terribly injured and, at the least, might never play golf again, my initial thoughts included a guess that the accident was in some way connected to those false charges published in that supermarket tabloid.
Then came the rest. Day after day of it, and it’s nowhere near over. I’ve seen enough. I get it. My wife and my female friends couldn’t believe it when I said as the Tiger scandal unfolded that it pained me personally. Their reactions, collectively, added up to “C’mon, he’s a guy!” I knew what they were saying, and knew they accepted that not all guys cheat… or all women, for that matter. Just a lot of them. But I said what pained me is that I believed that Tiger…so disciplined and so brilliant… just couldn’t be that undisciplined. That stupid. Leaving hundreds of texts and instant messages to the cocktail waitresses and other playmates he was committing “personal sins” and “transgressions” with. Leaving that pathetic voicemail, “Hi…it’s Tiger…I need you to do me a huge favor. Could you, uh, please take your name off your phone…?” When I heard the tape of that call, so much for self-awareness, whatever faith I had in Tiger Woods was gone. Not because he’d betrayed his wife: because he’d betrayed me. I bought his brand. I helped him to that billion dollars. And I got conned. Turns out he’s just a great golfer but a jerk like so many other men can be. Jeez!
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I don’t know what happens with Tiger now. In a way he’s a more interesting story, certainly more human…though not one who evokes any sympathy. My guess is that one of his major sponsors will drop him soon or announce a ‘mutual decision’ to temporarily suspend a commercial relationship with Tiger, and other corporate partners will quickly follow suit. Tiger was a billion dollar brand when he was a G-rated international superstar with the skills, the look, the limitless future. R-rated tabloid fixtures don’t pose next to Roger Federer selling razor blades. The scandal will cost Tiger tens of millions, maybe more, though the real cost, to his reputation, is both bigger and more permanent. He’s only 34 next week, but he’s already written a sentence no one anticipated that will be in the first paragraph of his obituary.
Beyond that hit to his place in the firmament, he’ll still be a television ratings monster, maybe bigger than ever. Can you imagine following his every step, every swing, every facial expression (and the commentary of the tournament’s announcers) the next time he tees it up in a televised event? Will he still be Tiger on the course, an assassin with an artist’s touch? Or will the cloud of disapproval and contempt that will forever follow him now rob him of the bulletproof confidence that was often all that separated him from other supremely talented competitors? And what about his fellow pros? Many have long harbored resentments about Tiger but were loath to voice them. But Jesper Parnevik, the Swedish golfer who introduced Woods to his au pair, Elin Nordegren, now the cuckolded wife, said in an interview last week he owed Elin an apology for that original introduction. Parnevik’s quote about Woods was devastating, and spot on: “We probably thought he was a better guy than he is.”
I thought so too. Dammit.
Mike Taibbi is a correspondent for NBC News. He lives in North Haven.