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Tiger: “What Happened?”

by Jeff Skinner

There are only a few golf writers that have had access to Tiger Woods like Jaime Diaz has. Through their mutual association with Golf Digest, Diaz has interviewed Woods at season’s end for the past eight years. This year there is no interview, only a piece by Diaz that asks the question we all are wondering, “What Happened?”

Diaz offers his experienced insights into how Tiger finds himself in his current dilemma and is sure he’ll come out of it a changed man, but still the dominant golfer he was previously. Even as an accomplished junior golfer he was wary of the media and asked Diaz, “Why do they have to know everything?”

Diaz recounts the pressure Earl Woods place on Tiger: “Earl in particular couldn’t refrain from portraying his son as perfect. The litany was long, with relatively small pronouncements, like Tiger never playing golf until he had completed his homework, to bigger ones, like Tiger being “incapable” of lying, to the supersized: Tiger would be more important than Gandhi. An oft-repeated phrase is one I heard at our first meeting: “I’m very proud that Tiger is a better person than he is a golfer.”

Tiger’s fall from grace has shown him to be much less than his father envisioned and Woods will never be thought of as the man his dad had thought he could be. As the Woods image grew, Tiger found it tougher to function: As Tiger’s life in his 30s became more tangled, he turned more inward. His inner circle got smaller and tighter, and those who overstepped or didn’t fit in were jettisoned. The best advice for those who are around Woods remains, “Don’t get too close.” Those who were the closest saw the pressures and the toll. Out of sympathy, and the fact that he is their employer, they didn’t call Woods on imperfect behavior like swearing, banging clubs and blowing by autograph lines. Within his camp, Tiger in a bad mood would be characterized in golf jargon: “Unplayable.”

We have seen it too often with gifted athletes that are meal tickets for many people: no one wants to say no to them. No one will tell them what they are doing is wrong or hurtful.

Last year was probably the most uncomfortable I’ve ever seen Woods. Coming off eight months of intense rehab for his left knee that didn’t produce full healing, he was noticeably irritable. The fact that a witness in the police report after Tiger’s accident said that Woods had been prescribed Vicodin, a strong prescription painkiller, gives pause. And it’s not unreasonable to assume that his marriage was unhappy for quite some time.

Whatever the reasons, at times he was uncharacteristically rude. One of the telling images of the year came after he bounced his driver into the crowd in Australia. After fans retrieved the club, Woods took it without so much as a glance, let alone an apology.

Diaz wonders how a man that is normally so careful could lead such a reckless life. It’s another case of a young man thinking he is “bulletproof.”

Putting aside questions of infidelity, what’s intriguing is why Woods — always so calculating, detail-oriented and careful — was so reckless. With so much to lose, how could he be heedless enough to leave an e-mail, voicemail and text-message trail to tabloid hell?

Woods and his team were very careful to build his “perfect image” but Diaz seems to be stating that Woods is just another athlete that can’t control his appetite.

It doesn’t matter that Woods has never been comfortable on the pedestal of moral superiority. Doesn’t matter that philandering has been part of pro golf since the Scots were stuffing featheries, or that it’s pervasive in other sports. Woods was supposed to be the guy with the superhuman discipline to withstand temptation, the example that millions of parents held up to their children, our vicarious thrill ride to the outer limits of human potential. We had presumed him, above all others, to be special. Betraying all that exacted a commensurate public disgrace.

I think it’s odd that Tiger talks of integrity and honesty when it comes to the game of golf but has no use for those traits in his personal life.

Diaz predicts that Woods will once again be the dominant golfer he was but will forever be a changed man.

Woods’ old mystique — that of the chilly Chosen One immune to human weakness — is gone. It might well be that his former domination or even his competitive desire goes with it. Still, he has a chance to attain something more human. When he re-emerges, Woods will have truly suffered. Not knee-injury suffering, not even loss-of-father suffering. Rather the kind of suffering that heroes who have ruined their charmed lives confront at the climax of Shakespearean tragedy.

Woods may be suffering, but it is a suffering inflicted by his own hand, not by the press or tabloids, not by the cocktail waitresses or hostesses, not by anyone other than Woods himself. He has caused more suffering than he has endured and his wife and children will have to live with the tainted life he has forced upon them. This is not the Tiger Woods that his dad had envisioned. This is the Tiger Woods created by Tiger and his team of yes men and hangers on, all too afraid to challenge their meal ticket, their golden goose, when he spun out of control.

Just as it isn’t an overstatement to see the fallen Woods in such a context, so it is difficult to understate the potential scale of his redemption. Through all his folly, Woods has made passing Nicklaus’ major record an even greater feat than it would have been without it. Because the ultimate measure of a man is not what he achieves, it’s what he overcomes.

Diaz is right; the measure of a man is in what he overcomes. However, in Tiger’s case this mess is all of his own doing. Do you get credit for overcoming something you caused yourself? Not in my book.

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