The reality show that is Tiger Woods this golf season could have debuted with all the moral weight of an infomercial. Yet once again, he surprises us – or at least this reviewer – with a stunningly crafted, cliché-less confessional that went far beyond anything that any other athlete in memory has uttered.
There’s no way to know whether it was sincere, but it certainly sounded intelligent, revealing and most importantly of all for an athlete of his stature – not that there is another athlete of his stature – humble and anything but arrogant. This was far more self-deprecating than Mark McGwire gesturing how he was “here to talk about the future, not about the past.” Despite the presence of some business associates, friends and family, it did not convey the artificial “teammates have my back” look of Alex Rodriquez ’fessing up (partially) to steroid use.
OK, it was scripted, the room controlled for access, the press kept at bay and no questions allowed from the media. The Golf Writers Association of America (of which I’m a member) got some attention in the run-up to the managed event by deciding not to participate officially in the selection of the reporters pool in the room. And it’s impossible to judge the mood in the room based upon the limited camera feed made available. There was certainly a level of nervousness in the air, palpable simply in Tiger’s occasionally shaky voice. But for all the scripted quality of the 14-minute performance, the real drama was that despite adhering to a written text, Woods came off as ashamed, sorrowful and vulnerable.
That’s not easy for an athlete to do, certainly not one who revels in public drama. But this was public drama on an entirely different scale than a golf course, with 20 media trucks representing outlets from all over the world assembled nearby, along with 300 writers and reporters and a live video feed carried on all four major networks plus ESPN and Golf Channel. The run-up included segments on “Good Morning America,” sports talk shows discussing the matter for two days solid, and overseas betting parlors issuing odds on what he would and would not say – including 500-1 that he’d channel Bill Clinton’s notorious “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
As Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee noted just before the cameras rolled, there were lots of legitimate questions about “the timing and format” of the event. ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi was just as unquestioning as PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem in claiming that because Woods’ rehabilitation schedule demanded it, running up against the WGC Accenture Match Play championship wasn’t evidence of his being selfish.
But all of that speculation paled once Woods started reading. His face looked a bit puffy, and at times his nervousness made his pronunciation of consonants a bit fuzzy. He was clearly out of his element, and it contributed to a level of credibility. For here was a man owning up by wanting to take all of the blame. He was adamant that, by contrast to his own selfish behavior, his wife Elin had “shown enormous poise and grace through this ordeal.”
There will be much media criticism of his desire to maintain a protective circle around his family and to keep them out of the media spotlight. It’s easy – and also wrong – for some in the media who have become accustomed to an “anything goes in the new media” standard to resent this and to see it as a ruse by which Woods can hide himself. And yet there was something moving, something very traditional and protective, about the plea to the paparazzi and Web sites to “please leave my wife and kids alone.”
There also will be some questions raised about Woods’ invocation of his faith in Buddhism. Daring to raise it was nervy, and yet fascinating, because it was part of his confession about having lost his path and a sense of balance and restraint. If that’s what it takes for him to re-create meaning in his life, good for him for saying so publicly.
And he deserves credit for acknowledging that when he does return to the game – whenever that is – it will be with a renewed respect for the game itself. In other words, less arrogance on course.
Nick Faldo, commenting on Golf Channel, said that what’s clear now is that Woods needs to get back to golf. In fact, that’s not at all the sense of what we just saw. What we saw, and what Woods managed to convey in a text that he probably had a major hand in writing himself, was a man starting to see himself differently. It’s not easy going through therapy. It’s not easy to reveal weakness publicly. It’s not easy to have grown up surrounded by enablers and then suddenly to face limits and restraints.
For 14 minutes, we saw a man acknowledging those limits and trying to grow up publicly. It promises to be an interesting show.