What Tiger’s meltdown says about us

Tiger Woods appears with his wife, Elin, in photographs on the cover of People and Us Weekly displayed on a newsstand in New York.

Tiger Woods appears with his wife, Elin, in photographs on the cover of People and Us Weekly displayed on a newsstand in New York.

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During a visit to Pinehurst in September, I had the good fortune to play golf with an English police officer named Jim, who was touring the East Coast with his wife Sally.

When Jim learned that I worked for a golf magazine, he asked me about some of the top American golfers, and I in turn asked his views on Nick Faldo, whose image has undergone a makeover in recent years. Jim clearly was exasperated by the fact that Faldo, England’s greatest golf champion, still was viewed dimly in many parts of his homeland.

Reader poll

When will Tiger Woods return to the PGA Tour?

  • San Diego Open (Jan. 28-31) 2%
  • Arnold Palmer Invitational (March 25-28) 25%
  • Masters (April 8-11) 20%
  • U.S. Open (June 17-20) 10%
  • After the U.S. Open 5%
  • He will not return in 2010 38%

2218 total votes.

“(The English) much prefer a gallant loser than a dominant winner,” Jim said, shaking his head in disgust. “If Tiger Woods were British, they wouldn’t like him.”

That comment resonated with me because I thought it said as much about America culturally as it did about Europeans. I was reminded of Jim’s comment when I read a remark by Irishman Graeme McDowell, who was interviewed at the Chevron World Challenge about media coverage of Tiger Woods’ fall from grace.

“We do like to give our superstars a hard time, don’t we?” McDowell said.

Actually, Graeme, here in America, we don’t. Before Woods’ recent meltdown, no serious person could consider the charmed life Woods has led since turning professional in 1996 and say that he has been given “a hard time.”

We’ve tuned in and ponied up to watch Woods’ theatrics. We in the media have devoted countless pages and cameras to documenting Woods’ extraordinary play. We’ve grudgingly allowed him to earn and enjoy his millions in peace. We’ve shrugged off the heavy-handed style of Woods and his handlers, hoping it would not get even more heavy-handed. We haven’t been too pesky regarding his personal life, dutifully publishing only those staged family photos approved by Team Tiger.

We’ve long held our tongues rather than reprimanding Woods for his childish and vulgar on-course tantrums. We’ve even generally overlooked the boorish on-course behavior by Woods’ caddie, Steve Williams. Tiger wouldn’t look fondly on those who criticize Stevie.

No one has had it easier in the public spotlight than Tiger Woods. That’s very likely why he got caught. If you’re used to getting the benefit of the doubt, you inevitably will try to push the envelope. It’s sometimes referred to it as “crossing boundaries.” A narcissist who’s married, for instance, might get a rush from having a mistress – but only for a while. Soon, he’ll need another, then another, until finally he gets caught.

How could Tiger be so stupid, many have wondered? It’s easy. We, the compliant media and fawning public, gave him the green light to be a knucklehead.

Remember how Woods went ballistic at the 2006 Ryder Cup when The Dubliner published photos of a topless model purported, falsely, to be Elin Woods? The same publication also belittled the wives of David Toms, Jim Furyk and Chad Campbell, but no one gave them any mind. We were too busy defending the honor of Elin and Tiger. Fair enough. It was a sophomoric satire that had gone terribly wrong, and The Dubliner had to acknowledge as much and pay the Woodses $183,250.

Aside from The Dubliner’s poor taste, I suspect what really bothered Tiger was that he wasn’t used to being challenged by the media. That wasn’t part of his bargain with the press: I play great golf, and you cretins in the media tent stick to covering the birdies and bogeys. That was the deal.

And for a while, that was enough. This goes back to Jim’s point. In America, we celebrate virtuosity, and on the course, Woods has it in abundance. This is the land of opportunity. That’s no cliché; we embrace, rather than tear down, greatness. True, it’s become fashionable, particularly among some tin-eared populists, to disparage society’s top achievers. On the whole, however, such demagoguery simply is not in our DNA as Americans.

But that view is not out of place in McDowell’s Europe, where egalitarianism is deeply ingrained in the Old World’s fabric. Europeans seem uncomfortable with the level of success enjoyed by sublime talents such as Woods and Faldo. It’s just not right that they’ve won so often. Therefore, they must be brought down to size.

Earlier this year Golfweek ran a story on the dearth of great players in Scotland. How can that be true in the home of golf, we wondered? In part, I suspect, it’s because Europeans don’t place the same premium on excellence as we have historically in America. I’m sure many will regard that statement as rubbish and point to America’s recent troubles. But the evidence is overwhelming. The United States, still a relatively young country, long ago became “the greatest nation in the world.” That’s not a jingoistic American talking; that’s French president Nicolas Sarkozy in a Nov. 7, 2007, speech to Congress.

In that same passage, Sarkozy added, “America embodies this extraordinary ability to grant each and every person a second chance.” America will give Woods his second chance thanks to his magnificent skills on a golf course. But he’ll no longer get the benefit of the doubt.

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