The International Writers Magazine: Tiger's Back
Next Time, A Different Burning
Tiger, Tiger, burning bright in the forest of the night.
And did he burn bright! Ever since this wunderkind exploded onto the golf scene, he’s reigned supreme. No other athlete since Mohammed Ali has so dominated the sports world. When Tiger Woods didn’t compete in a tournament, television ratings were down and small attention paid the winner. After all, the winner didn’t beat Tiger. Tiger wasn’t there.
Tiger Woods is still young, handsome, and rich. He owns a 100 foot yacht, appropriately named “privacy.” He is a billionaire and yet does not (except for perhaps the yacht) put on airs. He doesn’t drive a conspicuously lavish automobile, nor live in a house rivaling San Simeon. He is well-dressed but no Beau Brummell. He doesn’t drape his wife in the latest Paris fashion. His children appear normal and unspoiled. On camera he is soft-spoken, and except for occasional “kick butt” comments, not close to being verbally aggressive. Nor does he talk in the dumb-dumb cliché of the jock-strap professional. It wasn’t long ago that he was indeed one of us.
Tiger Woods is a black man that rocketed to the top of his profession though natural ability, parental direction, expert golf instruction, and perhaps the best public relations staff ever assembled. Tiger Woods is a different kind of professional golfer. Past golfing greats had something distinctive about their lives, something that put them in a class by themselves. The last great one, Jack Nicklous, exemplified golf In its golden age. The son of a pharmacist, Jack grew up in a country club and blessed with the finest golfing tutelage available. In a sense golf had always been his occupation. He had no need to struggle for direction, his life had been laid out for him.
And so it was for Tiger Woods, but there is a difference: Tiger is a black man. There had been other good black golfers, Lee Elder for one, the first black invited to the Masters tournament, and Charles Sifford, who for years played high quality PGA tournament golf. No black man, however, has come close to the caliber of Tiger Woods. He became a phenomenon, so talked about and admired nobody realized the social significance of what he had done. Simply put, he became white.
Tiger’s cross over was seemingly effortless and unnoticed. An examination, however, reveals calculation. He didn’t just go to a white college, he went to perhaps the best college on the West Coast, Stanford University, hardly a Mecca for blacks. Tiger didn’t just marry a white woman, he married a Scandinavian white woman, and a blonde white woman to boot. He drove a SUV and lived in a upper middle class suburb. Nice surroundings but not “different nice.” Not caught up in conspicuous consumption (aside perhaps from the yacht), he didn’t parade around in leather or fur coats or show-off huge diamond rings and gold necklaces. Nor did he consciously attempt to exhibit no vanity. He simply had a damn nice life, the kind most Americans desire. Not gilded, just filled with pleasant events and nice things.
In fact, through the imaging from the hundreds of commercials and sound bites Tiger has done, he came off as an average American who also happened to be a golfing Mozart, a classic prodigy who also worked hard to improve. Richer and more educated that most, (again, you can’t forget the yacht or Stanford University), he lived in a beautiful house in a cushy suburban area that seemed appropriate. He fit snugly into the neighborhood, younger than its average resident by quite a few years, but a good fit all the same. Like his neighbors, Tiger didn’t mention race relations much. If he happened to do so during an interview that pretended depth (real in-depth interviews Tiger avoids like the plague) it was in a philosophical vane, nothing specific mentioned. He never joined any radical groups, or lent his name to any cause. You would never hear him say “Black is beautiful,” or mirror Bill Cosby by urging blacks to exert themselves through excellence. He publicly didn’t take much interest in society’s economic structure, or its politics. His seemingly never ending series of commercial endorsements are similar to those of other athletes. “It’s good because I use it,” summed up what he inferred.
But compared to other athletes there was something different about Tiger, something elegant, and yet something a part of “us.” Unlike other celebrities Tiger Woods could get away with a ”goody-two-shoes” image. After all, many celebrities work in Hollywood with its flagrant reality of tinsel, or best others in the cut-throat business world. Such e celebrities proudly carry these scars. They had earned them. But their glamour was different from a Tiger Woods. Tiger couldn’t be touched or violated. Tiger was implacably pristine. You couldn’t imagine Tiger any other way. Tiger was the eternal virgin, a sort of male Doris Day.
And then came the scandal. Sex, as it usually does with the rich and famous, played the major (and to most people) only role in the first downfall of Tiger Woods. I say “first downfall” because Tiger has more great golf in him, one that requires another persona by necessity of greater depth and moral superiority than the first. Certainly the previous Tiger cannot be resurrected, not after world media play by play reportage of all those women in all those places, not to mention copies of E-mails broadly hinting sexual perversions. A few days of that well-publicized deluge and the golfing Mozart’s image lay in pieces, red numbers on old scorecards representing ubiquitous and gratuitous sex, as well as birdies and eagles. The sea change had been a hurricane.
The scandal was as juicy as they come. Tiger Woods, everyone’s favorite athlete, the man kissed by the sporting Gods, revealed a secret sex addict. “And to think he had a beautiful wife, and all that fame, and all that money and he did all that fooling around!” On and on it went, all over the world. Still does.
Then, as he began play in his first post scandal tournament, the Masters, a tournament selected as everything else Tiger selects because of the PR factor (spectators too well-behaved, golf course too hallowed, for heckling scenes ) we find on our television screens the precursor of the next Tiger image. Unbelievably (but certainly in the Tiger Woods tradition of image making) the commercial is shot in black and white. As the camera focuses on Tiger’s grimly set expression, from off screen is heard the voice of his dead father, Earl, asking; “Tiger, have you learned anything?” Daddy Earl, a career soldier, an enlisted man who raised Tiger from a cub, is speaking to his son from the grave. Saying serious stuff too, not pitching a Buick sedan or a box of serial; “Tiger, have you learned anything?”
Future commercials and sound bite interviews will reveal what Tiger learned. It’s not hard to guess: the gravity inherent in marriage vows, and above all that persona so loved by USA image makers, classic Greek hubris, will be what he has learned. Tiger had thought himself bigger than society, believed he could do what he wanted when he wanted to do it. But life taught him he was not invincible. He had lived a lie, got knocked down for it, and now must rise and climb back up the success ladder.
But as he climbs Tiger Woods must be careful. This latest commercial takes a great risk and millions of dollars are at risk. Although Americans love comebacks they don’t like being fooled, particularly not when it come to family relationships and values. Those that swallowed the “goody-goody two-shoes” pie served up by Woods and his team of manipulators the first time, now feel betrayed. To gain public favor the new Woods pitch must be markedly different in kind, and precise in execution. A subtle finesse is demanded. If the words of Daddy Woods are interpreted by the public as simply more public relations nonsense, the milk-train image will run off its tracks for good.
Tiger’s new image must concentrates on the growth and maturity absorbed through a wisdom derived from life’s inevitable hard knocks. Accomplishing this is difficult for most athletes, not because they’re more honest than Tiger Woods, rather because age diminishes athlete skills. “Losers” are forgotten. You must keep winning. This is where being a prodigy comes in handy. Accomplished as he is, Tiger still has the physical acumen needed for future golf success. He will win again, and again. But winning is not enough. For Tiger to rise to the level of his past commercial image, there must be a reason other than talent, practice and the usual American ethos sandwiched around egalitarianism. Too many remembrances by too many people for too long a time make that return impossible. A total reinterpretation must be made. A “new” must be added to the mix.
Like spreading manure on a field, the “new “will be spread atop the fallow of the old. Hence the “Dead Daddy” commercial and those that follow will be based on an image that Tiger hits it longer and straighter because he no longer thinks himself above the crowd he had left behind. It took him over thirty years, but he understands.
His understanding has a lot to do with sex, but not everything. Along with wisdom of what to do with your flesh and where to do it, there is the unspoken acceptance of Tiger asking to be one of us. Ex-communication can be traumatic, particularly in the pocket book.
And so Tiger Woods will change. To his dead father’s question, he will answer: “I did bad things, but I learned they were bad, overcame the humiliation and suffered the justified punishment. I became the stronger for it. I have grown up.”
Eventually, through commercials and sound bites (barring egregious mistakes by his PR people) the public will finally get it. Now, without much analyzing (the need for which will be drummed out of the public mind by constant repetition) we will realize Tiger Woods again exists for everyone. His endorsements mean something. He represents the best of all of us.
Tiger,Tiger, burning bright, in the forest of our night.
© James Morford April 2010