Looking at Tiger Woods through fresh eyes

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, December 4, 2009; D01

We spend our lives drawing and re-drawing the portraits of everybody we know -- our family, friends, colleagues and, of course, those public figures that interest us most. We even redraw our own self-portraits.

That's what's happening with millions of people now in light of the Tiger Woods affair. Swedish golfer Jesper Parnevik focused this idea for me when he said that he felt like he owed Elin Nordegren, Woods's wife, an apology because she once worked for his family as a nanny and he and his wife introduced her to Woods.

"We probably thought he was a better guy than he is," Parnevik said. When the Parneviks made that introduction, Woods had been famous for years. Yet they still didn't have Woods pegged right.

Parnevik is particularly caustic, with reason, because of his family connection.

"I would probably need to apologize to [Elin] and hope she uses a driver next time instead of a 3-iron," Parnevik said. "It's a private thing, of course, but when you are the guy he is -- the world's best athlete -- you should think more before you do stuff . . . and maybe not 'Just do it,' like Nike says."

Except for the crack about the 3-iron, I'm pretty much with Jesper. Tiger isn't as good a guy as I thought he was. So I'll have to incorporate that into my "redrawing" of his portrait.

However, this happens constantly. We need to return to the picture -- not shred it and start over, but rather make it conform to our latest and best-available version of reality. And it's not just our view of other people that changes. I can't think of a decade in my life when I didn't become aware of a flaw in myself to which I'd been oblivious; or else the things that happened in my life hadn't brought out the quality that I didn't like in myself.

In sports, we're hit hardest when we have to darken the expression in Roger Clemens's face or harden the eyes of Barry Bonds. But some pictures improve.

Think of the last 15 years of Abe Pollin's life. If he had died at age 70, he never would have built Verizon Center. We never would have seen his vision for downtown D.C. brought to life. We wouldn't have appreciated the good side of his stubbornness in finishing the project when the whole deal fell back on him. And he wouldn't have had 15 more years to do his philanthropic work. So, we redrew the Pollin portrait, much to his benefit, over those years.

One of the world's richest men, Bill Gates, is now thought of primarily for his philanthropic foundation. Yet just 15 years ago, he was often viewed as a self-centered monopolist. Maybe all the elements in his character were already present. But we didn't know it. So we got out our mental portraits and changed his outline.

For better or worse, Tiger will redraw his public picture, probably more than once, over the rest of his life. No, not just his marketing image. Long careers, especially in golf, work against keeping secrets indefinitely. I wish him luck with the project. But like millions, I'm also disappointed in him, even though it's not my business to be disappointed in anybody else's private life.

In the past week, we have had to engage in this redrawing process on an almost daily basis as facts emerged. For example, at first, Woods seemed arrogant in refusing to speak to police. Now, it seems probable the Woods family chose silence out of concern for potential legal problems for Nordegren under Florida law. Even if a person is innocent of domestic violence, do you want to give information to the police -- when you have every right not to speak -- and bet that an imperfect justice system will get the truth correct in the case of your family?

Before 2:25 a.m. last Friday, Tiger concedes he did things wrong. After that, it looks like he, or his advisers, have done things mostly right, including an apology so strong and sweeping that, for all practical purposes, it is a confession. He doesn't need to do any more. He's mortified. His wife may have grounds to go back to Sweden. And however his injuries happened -- and I accept the family and police version that the car accident did it -- Woods took the equivalent of a barroom beating. Enough.

Because Woods has been such a huge public figure for so long, and a symbol of near-perfection as a competitor, the number of people who have had a personal reaction to this story is enormous. For me, I like Woods. Just gut level. Some don't like him. I do. Still do. Less now.

My two strongest reactions came when I first read the words "reportedly seriously injured" and when I heard that 32-second tape -- how can you avoid it -- that begins, "This is Tiger." Both times I said, "Oh, no" -- the first time worried, the second time sad.

People have as much right to their privacy as they do to their property or to their physical safety. There is no significant difference, in the practical reality of daily life, between the potential damage done by invading someone's privacy and robbing their house or physically attacking them.

In fact, you can get insurance to cover the robbery and, if attacked, your wounds may heal. But you can never get the invaded and exposed portion of your privacy back.

In this regard, many note that the name of Woods's yacht is "Privacy." But it is his own actions which have ultimately led to an enormous invasion of the privacy of his wife and family. Others have been the agents. But he can lay off the lectures. He caused it.

Now, in the aftermath, around the world tens of millions of portrait artists are all reworking their picture of Woods. And they will all be different. Some may add caricature devil's horns. But most of us, because life forces us to change our views of so many things, will settle for more subtle changes.

In the future, we'll excuse his little foibles less -- his on-course temper, his off-course prima donna prerogatives -- because we know that real flaws lie below the surface. But, mostly, we'll wait and see. Our final view of Tiger is still in his hands, far more than anyone else's. He has work to do, but plenty of time to do it.

This episode is closer to the beginning, rather than the end, of what will, someday, be a permanent portrait of Tiger Woods.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company