By John Feinstein
Saturday, December 5, 2009
In the eight days since Tiger Woods smacked his Cadillac Escalade into a fire hydrant and then a tree outside his Florida home, the saga surrounding the incident and the events that led to it has grown to almost epic
Some have speculated that this is simply a reflection of our culture of celebrity, a time when the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle allow almost anyone to be famous for being famous -- to have Andy Warhol's 15 minutes.
That's not the case, though, with Woods. This isn't Paris Hilton going to jail or some Hollywood couple breaking up and reconciling every other month. It isn't even the governor of South Carolina disappearing for several days to be with his mistress.
Tiger Woods is a historic figure in sports. When his golf career is over, he will take his place in the pantheon alongside such athletic greats as Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King and Pelé, Michael Jordan and Bill Russell, Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz. Those are athletes who were transcendent, who rose to a level of importance that went beyond records and statistics.
In truth, if there is another golfer who fits that description, it is not Jack Nicklaus, whose record of 18 professional major titles is the Holy Grail that Woods has pursued since turning pro in 1996 (he has won 14), but Arnold Palmer. Even though Palmer won "only" seven major titles, he was the player who made golf wildly popular in this country, who attracted television and corporate America to the sport. It was Woods who took it to another level.
He has done so by playing the game as well as anyone has ever played it. He isn't simply brilliant, he is thrilling. He has a great flair for drama and, like Palmer, always wears his heart on his sleeve on the golf course -- allowing his legion of fans to feel as if they are part of his victories and, for that matter, his occasional defeats.
But the similarities to Palmer end the moment Woods walks off the 18th green. Palmer embraced his fame. He enjoyed give-and-take with fans and the media and understood that with the perks -- and riches -- of fame comes responsibility.
In 1997, at the first Masters in which Woods played as a professional -- he won by an astonishing 12 shots -- he and Palmer played a practice round at Augusta National Golf Club. Afterward, the two had lunch in the champions' locker room at the clubhouse. During lunch, Woods explained to Palmer how difficult his life was at that moment.
"I can't be a normal 21-year-old," he said. "I have to sign autographs all the time, talk to the media after I play, do photo shoots for my sponsors. It just never ends."
Palmer, as he had done in the past with other players who had made similar complaints (notably, two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange), looked Woods in the eye and said: "You're right, Tiger, you aren't a normal 21-year-old. Normal 21-year-olds don't have $50 million in the bank. If you want to be normal, give the money back."
Woods is no longer worth $50 million. He has made close to $1 billion not just because of his extraordinary talent but also because he has marketed himself as the guy everyone would like their son to grow up to be like. He's the nice kid next door who made it big. Every product he pitches is top of the line. Michael Jordan -- Woods's role model in many ways -- once did a commercial that urged people to "Be like Mike." The Woods version was an ad in which children around the world looked into a camera and said, "I am Tiger Woods."
The message was simple: Everyone should aspire to grow up to be Tiger Woods. That's over now. Oh sure, kids will still want the athletic talent and the money, but they won't want the legacy created in the past week by Woods's admission -- forced by a wildfire of post-accident media reports -- that he had "let my family down" and had not been "true to my values and the behavior my family deserves."
Woods will turn 34 this month and will no doubt continue to be the world's best golfer and a hugely successful pitchman for many corporations. Those sponsors have too much money invested in him to throw him overboard. You can bet that the next time he wins a major title, someone will produce a commercial with a redemption theme.
But the taint won't go away any more than the stain on Monica Lewinsky's dress disappeared from Bill Clinton's legacy. Woods is not the president of the United States and won't face impeachment by the House of Representatives.
He will, however, have to live with this forever, because he is Tiger Woods.
John Feinstein, a contributor to The Post, is the author of 25 books, including "A Good Walk Spoiled: Days and Nights on the PGA Tour" and, most recently, "Change-Up: Mystery at the World Series."