Tiger Woods should take this opportunity to grow up

By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 24, 2009

The first thing Tiger Woods needs to do if he wants to remake himself is dump all the enablers. By that, I don't just mean the jerk caddie. I mean the so-called mentors who taught him how to play rent-a-hostess in Vegas. I mean the fawners who laughed at his crude jokes, and looked the other way when he was rude, or penurious. I mean all of the apologists, even the well-meaning ones, who conspired to create such a towering phony.

There are a lot of questions surrounding Woods at the moment, from how many women to how long his indefinite leave from golf will last, but most of them are just side issues. The question that really matters, the pressing one, is this: When will Woods become a man? "Let's please give the kid a break," said Mark Steinberg, Woods's agent, recently. Now, Steinberg is a nice guy who obviously cares about Woods. But his client is about to turn 34 years old.

There is a pattern to the comments coming from Woods's friends. It's a pattern of excuse-making and denial, a continual reinforcing of the idea that he has a princely exemption from ordinary obligations, such as, say, growing up. Or honoring his vows while his wife is pregnant. Or answering questions about car accidents, and about why he sought treatment from a doctor who uses HGH. Last week, Charles Barkley bemoaned the fact that Woods hasn't returned his phone calls, because: "You should reach out to your celebrity friends when things go bad. They're the only people who understand what it's like."

The implicit understanding in these statements is that Woods is a victim of public life, persecuted by celebrity. The scandal that has engulfed him is less his fault than that of the tabloid and Internet press, who have violated his privacy. No one seems willing to speak this fundamental age-old truth to, or about, Woods: There are no victims, only volunteers.

Woods himself has invoked "privacy" time and again in his carefully crafted statements. But he and his overprotective pals are trying to sell us secrecy as privacy. He has a right to privacy, but what he did was lead a secret life, and that's what the tabloids are preying on so relentlessly. A violation of privacy is merely embarrassing. It's the violation of his secrecy that's destroyed his public persona. Big difference. The reason the story has been so engulfing is because of the sheer size of the gap between Woods's public image and his secret conduct.

Looking back over the last few years, it's easy to see how Woods arrived at this point. He has never dealt particularly straightforwardly with his failings. The first sign of trouble was that infamous article in GQ in 1997 by Charles Pierce, a portrait of a chilly, entitled prince who complained about photo sessions and uttered a stream of vulgarities. Instead of confessing to tastelessness and bad judgment, Woods issued one of those calibrated formal statements that deflected responsibility. It wasn't his fault; it was Pierce's fault for quoting him.

"It's no secret that I'm 21 years old and that I'm naive about the motives of certain ambitious writers," he said then.

The Woods who has emerged in the past few weeks, in surreptitious texts and tightly worded statements, doesn't seem to have matured much since. He seems to have simply graduated from lewd jokes to lewd behavior. While his public persona grew up, he never did.

Woods's puerile foibles wouldn't be any of our business if his sole entry into the public sphere were on a golf course. But Woods -- and the huge corporate entities around him -- spent the past decade specifically creating an image that goes far beyond his performance in golf, and profited hugely from it. He sold himself as a principled, self-disciplined and buttoned-up family man, and a competitor who achieved greatness in the most honorable of games, one in which competitors assess their own penalties. The entire premise of his endorsements was: Buy these products because this is someone you want to be associated with.

No one was forced to buy Tiger Woods apparel, or drive his car, or use his chosen credit card. But many people did, based on a presentation that has since been exposed as artifice. Woods created the iconic image -- and now cries privacy when reality assails it. But he can't just say, "This is what I want you to think of me as because that image is a more valuable commodity than the truth." There's a lot of salaciousness in the Woods saga, but there's also a valuable vetting of a powerful public brand.

Woods's true friends will help him narrow that gap, instead of perpetuating it. If Woods deserves some sympathy, and he does, it's because no one around him was able to help him do it before now. His identity from his formative years onward has been wrapped up in outward display. It must have been exhausting to carry around such a large pasteboard image, and to maintain such pretense in front of millions. The act made him rich, but it never won a tournament, which was the thing he really cared about. It's a harsh judge who doesn't suspect that Woods's infidelities are more than just narcissism, but an expression of unhappiness, and perhaps weariness. He is a confessed insomniac, and he has been playing on a bad knee for several years.

But as a long line of other child prodigies can tell Woods, genius isn't a free gift. It comes with obligations and penalties, a lifelong struggle for balance and mental health. Those who fare best with it figure out how to grow up, and own up, even when everyone around them would keep them juveniles, and tell them how wonderful they are. Andre Agassi and Chris Evert are two who come to mind -- and they might be far more useful people for Woods to turn to than Charles Barkley. Both made their peace with their robbed childhoods; both found a kind of authenticity within their public identities, especially once they quit trying to project invincibility.

There's inevitable dissonance in all of us between who we really are and what we show outwardly. But the athletes who seem healthiest and most balanced are those who have fewer reservations about sharing that with others. Interestingly, some of them become truly beloved. It may not be the best way to become a mass-market endorser, but it's a decent way to build real relationships.

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