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Tiger Woods's controlled apology leaves little room for sincerity

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In his first public statement since allegations of infidelity arose in November,Tiger Woods issued a public apology from PGA Tour headquarters on Friday. "I owe it to my family to become a better person," Woods said. "I do plan to return to golf one day."

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By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 20, 2010

Sorry, but I didn't buy it. The public Tiger Woods has always been artificial, but never has he seemed more waxen than in his so-called public apology. Here's the problem: Woods and his handlers staged a fake news conference to apologize for being fake.

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To these ears, it was stilted and rehearsed to the point of insincerity. The pauses and the meaningful gazes into the camera were so cringingly long you began to suspect his script read, "lengthy pause for meaningful gaze into camera." Woods is no doubt genuinely contrite for cheating on his wife, but his 13 1/2 -minute speech before a controlled audience came off like an obligatory gated checkpoint that he clocked through on his way back to the golf course. If that seems unsympathetic, well, it's hard to feel sorry for an effigy.

His words were often halting, and meant to be moving, but largely blank. They included self-serving howlers about the kids, and Buddhism, and privacy. I'm just so relieved that "the work will go on" for those "millions of children" he has helped. He said all the right things. But he's always said all the right things, and the words were hollow then, so what reason do I have to believe them now?

It would have been easier to accept Woods's confessional at face value if he hadn't followed such an obviously calculated, familiar media crisis strategy: lead off with heartfelt apology, transition to trumpeting charitable work, and then attack the press. At the end, he stifled a little sniffle, and stepped down from the podium to hug his mother. Which was affecting, but it would have been more so if he hadn't been surrounded by a throng of hand-picked cast members. After the hug, Woods shook hands with a couple of them, and exited wiping something from his face. Perhaps it could have been a tear, but it might as easily have been flop sweat. He left behind him a dead silence that seemed funereal. Who died? Nobody. A statue.

I don't dislike Tiger Woods. I'd simply like to really meet him some day. By that I don't mean I'm entitled in any way to know the specifics of his addiction problems or the precise state of his marriage to Elin Nordegren. What do I want from Woods? Not much really. Just an unscripted, spontaneous exchange that suggests he respects his audience enough to be honest with us.

"Simply and directly, I am deeply sorry," he said. Simply and directly? Oh, come off it. The events of the last couple of months -- not to say years -- have been anything but simple and direct. He has been serially unfaithful to his wife and played his followers for fools. He peddled a false icon and hushed up his transgressions and continues to stage-manage himself to the point of opacity. His so-called public appearance on Friday was a heavily armored, mock affair in which he appeared on a podium to address a small number of friendlies that could hardly be called an audience. Rather they were family members, employees, and select acquaintances, such as PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem. For this he needed to arrange them in rows of folding chairs? The only real representation of an audience were three wire-service reporters who, according to the strict ground rules set by the Woods camp, were forbidden to ask questions.

The nature of the proceedings -- the limiting of admission to a few friends, the refusal to entertain any queries, even from a set of golf writers who have been egregiously kind to him -- suggested that Woods is still determined to have things on his own terms. Which calls into question just how much he's changed, or whether he even thinks he needs to. He and his people constructed a very profitable image. And now it seems they're trying to construct another one: a repentant man dealing with an addiction. There may be some truth to this version of Woods -- there was some truth to the old one -- but until he becomes an entity other humans can interact with, as opposed to a museum piece to gape at, the questions about what's behind the artifice will linger. This staged appearance was just a slightly different message in the same format: one-way, controlled, calculated, and with a strong dose of personal self-interest.

There was a basic contradiction at work. It's hard to buy his apology to the public as sincere given that he didn't actually issue it in public.

I'm no therapist, but it seems perfectly obvious that Woods has not made his peace with being a public figure, and that he is experiencing fallout from, or an ongoing fit of rebellion against, the strict blueprint for stardom that was thrust on him as a small boy. He appears to be a struggling casualty of his own greatness. He can't exist in a vacuum, much as he would like to. Nor is his talent a free gift; he plays the game for other people's money, a lot of it, and public scrutiny comes with that. Unfortunately, his most detectable feelings on Friday had to do with his simmering hatred of cameras, a pathological antipathy that predates his scandal. His caddy is known to kick at them.

What's too bad about Woods's protective, defensive strategy is that his underlying assumption is that we can't or won't sympathize with the real him. So we're left with an opaque figurine Woods, and just brief flashes of the person. I met him briefly, just once, and found him pleasant enough, though short spoken and harried, a strider unable to relax. "I don't sleep," he said. It remains the most revealing thing I know about him.

There was one statement that seemed deeply authentic during Woods's TV address, but it didn't come directly from him. Rather it came when he quoted his estranged wife. A real apology won't come with words, he quoted her, but through his actions over time. Therefore, it seems sensible to wait for the real thing.


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