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Tiger Woods apology: What's real? What do we believe?

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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."

It's virtually impossible, once you are part of the celebrity circuit, to escape this perfect circle of self-absorption. When you do wrong, you get to start over. In a world of short attention spans, that is often a fine career twist, a new plot line -- even if your wounds are just as deep as those in a pre-TMZ world.

In a celebrity age, one of the few ways a person who is already No. 1 can get another main-lined jolt of exponential notoriety is to sin on an eye-popping scale, then seek redemption. You thought Tiger couldn't get bigger than he was? On Thanksgiving night, he managed it. By accident, to be sure. But we're entitled to wait, perhaps for years, to decide how we wish to redraw our final portrait of the man. Even Woods is redrawing his view of himself, saying, "My failures have made me look at myself in a way I never wanted to before."

No athlete in American history has ever been as shielded from public and press view as Woods. The few times I've spoken to Woods alone, I've been struck by how young he seems. Aside from golf and business, where he's astute, he seems like a college frat house guy, to some degree unformed, untouched, a prodigy who's never left his cocoon.

That's over. Perhaps he'll be better for it. Armchair psychiatrists say that everyone, at some age, has to rebel against authority if they are going to form an autonomous identity. Don't know. Seems right. If Tiger never got the chance to "act bad" at the normal ages, he's surely overcompensated. Who knew you could bundle the "terrible two's" and adolescence into your 30s?

Parents know childhood rebellions come like clockwork, so close to the textbooks it's hard to believe. The child acts out, the parents set limits; repeat every few years. If Tiger rebelled, in the face of two formidable, driven parents, there's little record of it. He had to be perfect. Once he was rich, famous, married and his father was dead, who could limit his mushrooming misbehavior? Finally, a fire hydrant and a tree set his limits. Like a decent kid coming out of a bad patch -- "I can't believe I did that" -- Tiger seems to appreciate it. Too bad it took so long and with damages so high.

Woods's last words on Friday were vaguely troubling. "Finally, there are many people in this room, and many people at home, who believed in me," he said. "Today I want to ask for your help. I ask you to find room in your heart to one day believe in me again."

Many, at that instant, expected to hear the words "forgive me." But the last phrase was Tiger's. I doubt I've ever heard an athlete ask the public to "believe in me." Isn't that more akin to theology?

We keep learning, over and over, that some athletes (like all of us) prove over a lifetime that they are worth respecting, liking, admiring and cheering for. Others aren't. But "believe in me?"

We don't need to believe in you, Tiger. Come down off the mountain. Once you figure out some things, we'd just like to meet you. For the first time.


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