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Tiger Woods in Vanity Fair: Tiger in the Rough

Buzz Bissinger
Writer, Author
Wednesday, January 6, 2010; 1:00 PM

Pulitzer Prize-wining writer Buzz Bissinger was online Wednesday, Jan. 6, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his Vanity Fair article about Tiger Woods and image vs. reality.

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Buzz Bissinger: Hi, this is Buzz Bissinger here, the author of the essay on Tiger Woods in this month's Vanity Fair. Ready to answer your questions.

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Valley Cottage, N.Y.: Good introduction to his possible psychology, but what about our faults for seeking such a "perfect" figure? The "Naughts" decade began with the fantasy of Enron (which Fortune magazine encouraged and greedy investors jumped onto and the Bush regulators abetted) and ended with a similar phenomena centered on an individual cashing in on gullible corporations who did not conduct due diligence. Accenture, by the way, is the spin-off from Arthur Andersen of Enron fame so here is a bridge between the two travesties.

Buzz Bissinger: I agree that we wanted Tiger to be a certain way so we created him to a certain extent. We need heroes, particularly in sports, and he became that perfect hero. But Tiger played into the image. He carefully crafted it with his handlers because he knew the payoff would be enormous. It is why I feel betrayed and so many others do as well. He simply was not honest.

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Alexandria, Va.: Do you see Tiger Woods being able to maintain his status in the golf world given his current debacle?

Buzz Bissinger: I think Tiger will come back. I don't know when. He will never have the endorsements he once had, but he will not lose what made him arguably the greatest athlete of modern times, his relentless focus. I believe he will win and I think people will say in effect, regardless of what he was or wasn't he is still a great athlete and a great golfer.

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Picture worth a thousand words: I just saw the cover and didn't get a chance to read any more. When were those pictures taken and how did Vanity Fair get permission to run them now?

Buzz Bissinger: I know little about the pictures (when I wrote my essay I had not even seen them) but I will tell you what I know. They were taken by Annie Leibovitz in early 2006 in Orlando. I do not know the circumstances under which they were taken. They were never used, which does often happen in her case, and went into her archives. When the scandal broke, she showed them to Graydon Carter at Vanity Fair and asked if he was interested in them. His eyes popped out.

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Bowie, Md.: Have you ever met and/or interviewed Tiger?

Buzz Bissinger: The piece was clearly an essay, my own take on the situation. I have seen him dozens of times on television but no, I have never met him personally or interviewed him. In the piece are interviews from two national golf writers who saw him hundreds of times and each had the same conclusion--he was affable, friendly, never said anything of consequence, and was in effect a charming non-person.

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washingtonpost.com: Tiger in the Rough (Vanity Fair, Feb.)

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Washington, DC: I find the Tiger hoopla interesting in the context of sports as entertainment. Professional athletes today must be both top performers in their field, and also cultivators of a media image, in response to our cultural appetite for celebrity. Tiger the persona is a commodity for our own entertainment, and the only reason his antics are receiving so much attention is because there's a market for it. I'd be interested to hear your comments on why we are so interested in the first place in Tiger's personal life. In short, why did you write this article?

Buzz Bissinger: This goes beyond the cult of celebrity, which i admit can be tawdry and sensational and often is. Tiger and his handlers manipulated us; they willfully created an image of a person at odds with who he really was. They did it for money, hundreds of millions. Tiger himself often invoked his wife and children as the most important things in his life. It only enhanced his perfect image, except for the fact that he had sex with roughly 15 women while married....That is a news story, not some piece of sensational garbage in my mind.

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Washington, D.C.: It's not clear to me why an inveterate skirt-chaser would get married in the first place. Is it your opinion that his marraige arose out of a desire to strengthen his "brand"? If so, how breathtakingly cynical!

Buzz Bissinger: You have to wonder if he got married for that reason. I hate pop psychology, but I do wonder if he thought his habits would change if he got married. Obviously they did not. The right thing to do would have been to get divorced, but because of his public image and what it meant in terms of endorsements he never ever would have done that. So there is in my mind a terrible cynicism there as you point out.

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Arlington, Va.: What do you think about the role of sites like Deadspin (and other Internet gossip sites) played in the development of the story?

Buzz Bissinger: Deadspin is Deadspin. Sometimes right, often sensational garbage. But in this instance it was such organizations as TMZ and the National Inquirer and Star and some Brit Tabloids and online sites that advanced the story whether we like to admit it or not. Of course what really drove the story is when the first woman came out, all the others came out to try to grab a piece of the pie and make some money for themselves. Tiger has many flaws as we now, but one of them was having sex with women with nothing to lose. It always comes back to bite you in the butt. Plus he was careless and sloppy.

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West Hartford, Conn.: I like the characterization of a "charming non-person." Tiger was turned into a commodity by his old man years ago. We just bought into what we wanted to believe. Earl may have done a better job than Joe Jackson, but did either son have a chance at emotional normalcy?

Buzz Bissinger: I think this is an excellent point and an apt comparison between Michael Jackson and Tiger. They were both child prodigies with amazing skills. They were both pushed by fathers who saw the potential. You cannot be normal in those conditions--you live your life in an artificial bubble. I don't think anyone who has been a child prodigy has turned out "normal."

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Capitol Hill: Celebrity pols on the Hill can easily match the threshold of 15 women outside the marriage...some qualify within the first half of their term. Where's the news coverage on these bums?

Buzz Bissinger: That is no doubt true and in some cases it has been reported (it is not so easy to report by the way unless you are willing to pay money and most news organizations will not). The difference is that Tiger, while he was sleeping with bimbo after bimbo, was also projecting a false image that gained him a ton of money and made him the first billion-dollar athlete in history. None of these pols capitalized anywhere near to the extent that Tiger did.

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Carrollton, Tex.: Tiger Woods should be banned permanently from the PGA and consumers should ask his sponsers to drop him.

I highly regarded him before his downfall.

Buzz Bissinger: I do not think at all he should be banned by the PGA. He has a right to play golf. And it is up to sponsors to decided whether or not he should be dropped. Many have, some may not. Frankly I think these kind of endorsements are enormous wastes of money, except perhaps in the case of Nike and sneakers. I don't anyone who bought a Buick because of Tiger and I still have no idea what Accenture does.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hello --

It seems to me that the ONLY way out of this for Tiger is to get a divorce, be a good and supportive dad, but totally rebrand himself into a bad-a_ _ player. To go from gentleman golfer to gangsta golfer. This cover is a tease for that very rebranding...is his image team hard at work?

Buzz Bissinger: I think Tiger should get divorced. Obviously the marriage is a sham. But as fun as it would be, I don't think he will come back to Golf with a shaved head and piercings and a "Bad to the bone" tattoo. I think he will play, show that relentless focus, and get out of dodge without saying a word to the media beyond the obligatory "I felt good out there today." And he may not even say that.

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Arlington, Va.: Do you think that Tiger Woods's marital problems will provoke a broader discussion about celebrity endorsements? I can't for the life of me understand why people would buy a product or service just because some company paid a celebrity millions of dollars to endorse it, especially if there's no evidence that the celebrity uses the product. What are the reasons for this? Do people think that the celebrity's success will somehow rub off on them if they buy the soda or shoes that are being endorsed (but not used)?

Buzz Bissinger: I answered a version of this before but you articulated it far better than I did. In the case of Tiger, the assumption was that his decency and honesty was such that he would never endorse something that was shoddy. And that would cause people to buy the product. As you say I think it is ridiculous. It worked with Arnold Palmer in the 1960s but life is very different now.

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Winnipeg, Canada: While I enjoyed your article, I think it misses one other major misstep that was a portent of things to come. Early in his career, he was caught endorsing a brand of golf ball that he did not use himself. It was perhaps a minor hypocrisy, but it showed a serious character flaw: he was willing to essentially lie for money, even though his prize money from golf was astronomical by normal standards. He could live large witohut ever collecting a dime from endorsements, so he could afford to be choosy about who he signed deals with. He could have shown character by either refusing the endorsement altogether or by saying something along the lines of "I recommend this brand of golf ball for Sunday golfers as good value for money." (Yeah, right. I can just see the endorsing company going along with that one.) Anyway, that was the point where I lost interest in him as a person. His management company saw in him a product that could be marketed for huge money if he projected the proper image, and he willingly agreed. By contrast, Canadian wheelchair athlete Rick Hansen, upon completing his round [in] the world Man In Motion tour, arrived home unemployed and broke. Coca-Cola offered him a seven-figure endorsement deal and he turned it down, saying that his tour was about raising awareness about spinal injuries, not endorsing a commerical product. That's character.

Buzz Bissinger: I was not aware of this. Excellent point. It was all about the money for Tiger and his handlers. Hence all the work at creating a certain image. Hence endorsing products he did not even use.

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Fairfax, Va.: A recent rumor says we may not see Tiger in public playing golf or just in person until 2012. That true?

Buzz Bissinger: I simply don't know. The rumors are swirling with hurricane force. Nobody knows what he is going to do. Except that the PGA is desperate to have him back. But that is not going to affect Tiger's ultimate decision one way or another. He had lots of handlers around him, but ultimately it was Tiger who called the shots. He was a smart man, which is ironic because of the sloppiness with which he handled his dalliances. But as the pictures so beautifully show, he was clearly narcissistic (apologize for spelling) and felt he was invincible as most great athletes do.

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New York: Buzz, show me one ad, promotion or brand tagline that stated that Tiger stood for marital fidelity. Just one. Anywhere! Anytime! His image was based on exceptional commitment to his sport -- his chosen profession.

Buzz Bissinger: Tiger himself invoked family and marriage as the two most important things in his life. Do you honestly think that if Tiger came out and said I don't believe in marital fidelity, he would have gotten a single endorsement and people would have felt the same way about him? He used his marriage to further enhance his image as the perfect hero--unblemished by anything.

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Hollywood Hills, Calif.: Where is the outrage over Charlie Sheen. Has Hanes Underwear pulled his promotions? Has NBC pulled his show? Sheen is an alleged criminal. What crime has Tiger committed?

Buzz Bissinger: Because fundamentally Charlie Sheen is a putz and a nobody.

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Annie Leibovitz: It seems like such a low blow to release images about Tiger right now. Isn't that bad business? Who wants to be photographed by someone only to have their pictures released during a scandal years later? Who will trust her unless they know there is nothing they ever did wrong...because everyone has their secrets. I don't feel Tiger is a good man just because he is a great athlete but I feel sorry for him.

Buzz Bissinger: Annie retained the rights to the pictures. If Tiger did not like that at the time he and his phalanx of agents and lawyers could have negotiated different terms. It is only a guess, but I think the Tiger entourage took one look at the pictures and did everything in their power to discourage the use of them. Because they showed a different side of Tiger from the one we thought we knew at the time. In those pix he is moody, isolated and totally into himself. The pix are brilliant. I am glad they have come out no matter what the timing.

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Arlington, Va.: Is Buzz really your first name?

Buzz Bissinger: My real name is Harry. I have been called Buzz since birth. A silly nickname that stuck. Thank my mother for it.

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Washington, D.C.: The same article could have been written about Phil Mickelson, Cal Ripken, Peyton Manning...all with carefully nurtured images and men who fool around outside the marriage. Where is the hue and cry on these blue-eyed wonders?

Buzz Bissinger: I don't know if that is true. Maybe it is. Nothing surprises me. But nobody in sports benefited from the projection of an image we now know was false to the extent Tiger did. A billion dollars is in my mind at least a lot of money, all for coming off as the embodiment of mom and apple pie and also being an amazing athlete.

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Tallahassee, Fla.: Seems to me movie stars, presidents and sports figures all suffer from the fact they surround themselves with cup bearing sycophants. Nobody calls them out, jerks their chain or gets in their face. Do you agree and also think this ultimately leads to an otherworldly, rules don't apply, I can do anything attitude?

Buzz Bissinger: Yes. I agree with you completely. They live in a bubble as I said earlier. They are pampered and coveted, in Tiger's case since he was literally two. They cannot help but think the rules don't apply, that they are invincible. The best proof to me was the way Tiger behaved after the accident. He would not talk to police. He offered no immediate statement. He truly thought it would all go away and he could beat it.

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Charlotte Hall, Md.: I'm most sure this Vanity Fair "exclusive" was done before el Tigre's blow-up.

Buzz Bissinger: As I said earlier, the pictures were taken in 2006.

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Burbank, Calif.: Greetings from California!

As a sports fan who does not follow golf, (so Tiger was not one of my "heros"), I guess that I am amazed at the swell of dismay from the crowds....seriously, people think that sports stars, actors, pop singers are god-like? And as was discussed in Paul Farhi's chat yesterday, I can't quite get the motivation to buy products becausea celebrity told me to. Maybe it's because I am surrounded by celebrity everyday, but putting people on pedestals and being upset when they fall is lame.

Buzz Bissinger: People are upset because of the way he manipulated and betrayed us. Yes, others have done it before, but no one in my memory to the extent Tiger has in terms of financial benefit.

There is no doubt we as Americans love the arc of rise and fall and rise again. So if Tiger does come back, it will be fascinating to see the reaction. I have a feeling most men won't care and probably wish they had sex lives as fertile as Tiger did.

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Washington, D.C.: Is Tiger's father to blame then? What about his mother?

Buzz Bissinger: We play too much of the blame game in America, blame mommy, blame daddy, blame everyone but ourselves. Tiger is to blame. He is a smart man who went to Stanford. From all accounts he called many of the shots. He knew exactly what he was doing.

No matter how rich he was, I think he was bored out of his mind. He was still living in a bubble and marriage obviously was not doing it for him. So this was his outlet, down and dirty and kinky.

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Richmond, Va.: Whether you like it or not, you gotta hand it to IMG, Inc., his brand-imaging company. Imagine -- they crafted a person who never was, and are probably, right now, re-branding this man for the future. If you've got the money, you can hire someone to make you bigger and better than life!

Buzz Bissinger: IMG knew they had a goldmine and they did craft him perfectly. Predictions are always wrong, but I think if they take a new route with Tiger, it will be the plea for sympathy route: the man is now divorced; he is at best a part-time father; he has been to hell and it is time to just leave him alone so he can try to put the pieces of his life back together again. We are a forgiving society.

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Charlottesville. Va/: Here's another question: is the picture pornography?

Buzz Bissinger: Absolutely not.

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Andover: BUZZ -- WHAT UP big blue ... you still trying to outshine the topic. Tiger plays golf, pure and simple. Hit ball to hole. Simple, nothing more. Because he does it in a white man's sport, we expected the Black Savior to be perfect. John Daly gets a pass every tournament. What's the dealy-o difference?

Buzz Bissinger: I have said this before. Tiger was not simply a great golfer. He crafted an image that enabled him to get hundreds of millions in endorsements. He stood for all the things we value--honesty, integrity, decency, and was a phenomenal competitor to boot. That was not by accident. As for John Daly, how many endorsements has he gotten???

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Rockville, Md.: Hate to be the bearer of grim tidings, but we all "brand" ourselves to make more money. Tiger's issue are private and should remain that way, especially since it impacts no one's life but his own. I'm guessing you took a check from VF for your essay? All of us do and if we check most resumes, there is an awful lot of literary license taken every time we write one. Bottom line, he's not my son-in-law and what he does in his own time is his own business. He, like thousands of other athletes and celebrities are billboards -- so what. Again, not my money paying them and I've never bought a product just because it was endorsed. Nice that you get to make a nice living writing about a guy on hard times publically (and privately) -- some might call that exploitation. I did not read the article and do not intend to.

Buzz Bissinger: It is fine if you do not read the article, but I don't see it in the slightest as exploitation. I am on contract with Vanity Fair. Do I get paid for what I write? You bet. Do I deserve it? You bet. Everybody may brand themselves, but I cannot think of anyone who did it to the extent Tiger did with the secret life he led.

As for his hard times, he created them. As I said earlier, he himself says family and marriage are the two most important things in his life, then is sleeping around with at least 15 women and apparently telling some of them that his marriage is a sham.

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Washington, D.C.: Why is okay for you to call the women, "bimbo after bimbo?" While having a relationship with a married man is a transgression, by many accounts Tiger went after them, professed his deep affections for some, talked about leaving his wife with others. At least a couple seemed to think they were his only extra-curricular. Human behavior, human sexuality is complicated. While Tiger gets the full-on meditation to help explain his motivations, I can't help but think these women, however flawed, deserve slightly more humanity from the rest of us than to be dismissed as bimbo after bimbo.

Buzz Bissinger: I think this is a very good point and from now on I will be more judicious in my description of them. The onus was on Tiger, not them. I think many of them did think that Tiger cared about them, only to get jettisoned at some point. On the other hand, many of them had little reluctance to take their stories to the highest bidder. That does say something about them as well.

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Rockville, Md.: Why do people act like Tiger is really buffed? He's NOT. Well, compared to most flabby golfers, sure, but come on. Compared to Lebron James he is a joke.

Buzz Bissinger: Tiger is buffed, trust me. He is buffed in the pictures and he became more buff. Does he look like LeBron James? Nobody looks like LeBron James.

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Houston, Tex.: Why are you offended and dissappointed in a person that you do not know on a personal level? I will agree that a certain image was built to represent Tiger but I don't see why people allow themselves to enter a state of mind in which they feel that they know a celebrity intimately. I say that with consideration of the image that was petrayed. If you want to believe the representation of a person that you do not know and have the audacity to be offended when you find out otherwise, then you are to blame. We as people tend to negate the fact that celebrities are flawed humans, we don't know them, and they don't owe the people any explanation for their personal behavior outside of the space in which they are presented to the world, i.e. if it doesn't have anything to do with golf, then he has no obligation to us.

Buzz Bissinger: I disagree with you completely. You can only be offended by people you know? Give me a break. What about politicians who have made horrendous decisions or taken bribes? Should we not be offended because we do not personally know them. Tiger duped me. That's why I am offended. He created a persona that was utterly false to make as much money as possible. You are right--I don't know him and have no interest in ever knowing him. He was married after all and the way in which he humiliated his wife was disgusting. What was the alternative? Be like Derek Jeter and never get married. In other words be honest with yourself instead of being the bionic man.

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McLean, Va.: When/if he does come back, how do you think he will handle being in the spotlight, playing the courses, etc.? Won't he be heckled to the nth degree? Won't it ruin his concentration? How is he going to break back into society and live his life?

Buzz Bissinger: He probably will be heckled, at least at the beginning. But security will be enormous and anybody showing the slightest inclination will be ushered out. And whatever I and others think of Tiger as a person, he is a remarkable athlete with an ability to focus and concentrate unlike any we have ever seen with the possible exception of Lance Armstrong in modern times. I just think he has this remarkable ability to shut everything out. As for reentering society, that is going to be very hard. It wasn't just one woman or two or an affair. Those things happen because marriage is an odd and flawed institution. But it was 15, some of which he paid for, some of which he paid hush money to. I do not know of a man who humiliated his spouse worse than Tiger.

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Washington, D.C.: Re: Exploitation. Good response to Rockville, Buzz. But he/she is actually right that Wood's infidelities are private, not criminal (though very reprehensible, in my book). It's just too bad he/she didn't stop there instead of spewing those ridiculous accusations that you're somewhat exploiting (?) the controversy.

By the way, W. Post sports columnist had an excellent column about this a few weeks ago, in which she basically said that anyone looking to sports stars or celebrities for a moral compass has serious problems. If you didn't read it, I hope you'll look it up in the Post's archives -- it's a gem!

Buzz Bissinger: That is so true. And yet we do it time and time again because of our false image of sports heroes that I think was a creation of Grantland Rice and his over the top stories about athletes as noble gladiators. They are by and large not noble. I know for a fact they are all self-centered. But we cling to them, out of envy, out of this notion that there is something honorable about them. Which is why the Tiger story lingers. He did seem like the lone exception to the rule. He truly did.

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Narrowminded, Alaska: Buzz, you just don't get it. Tiger never suggested that he was full of "honesty, integrity, decency." "Just do it" meant that -- hit the ball, practice, prepare, train, focus and win. I don't pay my taxes and stay faithful to my wife because of Tiger. But I do play golf and admire his excellence because of his accomplishments. Buzz: Buzz off.

Buzz Bissinger: Sorry if you think it is narrowminded for a guy to project an image as being perfect on and off the golf course (which he did) and is banging women right and left while married. He was not just another great golfer. You know that.

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Augusta, Ga.: Dead wrong, Harry Gerard Bissinger the Third (III). Tiger's wealth is derived from his ability to play golf better than anyone who has walked a fairway. If there are no Majors, then there is no image and no wealth. Maybe Tiger betrayed you. But if can shoot 4 under par the next time out, I'm smiling and I'm watching! Shouldn't you?

Buzz Bissinger: Absolutely wrong. Tiger's wealth did not come from golf although he made untold millions from it. It came from the projection of an image that sponsors, for whatever reason, were willing to pay hundreds of millions for. They found him the epitome of honesty and integrity. Do you think he would have gotten those endorsements if he was a great golfer who also happened to be a serial sex addict? Now we will find out.

And that's it. Great questions. Had a lot of fun. Thanks to all for participating.

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washingtonpost.com: It's only a letdown if you expected something better (Post, Dec. 10)

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