FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – The robot short-circuited Tuesday.
Tiger Woods, for a few telling moments, shed his metallic sheen and reminded the world of who he once was and almost certainly still is. The evolution of Tiger from toddling wonder to pubescent prodigy to decorated amateur to the greatest golfer ever entailed a pyrrhic trade: in exchange for greatness, he gave up the chance to reveal what hides behind that famous face.
Subverted are the political thoughts that surely dance through his head, scuttled the opportunities to better the world through voice and action rather than a foundation to which he lends his name and money. Tiger chose that one-way path, cultivated it like no other athlete has, and the terrain back is so craggy that the journey can't happen.
This is our Tiger, and our Tiger saves his emotion for the golf course, so to see him Tuesday react with such humanity to Phil Mickelson trying to stay strong through his wife's battle with breast cancer reminded the shame of it all.
Tiger isn't a robot. He just plays one on TV.
"I couldn't imagine dealing with what he has to deal with on a daily basis," Woods said two days before he and Mickelson tee off at Bethpage Black, site of the U.S. Open. "And hats off to how he's handled it, because certainly it's so hard to do. Everywhere you go people are reminding you of it, and you can't get away from it. And you think that the golf course would be your escape, but it's not.
"You're surrounded by people wishing you well the entire time and hope everything works out. But then again, they keep reminding you of the same circumstance you're dealing with on a daily basis, and you just can't get away from it."
Such is familiar, and thus safe, territory for Tiger. He lived it three years ago. When his father and mentor, Earl, got sick and died of prostate cancer, Tiger mourned privately and returned to a public that reminded him to keep his head up and apologized for his loss and did everything – well intentioned though it was – to remind him of the very thing he wanted to forget.
Tiger existed because of Earl, and not just in the biological sense. He pushed Tiger, urged him to turn into the assassin who has piled up 14 major championship wins in 13 years. Earl erred in one sense: with his prophecy that Tiger would change the world. Tiger could change the world, but the qualities his father imbued in him make doing so – at least during his days as a professional – next to impossible.
Certainly celebrity and activism aren't mutually exclusive. Hollywood marries the two with ease, if not sincerity. The sporting world is different. The safety of the jock stereotype protects them from the exhortation to make a risky choice. The biggest figures in sports steer clear of revealing anything personal, lest they expose themselves to the scrutiny that almost always follows.
It's funny, then, the relationship Tiger shares with his fans. To call it one-sided would be unfair; Tiger delivers such unparalleled play on the course that it deludes fans. They forget that they know so little about someone whom they so revere. Easier to just revel in each moment he creates.
Maybe his greatest came at last year's Open, where Tiger gimped across Torrey Pines with a blown-out knee and broken leg. He winced after every shot, and by the time he vanquished Rocco Mediate in a playoff, the obvious was nonetheless staggering: Tiger, as a uniped, was better than every other golfer in the year's toughest tournament.
And that's why we passively accept Tiger putting up his Berlin Wall and hiding behind it: What he does is so often remarkable that it sets a standard to which he almost certainly cannot live. The real Tiger couldn't possibly be as great as Tiger the golfer.
When he took the rest of the 2008 season off following the Open, Tiger retreated into his family's arms. That barely a word of his progress, or his goings-on, or him, period, surfaced during this time showed Woods' true feelings of life in public. He loathes it to the core.
So when he talks about the pain Mickelson is going through or gives some insight into life as a father – something he's done with relative frequency since the birth of his daughter, Sam, and son, Charlie – it's odd to witness. Sure, some of it is there to preserve the image he has so masterfully nurtured. Tiger, as pitchman, stands behind only Michael Jordan in efficacy.
Still, it's gratifying to see, even if in Halley's Comet fashion, that blood pumps through Tiger's heart and it's not some composite contraption made by Dr. Jarvik. As much as we'd love our gods to invite us into their world, the door to Mount Olympus doesn't open for mortals. Theirs is theirs, and they want to keep it that way.
The only glimpse we get is on their playing field, and the give and take is wondrous. Tiger hits a great shot. We cheer. Tiger feeds off that noise and makes another. Our intensity and admiration grows exponentially, along with our voices. Symbiosis at its finest, and it was never better than seven years ago, when Bethpage hosted its first Open to the loudest crowds of Tiger's career.
"We hadn't seen anything like it," he said. "Probably never will."
Though Tiger slayed the course with a 3-under 277 and won by three strokes, the greatest cheers were reserved for Mickelson, who had yet to win a major and finished in second. Mickelson, three times a major champion since, has always balanced excellence with openness, perhaps because the chasm between excellence and greatness allows such a thing.
Tiger is more than content to reside where he does: behind the wall he created, inside the bubble he blew, protected by the shelter he built. The filter on his voice box is not disposable. He changes his swings, not himself. He is who he wants to be and not who we wish he was.
The man who plays a human on TV.