All eyes on the Tiger

Brian Murphy
Yahoo! Sports

Why are so many of us so fascinated by this whole Tiger Woods mess? Let’s try to answer it as best we can. We can do this, friends. Gather ‘round.

First off, let’s start with the premise that a celebrity caught womanizing is hardly news. The comparisons to famous adulterers are endless: Bill Clinton, Michael Jordan, David Letterman spring to mind. So do Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens and, most recently, that South Carolina governor who was supposed to be hiking the Appalachians but instead was writing sonnets to a bird in Argentina. Heck, JFK supposedly stepped out on Jackie with Marilyn Monroe. You want the Crown Jewel of infidelity? That’s pretty tough to top.

Sexual cravings outside of monogamy are a story as old as King David. So, certainly, the least surprising aspect of Tiger’s story is that a rich and famous athlete succumbed to temptation. Jeez, in baseball, infidelity is so common it has its own vocabulary. “Road beef,” is what the players indelicately call mistresses away from home. I once witnessed a ballplayer inside a clubhouse holding two cell phones, one number for his girlfriend, one for his “road beef.” He was having trouble remembering which was which. (Then again, given Tiger’s clumsy voice mail to Jaime Grubbs, maybe this ballplayer was, tactically, a step ahead of the world’s greatest golfer.)

What’s more, some European cultures tacitly approve of a mistress. She comes with the marriage vows, almost.

So it can’t be simply infidelity that fascinates us – although it’s a helluva juicy topic, no matter how many times we read about it.

Tiger thinks otherwise. His apology on his website contains a diatribe against scrutiny of his private life. Here, Tiger is trying to push back a tidal wave. Human beings, in case he hadn’t noticed, are endlessly fascinated by other human beings. Specifically, we tend to be fascinated by rich and famous human beings. Why? A lot of it is envy. A lot of it is nosiness. Some of it is schadenfreude, or the dark human quality that takes pleasure in another’s failings. A lot of it is just a way to pass the time on an otherwise boring workday under the fluorescents.

But for Tiger to ask for society to pay no mind to his private life – when he drove a Cadillac over public property and caused taxpayer-funded police officers and ambulance workers to tend to his accident – strikes me as unrealistic, at best.

Still, even by gossip standards, the fascination with Tiger’s sordid missteps rates quite high. Given that he’s not the first unfaithful husband in the history of the world, why do so many of us care so much?

I would submit two main theses:

1. Tiger is a victim of his own brilliance

Everything we’ve ever known about Tiger, publicly, was incredible. Wins. Tons of them. Wealth. Tons of it. Major championships. Fourteen of ‘em. Fame. Stirring comebacks. Inspirational fist pumps. Record-breaking performances. And, perhaps most impressively, the weaving of a private cocoon that almost defied belief for an athlete and endorser of his profile. For a guy whose athletic exploits were so dramatic, what made Tiger so remarkable was his lack of off-course drama. About the hottest controversy you could find with Tiger would be his too-frequent use of profanity on the golf course, and his sometimes-petulant tossing of golf clubs. That’s a pretty short rap sheet for the first billionaire athlete in history. Without even realizing it, we had spent the last decade marveling at a player and public figure who could amass so much excellence with nary a chink in his armor, and nary a peek into his private world.

Thus, when a chink in the armor quickly turned into a chasm, we were slack-jawed. And, when a peek into his private life – starting with a smashed Escalade and ending with Ms. Grubbs showing Us Weekly her Tiger texts – turned into a full-scale extravaganza, we were blown away. Change came with the speed of an avalanche, and we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t stand and stare. Which leads me to my second theory …

2. If Tiger ever were to fall down in public, we never would expect it to be so brazen and weird.

Previous celebrity adulterers were outed in more conventional ways: A-Rod was photographed with a stripper at a Toronto hotel. Gary Hart bounced Donna Rice on his knee on a yacht.

Tiger took another route. He drove a car into a tree at 2:25 am on Thanksgiving night. He was described as mumbling and incoherent. His back window was smashed out. He turned the cops away from his home three days in a row.

He then sat and watched, like the rest of us, as his house of cards came tumbling down, one “hostess” at a time.

Worse, there was a distasteful audacity to the revelations. And the volume of evidence: Oy! The stories of the frequency of the dalliances in varied cities with varied women lent the distinct impression that Tiger was happy to make a cuckold of Elin as long as he could get away with it. This was no “I got drunk, I’m sorry, I never saw her again” cheat. The hundreds and hundreds of text messages, the half-baked cover-up plan on the voice mail … it all reveals a couple of things: A) For a guy who thinks his way around golf courses better than any, his failure to cover his adulterous tracks was a mis-club of the highest order; and B) his Nixonian attempts at cover-up certainly undermines the sincerity of his “profound” apology.

Bottom line: The only reason Tiger was apologizing was because he got caught. In those terms, Jesper Parnevik nailed it when he said he thought Tiger was a better guy than he’s turned out to be. (Side note: Parnevik’s sharp words have to be the most pointed criticism of Tiger ever leveled by another player. And considering Parnevik’s role in introducing Elin to Tiger, there was an almost paternal chivalry to his comments for which he is to be praised.)

In sum, that’s why we’re so fascinated with this whole thing. For those who say it’s “none of your damn business,” like Miami Dolphin Jason Taylor, they’re either of a higher moral character than the rest of us, and above any prurient interest in human foibles, or they’re not understanding the points made by Yahoo! Sports columnist Dan Wetzel: Tiger’s very public image, the image that made him a billionaire, comes with it a fascination for his private image, as well.

In the end, you wonder why Tiger got married, if he has such an insatiable need to chase skirt. Just this month, Derek Jeter was feted as Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, and praised for his character – all the while toting a resume of lady-killing to impress Warren Beatty. But why shouldn’t he? He played it smart and stayed single. He’s doing nothing ethically wrong when he squires around starlets. He’s doing the opposite – enjoying the heck out of his immense good fortune, and deservedly so.

Dime store psychology time: I wonder if Tiger got married as part of an unspoken culture pressure on the PGA Tour. I was around that tour full-time for nearly a half-decade, and seemingly every player in his 20s was married, or engaged or had kids or had a wife who was pregnant. The overwhelming percentage of married heterosexuals on the tour seemed almost Stepfordian, to my eye. It almost seemed as if winning on tour came with an unwritten rule that a wife and toddler(s) must be greenside at the 72nd hole, so they can run on the green for hugs and kisses as Jim Nantz warmly calls out their first names. A bachelor golfer? In that conservative culture on tour, you would almost hear whispers: What’s wrong with that guy? Is he, you know, like us?

It will feel different from here on out with Tiger. Yes, in the end, this, too, shall pass; and yes, in the end, we are captivated by his golf skills, not for his taste for the fairer sex. But the heights to which we built Tiger, on magazine advertising pages and TV commercials alongside putting greens, and the embarrassing details that have made his fall so painfully public, leave us no choice but to feel differently.

The pure wonder at his golf skills will always remain. And to say that we’ll embrace him less because he treated his wife with such brazen disdain can sound awfully sanctimonious. Indeed, let he who is without sin hit the first tee shot, and all that … but if anybody criticizes you for being fascinated by all this, don’t apologize. It’s perfectly normal.

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