The room was dark, with three rows of wooden chairs arced around a simple lectern. A big blue curtain hung in the background. A pool camera was set in the middle.
This was Feb. 19, 2010, at the PGA Tour headquarters in Florida, and what would follow would be the 13 most surreal, unnecessary and puzzling minutes of Tiger Woods‘ life.
Woods was there to publicly apologize for cheating on his wife. Go reread that sentence again. Tiger Woods didn’t issue a statement or give a quick interview about cheating on his wife. He delivered a 13-minute speech to detail, explain and apologize for it.
Yes, a rich, famous, professional athlete acted like a rich, famous, professional athlete. It was somehow determined that no less than his mother should be among the live studio audience to hear the specifics. Seriously, a then 34-year-old man discussed this in front of his mom (and the rest of the world). At least Tiger’s then-wife Elin was smart enough to skip it.
It was cringeworthy then. It is cringeworthy now, as Woods has returned to popularity, prominence and promise as the Masters sets to kick off this week.
It was, perhaps, the most ridiculous public relations strategy in modern sports history, a complete misread of the entire situation.
It was also, as the brilliant new biography “Tiger Woods” by authors Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian details through hundreds of pages of saturation reporting and never before conducted interviews, par for the course with Woods.
Tiger was, from the start, packaged as a brand as much as just a guy people wanted to watch play golf. Corporate interests mattered most. Money was everything. In this case, after a salacious sex scandal, that meant preserving endorsement deals at all costs, even the self-esteem of the client. Somewhere everything became blurred, with Tiger spending much of his adult life searching for meaning inside a cocoon of vapid fame and fortune – there were women, there was partying, there was an infatuation with the Green Berets, there was a bit of everything.
Eight years later, the sex news conference seems even more ridiculous because Woods has found millions of fans again hanging on his every putt again because he’s back to being all that most of us ever wanted him to be: a golfer.
He isn’t the savior of the world. He isn’t a flawless human.
He’s 42, divorced and occasionally injured. He struggles with pain pills and a receding hair line. He openly discusses the challenge of balancing work and family. He is, no matter what, trying (and seemingly succeeding) at being a great father. What he ever did with porn stars and pancake waitresses was good for laughs and headlines, but all anyone really wanted was to watch him play golf.
If anything, the failures make him more likeable.
Tiger isn’t blameless here, he always went along with his heavy-handed management team, embracing a life of misplaced importance where agents and handlers buy off tabloids and silence mistresses. He reveled in the power.
Still, as “Tiger Woods” details, even Tiger was hesitant to give the speech. Even this felt like a bridge too far. He felt the fire hydrant crash, the media circus and the six-week stint in a sex rehab facility was humiliating enough for him and his family. This seemed like overkill. His agent, Mark Steinberg, didn’t see the value, either.
They were both convinced, the book reports, by Ari Fleischer, a former Bush White House spokesman, who told Woods that a sincere apology would lead to forgiveness from America.
Actually, all he needed was a few straight drives and long putts, but no matter, the speech was set. A few dozen of Tiger’s friends and family came to hear it in person. Three print reporters were allowed direct access, while another 300 media were hosted in two huge ballrooms in the facility.
At 11 a.m., the speech went live and 22 broadcast or cable networks broke into regularly scheduled programming to air it live around the globe. An estimated 30 million watched in America alone. It was on the big screens in Times Square.
It was an event.
It was also a complete embarrassment. Tiger looked terrified. He sounded like a robot. It was profoundly unnecessary.
All Tiger Woods needed to do was release a simple statement apologizing to his wife and children, acknowledging he hadn’t been a good husband and committing himself to being a great father.
Then he could have returned to golf.
That was it. That was all anyone wanted. Tiger didn’t owe the world an apology. He didn’t owe the world an explanation. He still doesn’t. He didn’t owe anyone other than Elin much of anything. The list of pro athletes as terrible husbands is endless. Same with rock stars and actors and so on. It always blows over. It never really matters to the public. They just want them to play the hits again.
Yet there was Tiger, behind the podium, mom watching a few feet away.
“Good morning, and thank you for joining me,” Woods said. “Many of you in this room are my friends … ”
(What kind of friend would even go to this?)
Some would say Tiger has never been the same golfer since, although injuries played a far more significant role in that.
Still, he certainly did struggle to return to form. He lacked some of his old swagger. He played with less confidence for a stretch. Players no longer feared him. It took until 2012 before he was truly on his game again, winning three times. He still didn’t win a major though. Or finish second.
The bizarre speech wasn’t his only issue, but it was one of them.
Which makes this week potentially so much fun.
“Tiger Woods” ends with a look at a man at peace with himself, comfortable in his own skin. Maybe that’s the case. Maybe it isn’t. He certainly looks better, healthier, perhaps more content.
He’s got issues, as the early morning traffic stop last May where Woods had drugs in his system (a far greater public menace than marital infidelity). On Thursday, though, he’ll tee off to a massive gallery and a mega-television audience. Most will be rooting for greatness.
It isn’t because someone packaged him into something he’s not, or made him give a speech he didn’t want to give, but rather because maybe, just maybe, he is finally being who he really is.
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