Tiger long ago abandoned a greater role

Mon, Apr 5, 2010, 01:00

LOCKER ROOM:He was reared, bred and honed not just to be a golfer but to have a larger social impact, writes TOM HUMPHRIES

TIGER. TIGER. The circus hits the road again and, unlikely as it seems, the second act in this American life is likely to make for more compulsive viewing than the first.

There are those of us who lament the missed opportunity that has been Tiger Woods’ dominance of the game of golf since his late teens. And there are those who argue that there is no onus on Tiger, merely by dint of being a black sportsperson, to exhibit any special sensibilities or political awareness: being good at golf is enough.

It’s not, and in Woods’ heart of hearts he knows it. His father knew it too.

Fourteen years ago the great American sportswriter Gary Smith penned a wonderful piece on the young phenomenon. It was called “The Chosen One”, and it limned out the early years of an amazing life and prophesised with some acuity what was to come.

Earl Woods outlined what his son had been raised for. Not just to be a sportsman who served as corporate shill, but to make a difference.

“The world will be a better place to live in by virtue of his existence,” said Earl. His son would make a “contribution to humanity”.

And Smith, with the scepticism of his profession, asked if Tiger Woods could do more for humanity than, say, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali or Arthur Ashe. And Earl said his son would do “more than any of them. Because he is more charismatic, more educated, more prepared for this than anybody”.

Of course we suspected then, and with respect still do, that Earl Woods was half crazy. The point, though, is his immense and undoubted influence on his son and the fact Tiger was reared, bred and honed not just to be a golfer but to have a larger social impact.

“This is my purpose,” confirmed Tiger. “It will unfold.”

And beneath the applause and the clamour, Gary Smith detected something which fed his doubts.

“Can you hear the grinding?” he wrote. “That’s the relentless churning mechanism of fame girding to grind the purity and the promise to dust . . . it is a fitting moment to pose a question. Who will win? The machine . . . or the youth who has just entered its maw?”

Four months after the piece appeared Tiger Woods gave us the last true glimpse of himself before the machine swallowed him. Woods gave an interview to Charles Pierce, another great sportswriting stylist. The piece ran in GQ magazine.

(Pierce began with a rather good joke, the punch line of which is still apposite for Tiger. God and St Peter playing golf. Peter tees off. Callaway club. Titleist ball. Perfect shot splices fairway and comes to a halt setting up a short iron to the green. God steps up. Winks. Draws out a bit of bamboo with a rock tied to end. A range ball. Takes swipe. Ball shoots straight up, is caught in mouth of a passing woodpecker who carries it to fringe of green whereupon he has a heart attack and drops ball which lands on the back of a passing box turtle who proceeds to ramble towards the hole with the ball on his back. Inches away he sneezes, ball runs down turtle, creeps to lip of hole and drops in. Peter to God: “You gonna play golf or you gonna f*** around.”)

The GQ interview revealed Woods as a callow enough man, who told dirty jokes and chatted up the photographer’s assistants and had an existence and personality separate and apart from the image which was being constructed for him. Pretty soon afterwards he disappeared into the machine.

From that time until his automobile accident and the great spillage of his private life into the public domain, Woods has been the opposite of what he was raised to be. That which he promised would unfold never fully did.

He did win golf tournaments and created a legacy of success which will never be equalled in the modern game.

He has also been the world’s first billion-dollar slave, a grim irony for a man whose success might have had such a liberating effect on people. Signed up by the world’s biggest sports management agency, he was immediately strait-jacketed, given a monochromed personality and sent out to serve capitalism and sell stuff as best he could.

He stopped doing interviews and disappeared behind a cordon sanitaire which kept the world away from Tiger and Tiger away from the world. His press conferences at events were studies in controlled blandness. The only colour emanating from his long-running success was the red tops he wore on Sundays. What Tiger Woods thought or felt about anything more significant than pin placements nobody knew.

The market couldn’t be offended. And opinions and a real life were bound to offend some people. So they took away a few dimensions of a young man’s personality and put a cardboard cut-out in the shop window for the passing trade.

It was sad to see an obviously intelligent man decline to offer a view on just about anything. Money and victories are common enough lusts, but gathered in sufficient quantity they seldom amount to personal fulfilment. There was scarcely an element of Woods’ life which wasn’t controlled and retailable. And we know now that the part which was his own was a sort of lonely chaos.

He comes back to golf not because he has to but because he knows nothing else and because fame is a strange class of drug. Not many can handle it. Not many who have experienced it can live without it. Tiger was never really going to disappear into the sort of obscurity his old rival David Duval visited in the years after his British Open win, and, even if he wanted to, it is doubtful if he would be allowed.

Some corporate “partners” have dropped him for strategic reasons in the past few months, but too many others have too much tied up in him to let him go free. Ditto the game of pro golf itself.

So they will be fitting the old straitjacket again with rather less ceremony than they fit the green blazer in the lodge in Augusta. And Tiger will mind his Ps and take care of his Qs and be rehabilitated into the market.

And sometimes he will wonder about that life which he thought would unfold. Where he wasn’t just a golfer but a human being who made a difference. He’ll look back at the young man and the machine and know that the machine won with strokes to spare.