Tiger Woods has become the young generation’s George Best
Bizarre odyssey from icon to ignominy a cautionary tale for our times
Tiger Woods and his son Charlie Axel Woods attending the US Open at Flushing Meadows in New York. in New York. Photograph: Elsa/Getty
It will soon be 10 years since Tiger Woods won a judgment of nearly €200,000 from The Dubliner magazine for publishing fake risqué photographs of his then wife Elin during the Ryder Cup at the K Club.
In those days, he was still busy chasing down Jack Nicklaus for title of greatest ever golfer and he sought redress against those trying to deface his carefully-controlled, pristine public image.
At the Presidents’ Cup in Liberty National starting today, of course, Woods will be the only vice-captain whose nude photo has done the rounds of the internet following the recent hacking of his ex-girlfriend’s phone.
As an illustration of the journey he has travelled, this bizarre odyssey from icon to ignominy, from peerless golfer to the stuff of late night comic fodder, that’s probably as good as any.
Even in tabloid America though, the naked picture story was a bit of a one-day wonder. After all, we’ve learned so much about Woods’s sexual foibles this past decade that nobody was that bothered. Not to mention some consenting sexting between adults is hardly a scandal compared to the bleary-eyed image of him off his balding head on prescription meds and marijuana when pulled over by the cops in Florida earlier this year.
It’s difficult to explain to youngsters how, for a time there, Tiger was so much bigger than the sport that he could diss the Ryder Cup and cause a kerfuffle when he questioned why players weren’t properly paid for their participation.
An argument from a different era.
Now, he’s happy just to be a bit part player at the Presidents’ Cup, a decaffeinated version of the Ryder Cup that most people in America won’t even notice is on. This is an end-of-season jolly so casual and insignificant that Michael Jordan, chomping cigars and smiling as he went, once fulfilled the same glorified cheerleader role Woods will play this week.
If it’s hardly box office, golf is still excited by his mere presence as it remains desperate, despite his physical travails and litany of off-field issues, to keep him involved. With good reason.
Next summer marks a decade since Tiger’s last Major win, an eternity in a universe where attention spans shrink smaller with every technological advance. A generation has come of age knowing he is famous for something, not quite sure what.
To them, he’s a recurring, kind of pathetic character on TMZ’s gossip round-up rather than the player who reimagined a game in a way that made the world stop to watch. Youngsters think him a morbid curiosity in the same bemused manner those of us who grew up in the 70s regarded the bloated, bearded version of George Best.
There’s something sad about that, and this is why each fresh bulletin about his rehabilitation from the latest back surgery (he’s now hitting 60 yard chip shots) offers (admittedly forlorn) hope that one day he may return as a competitive force.
Golfers can still win well into their forties although not usually when their bodies have broken down and betrayed them like Woods’ has. That one of the PGA tournaments he hosts recently lost its title sponsor could be viewed as an indication the sport’s commercial powerhouses don’t ever expect him back as a serious contender. Others believe corporate America may be simply running scared that associating with him might damage their brand if he becomes engulfed in another scandal.
To avoid that particular fate, he’s enlisted some serious help. Following his stint in rehab after the driving while impaired arrest, Michael Phelps has been providing him with, what the New York Times dubbed “a golden shoulder to lean on”.
Given his own troubles acclimatising to normal life having conquered his corner of the sporting world, the Olympian swimmer is perhaps uniquely placed to advise Woods. Phelps is one of the few people on earth who can empathise, having shared that level of dominance, adulation and fame, and the weird amalgam of pressures and struggles that seem to go with it.
Woods has never wanted for celebrity attention. Even at his lowest ebb. When Barcelona visited Miami during the summer, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez posed for photographs with him and his kids (all of them wearing blaugrana shirts), and the Uruguayan described him on social media as “a great idol”.
On his own website, Woods recently revealed his texting relationship with Rafael Nadal and how he brought his children to Flushing Meadows this year so they could see how hard the Spaniard worked on every point.
At 41, he may also be teaching his kids even more valuable lessons. When president Trump declared war on DACA immigrants – kids brought to America illegally as children – earlier this month, the Tiger Woods Foundation issued a statement reiterating its support of all its scholars who fell into that specific category.
In the most conservative sport, one that has afforded Trump more legitimacy than any other (hello Rory!), here was Tiger taking a stance at odds with the politics of so many of his peers and, indeed, sponsors.
A cynic might argue Woods is braver now that he has much less to lose than in his pomp. Whatever about that, he’s come a long way from the young man who turned down an invite to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s colour barrier so he could go to the opening of a restaurant.