Of course, you and I, well we would have handled things differently. You and I, we would have embraced our stratospheric fame in a gregarious, philanthropic manner.
We would have used it to further world peace, reduce global warming, patch up that damn hole in the ozone and put an end, once and for all, to poverty and misery. We wouldn’t have been aloof and imperious, either.
No, we would have had time for everybody and we most certainly would not have wasted that kind of transcendent talent by being a soulless, corporate pitchman and serial philanderer recklessly indulging in a steady diet of cocktail waitresses and nightclub hostesses. Of course not, so let’s all sit here today and pass judgment one more time on Tiger Woods just for the sheer sport of it.
When Tiger sunk the longest short putt of his career on the 18th hole at Augusta this weekend to seal his fifth Masters and first major championship in 11 years, it was immediately branded the greatest comeback story in the history of professional sports, and who am I to argue.
Basically, no athlete has ever scaled the heights Tiger has and, consequently, none have plummeted to the depths he has either.
If you simplify the equation, the sheer latitude of Tiger’s heaven and hell becomes even more compelling. We are almost 20 years into this century, a significant enough chunk of time to safely make the assumption that Tiger is the single, most influential athlete of the 21st century.
Frankly, it’s not even close. Who would compare? Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi or LeBron James? Sure, they may have a billion or so Instagram followers. But all three have found their fame playing two of the most popular global sports, soccer and basketball. None of them put their game on the map, they put their career on the map.
Tiger became the most famous athlete in the world playing a sport that roughly 98% of the planet has never tried. Most people have no idea what end of a golf club to hold, but they know who he is and not just for his golf.
For many years, he was a marketing dynamo being sold as the wholesome and virtuous role model, a young family man with a radiant smile and an absolutely perfect set of teeth. Turns out his teeth may have been the only perfect thing about him.
His transgressions are well known, even to non-golf fans and, ironically, this makes his fame even more consuming. Tiger has long been lauded for his crossover appeal, the way he transcended his sport.
Unfortunately for him, this prophecy would come true when a sex scandal took him from the sports pages straight to tabloid hell.
Over the last ten years, he has become some kind of morality litmus test and this is where we get back to you and I passing judgment on him. Not surprisingly, the golf world was the first to forgive Tiger.
There were assorted hecklers, but by and large, the crowds were larger and more loyal than for any of the games younger studs culminating in his rapturous reception last September when he captured the Tour Championship, his biggest win since the US Open in 2008. It was spectacular theater and I had never seen a golf crowd that large and as emotionally invested until Augusta this past weekend.
Just unabashed love from top to bottom and why not? Tiger has done more for golf than anyone, at least in terms of growing the game, and has put a significant amount of money into the pockets of anyone who has been involved in the sport over the last 20 years.
I certainly owe Tiger more than a few paychecks. Not many editors were turning down any kind of Tiger tales back in his heyday and I was lucky enough to have a front-row seat for the entirety of his professional career during his frequent forays to Asia.
Yet after all the media scrums and corporate photo-ops, all the gossip and innuendo, I still know very little about the man other than the fact that he had an endless array of enablers. At the time, Tiger didn’t even seem human.
Charismatic yet detached, he was an industry unto himself. But it wasn’t just Tiger who was imperious and aloof. Most of his IMG and Nike handlers were digging on themselves quite a bit as well back then. They had the keys to the kingdom, so keep your distance fella.
Small surprise that when the house of cards came tumbling down and Tiger was exposed as being far from virtuous, he addressed his sense of entitlement.
“I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to,” he said. “I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame, I didn’t have to go far to find them. I was wrong. I was foolish.”
Truth is, he could get away with whatever he wanted until he could not anymore, which leads us back to a historic Georgia afternoon in April 2019. Even the most cynical amongst us had to feel something. After all, he had been through, including global humiliation and an endless string of debilitating physical impediments and surgeries, there was no denying Tiger was human now.
One look at his disheveled mugshot from his arrest for reckless driving less than two years ago tells you he was more than a little human. Maybe the fact that he was no longer an industry, he was a flawed man and, seemingly, a loving parent made him endearing on a totally different level.
More than anything, he overcame himself. Even before his winning putt dropped, a friend asked me what I thought was next for him. It’s hard to say because none of us have ever been in his situation, we have never had to deal with the radiance of his aura and the choices he makes.
What’s next? I don’t know and I don’t really care. The only thing we have is the moment and, for me at least, this was undeniably one of the most memorable moments in a lifetime of memorable sporting moments. But I’ll let you be your own judge.
Tim Noonan is a writer based in Bangkok and Toyko, covering sports and culture.