There was a moment Sunday afternoon when Tiger Woods seemed to acknowledge the ordeal. It wasn’t an overt gesture. It was subtle. He had just walked onto the 18th green at Bay Hill with a five-stroke lead, moments away from ending the nearly thousand-day victory drought that had arrested his march on golf history. After waving dutifully to the gallery and waiting for Graeme McDowell to putt out ahead of him, Woods paused. He tilted his head downward into his left hand, and, cupping the brim of his cap, tried in vain to shield himself from view as his very public catharsis culminated live on national television. There was no hiding what this win meant to him. There was no hiding–period.
It was a rare show of emotion from the man who was once the world’s top golfer. Following his sex scandal and subsequent public statements of contrition in February 2010, Woods’s primary public face has been one of stoicism. He has struck a delicate tone that seems to hover somewhere between regret, determination, and mild annoyance at the intrusion the past three years have wrought. We should hardly be surprised. Those traits are first cousins to the ones that made him nearly invincible for most of the decade preceding his fall from grace.
Given the magnitude of his implosion, some expected Woods to be more solicitous of our forgiveness. On the contrary, over the past two years he has done the bare minimum in terms of interviews and media outreach. He has decided instead to take his medicine and let his clubs do the talking. Until yesterday, those clubs uttered mostly gibberish. Yesterday, they spoke loudly and clearly.
The most fascinating aspect of Tiger’s return to the winner’s circle yesterday may have been the readiness with which most of the American sporting public welcomed him back. Between television, the Internet, and social media, by last night the drool over Woods was puddling. Transgressions? What transgressions? His final putt had barely hit the bottom of the cup before debates were erupting over whether the “second act” of Woods’s career could match the first. As of this morning, Ladbrokes, the British gambling outfit, had installed Woods as a 4 to 1 favorite to win the Masters. By way of comparison, Rory McIlroy was 5 to 1; Phil Mickelson was 10 to 1; and Luke Donald, who is currently ranked number-one in the world, was 14 to 1.
I can’t prove it, but I’d be willing to wager a goodly portion of the people who took joy in Woods’s victory yesterday are the same people who condemned him during his unraveling. That’s the American way: We lionize you on the ascent, we attack you on the descent, then we revel in your reclamation. It turns out our hero worship isn’t as simple as it was in the days of Superman and Mickey Mantle. Back then, our love flowed from a binary spigot. It was either all the way on or all the way off. Today’s version has an infinite number of intermediate settings.
I know not everyone has forgiven Woods. Some remain steadfast in their scorn. In fact, shortly after Tiger whacked his drive on 18 yesterday, the following missive came across my Twitter feed from a woman in New York: “Are we sure it’s not too late for Tiger to trip over his putter and fall into the canal?”
Still, the national mood yesterday seemed to lean toward forgiveness. Are we fickle? Are we–to invoke the political jargon–flip-floppers when it comes to our feelings about Woods? I would simply suggest we are nuanced. We are emotional multitaskers. We are capable of loving him and being disgusted by him all at the same time.
Then again, our threshold for disgust is quite a bit wider than it used to be. Our gag reflex has been desensitized. Three years hence, it merits asking: Was Woods vilified at a level commensurate with his misdeeds? Let’s not confuse the enormity of the media frenzy that followed Tiger’s transgressions three years ago with the transgressions themselves. He was, to put it bluntly, a dog, not a criminal. He got what he deserved. He lost his wife, his good name, and half his fortune. When the dust settled, I suspect most Americans figured he’d paid a sufficiently steep price and were curious, if not eager, to see if he could piece the puzzle back together. The same national ethos that restored Bill Clinton’s popularity in the final 25 months of his presidency following the impeachment seems to be at work now with Woods. I believe it speaks to our national character and our capacity for forgiveness.
Do you remember what golf was like in the mid-’90s before Tiger Woods arrived on the scene? Unless you’re a reasonably ardent fan of the sport, there’s a good chance you don’t. It occupied nowhere near the space on the American sports landscape that it does today–and that has everything to do with Woods. Whether you believe the reasons to be cultural, or simply a product of his prodigious skill, there is no denying golf experienced a global growth spurt as a direct result of one man and his transcendence. With due respect to McIlroy, Mickelson, Donald, and company, for the 924 days prior to yesterday the sport’s profile had been regressing. Whether you like Woods or not, yesterday that stopped.