Tiger retracts his claws

Tiger Woods is famously insomniac but when (or if) he eventually fell asleep on the night of November 29, his dreams were probably haunted by a scene earlier that day at Los Angeles International Airport, where a tall, beautiful young woman called Rachel Uchitel was greeted on her arrival from New York by a bank of cameras and a well-dressed lawyer called Gloria Allred.

It was, in every conceivable way, the last thing Woods would have wanted to see as he attempted to claw his way back from three days that had seen him transformed from the “seriously injured” victim of an unfortunate car crash to a pseudo-fugitive, apparently intent on avoiding further scrutiny of the events that saw him crash his SUV into a tree outside his home. The accident caused about R60 000 in damage to the car and inestimable damage to his reputation as the quintessential family man.

Three times the police reportedly came calling at his door over the weekend, and three times they were turned away. In the end the Florida Highway Patrol, like the rest of the world, had to make do with the statement on Woods’s official website—a five-paragraph missive notable mostly for its precise yet tortured syntax and the barely concealed fury of its signatory at the fact that the public had caught a glimpse of his private world in circumstances that were beyond his control.

“Although I understand there is curiosity, the many false, unfounded and malicious rumours that are circulating about my family and me are irresponsible,” Woods (or at least his army of PR advisers) wrote.
“I would ... ask for some understanding that my family and I deserve some privacy, no matter how intrusive some people can be.”

But on Wednesday, in a statement on his website, he said he had let his family down and that he regretted those “transgressions with all of my heart. I have not been true to my values and the behaviour my family deserves.”

Paradoxically, he used the medium of a press release to make his public confession and to argue against the need for precisely that: “Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn’t have to mean public confessions.”

On Wednesday, hours before he released the statement, US Weekly magazine ran a cover story with detailed allegations from a cocktail waitress, Jaimee Grubbs. The magazine posted on its website an audio file that it alleged was a voicemail recording on Grubbs’s phone left by Woods three days before the car crash in which he appealed to her to help him keep their affair from his wife.

Being denied his wish for privacy is new territory for the world’s most famous athlete who, according to Forbes magazine, in September became the first sports star to earn more than a billion dollars in his career. Up until now the Nike-adorned Woods has been able to control his public image simply by virtue of who he is.

When he plays in a golf tournament anywhere television ratings are reckoned to increase tenfold, so naturally the TV companies are disinclined to broadcast anything that might offend him. A classic example of self-censorship came at the recent Australian Masters, where the commentators spent an entire day enthusing about Woods’s golf game, only to fall silent when he threw his club to the ground and it bounced into the crowd—an egregious breach of golf etiquette and a potentially dangerous one, too.

Occasionally, he might even agree to sit down for an interview—but only under the strictest conditions. A few years ago, Sports Illustrated was granted 10 minutes with Woods to discuss the impact he had made on golf since turning pro in 1996. “I’m a control freak,” was the most revelatory thing he said. But then we knew that already.

Since he appeared alongside Bob Hope on the Mike Douglas Show at the age of two, Eldrick “Tiger” Woods has known only constant attention. Guided by his father, Earl, Woods seemed immediately slated for greatness.

The fact that he was black in a virtually all-white sport only fuelled the hype—yet Woods still managed to exceed it all by winning his first major championship, the 1997 US Masters, within eight months of turning professional. He won by a staggering 12 shots, a record margin that made even Jack Nicklaus concede that here was a man from another golfing planet. And so the fascination with Woods’s every step and utterance escalated to unprecedented levels.

Living with his Swedish wife, Elin Nordegren, and two young children, he wants for nothing except what has been denied since the day he was ushered into Bob Hope’s presence. “I miss anonymity,” Woods once said—and that when he was simply one of the most famous people in the world.

Nowadays he is in danger of becoming one of the most disparaged. “Come on, Tiger,” one fan posted under Woods’s statement. “Don’t insult our intelligence.” For such ridicule Woods can thank the curse of the 21st-century celebrity and the media that support it. Amid the onslaught, one could feel sorry for Woods.

But the golfer has in some ways been the author of his own public predicament. Increasingly obsessed with his right to privacy—his 47m motor-yacht is named just that—his response to the most damaging PR crisis of his garlanded life has been to sit tight and say as little as possible.

To those who know the golfer best—or, at least, who have had to sit through the purgatory of his dreary press conferences—this is no surprise. He knows no other way. Even his confession on his website was utterly devoid of detail.

His cause is not helped by the way he has dealt with politics and other issues of wider public import in the past. Sometimes he has been obtuse to the point of rudeness—in February 2008, when he was asked for his opinion on Barack Obama, then emerging as a viable presidential candidate, his initial response was, “Oh God, here we go.”

Race is another taboo for Woods, in public at least. It is hard to argue against his right to remain silent on subjects he and his advisers consider dangerous to his cross-market appeal with sponsors, but it is equally hard not to wish that the world’s most famous athlete could make his influence felt on wider society.

Paradoxically, as a boy growing up in southern California, he was the victim of some terrible racial abuse—not least at the golf club where he and his father played regularly. Woods, it was anticipated, could speak from experience—here was living proof that profound racism can be surmounted.

He made this point in an early TV commercial for Nike that concentrated on his exclusion from certain golf clubs in the US because of his skin colour, but there is a sense that he was happy to play the race card only when it suited his commercial purposes.

Similarly, a year after sounding so uninterested in talking about Obama, he was photographed in the Oval Office with the new president, having apparently made plans to play golf with him.

Why the change of heart? We will never know, because the beauty—or tragedy—of being Tiger Woods is that you are seldom required to explain yourself, especially to those whose principal focus is birdies and bogies and unquestioningly celebrating the greatest golfer who has ever played the game.—© Guardian News & Media 2009

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