Tiger Woods and the myths we indulge

A few years ago, in room full of people, I asked Tiger Woods a question about his family.

This was, of course, pre-fire hydrant and pre-divorce. It was 2007, to be more specific. Woods had dropped by Congressional Country Club in Washington D.C. to promote the tournament he was hosting for the first time, AT&T National, and even though he was running on about three hours of sleep, he took questions from the media for close to an hour.

My question wasn't particularly insightful. It wasn't provocative. In fact, what I remember most about it was how nervous I was. When you interview professional athletes long enough, you get used to them doing what I tend to refer to as the Thousand Yard Stare. I don't know if it's something they pick up by osmosis, or if professional sports leagues secretly teach it in media education classes, but most of them do not make eye contact, especially in group interviews. The might acknowledge your question with a nod of the head, but beyond that, they pick out a spot on the horizon, and talk to everyone and no one at the same time. This is the reason why athletes tend to speak in cliches. They simply shift into autopilot. Even they don't know what they're saying half the time.

Tiger Woods does not do this. Tiger looks you directly in the eye. And to be honest, it's somewhat disarming. It's also extremely effective. For years, Woods talked a lot but said almost nothing in interviews. But simply by making eye contact, he controlled the conversation. He made reporters, at least in the moment, believe he was saying deep, important things. That he was exactly the person he said he was.

I asked him that day how it would feel if his kids weren't interested in golf -- his ex-wife, Elin was about to give birth to their first child, Sam -- and whether or not that would be difficult, considering what an important role golf had played in his relationship with his own father. Tiger said he didn't think so, because being a good father and a good husband was the most important thing in his life, and golf was always going to be secondary. It made for a cute little anecdote in my story, and countless others.

When Sam was born a few months later, Woods was back at AT&T National, where he looked another reporter in the eye and said he really hoped he and his wife could emulate the marriage Jack and Barbara Nicklaus had throughout Nicklaus' career, because having both his parents there for him was the most important part of his childhood. 

I bring all this up not to point out what a farce it all was, looking back, nor because I still can't believe how easy it was for Woods to look people in the eye and say things that he had to know, deep down, weren't really true. He may have wanted them to be true, but every dirty text message and parking-lot hook up that we now know about suggests he didn't want them badly enough.

Instead what bugs me most in all this is how much we wanted the Myth of Tiger Woods to be true. 


We indulged the fantasy -- both fans and the media -- because it probably makes us feel good to imagine great athletes are also great fathers and loving husbands. People gripe about how the media thrives on scandal, and there are times when that's true, but for the most part, they're wrong. The media spends a lot more time promoting a fantasy. Ask yourself how many times you've read a story about an athlete who has matured, who has redeemed himself, or found balance in his life thanks to marriage or kids. Were any of them more that savvy PR?

Just look at the stories about Tony Parker and Eva Longoria prior to the announcement they were getting a divorce. Did they have a happy marriage? Only they really know, but that didn't stop countless people in my business from suggesting it anyway. It's true of almost every celebrity couple. Remember when Andre Agassi and Brooke Shields were married? It was portrayed at the time like a union between Hollywood and sports royalty, and that two lonely people were a perfect match for one another. But If you read Agassi's revealing biography, "Open" you'll learn that he was never that sold on the marriage in the first place. It was doomed from the start.

Woods' personal life is back in the news again, although this time it's his own doing. We're coming up on the one-year anniversary of the fire hydrant crash, and everything that followed. Trying to get ahead of the PR game, Woods (or at least one of his handlers) penned a personal essay for Newsweek in which he claimed he has changed so much as a person during the last year, and that a round of golf isn't as important as making macaroni and cheese for his two kids. The title of the essay "How I've Redefined Victory" is meant to suggest tremendous personal growth.

It's a nice sentiment, and for the sake of his kids, I hope it's true. But what I've realized lately is that I don't care if it is. Its in Woods best interests to get this message out there, and there will always be plenty of outlets ready to hand him a bullhorn. If Woods is truly a changed man, so be it. But if he's still looking reporters in the eye and saying stuff he knows is a lie, that's fine too. I no longer care. Looking to athletes for examples of admirable personal behavior -- no matter who they are -- is extremely naive.

Tiger Woods is interesting, at least to me, because he can hit a golf ball well. If he's a great father now, good for him. But we need to stop participating in the campaign to rehabilitate his image. I don't know if he -- or Phil Mickelson for that matter -- is a good father. Only Woods knows whether or not he's a better man than he was a year ago.

Everything else is just theater, and this time, I'd rather not blindly sell you a ticket.

Photo: AP