I was in Milan for a tourism conference when Tiger delivered his mea culpa. I didn’t see it live, but I watched what I could bear of it when it was shown on Italian TV, with simultaneous translation turning Tiger’s stilted recitation into a lilting monologue. Later yet, on CNN, the only English-language channel available at my hotel, I caught Larry King interviewing numerous experts and interested parties, including: a media coach, commenting on how well-served (not very, in his view) Tiger was to initiate such a staged event; a psychiatrist specializing in addiction treatment for celebrities, who said a “three to five year” course of therapy was indicated for someone being treatment for Tiger’s presumed condition; John Sallie, the ex-NBA player who is apparently is qualified to comment because he’s an African-American former professional athlete who may have once faced the same sorts of temptations Tiger succumbed to; the wife of another ex-NBA player whom King described in his introduction as an “advocate for monogamy” or words to that effect, a point of view affirmed when she said, apropos of Tiger’s wife not attending the mea culpa, that while it was not up to her to judge Mrs. Woods’ course of action, “I would have been long gone;” and Tim Finchem, the PGA Commissioner, who was the only person to witness the mea culpa in person, saying pretty much what one would expect—that the Tour was doing just fine, thank you, but it would be nice having Tiger back.
That Tiger’s performance was regarded as so newsworthy is remarkable. I left Milano for China two days later, and saw that the English-language Asian newspapers available on the plane all played the story on page one, most with pictures. Barring the news media—and as a long-time member I am proud of the Golf Writers Association of America for refusing to gnaw on the bone Tiger’s handlers offered them, of a chance to send several members to sit in the audience to listen to Tiger read his speech but not to ask him any questions afterwards—was, the expert on Larry King observed, a big mistake. In the long term, for people to believe in him again, Tiger will have to answer questions about his transgressions and his fall from grace. Perhaps he isn’t ready yet, this early in his treatment, but that raises a bigger question: why stage the event in the first place, if he’s too fragile to confront the press? Either he’s close to returning to competition, and thus to public life and the scrutiny his celebrity brings, or he’s still so psychically frail that he needs medical supervision, which suggests that he was not really ready to take his sins on in a public way.
I found the whole event mortifyingly gloomy. I felt sad for Tiger’s mom, sitting bravely in the front row. Her willingness to stand beside her son enhanced her while it diminished Tiger, a terrible dilemma for a loving mom. I am willing to believe that everyone who was there to listen to his confession was participating out of genuine affection for Tiger, some basic bond of friendship earned before his wings caught on fire. But that didn’t make it any easier to watch, nor did it stimulate any sympathy for Tiger’s predicament. If he was going to make a statement, he could have done so more effectively by simply talking directly to the camera, using the intimacy of television to connect once again with his fans and admirers, people who admire his accomplishments and marvel at his golfing genius. Asking him to play a role in a staged event—a play, really—that he was clearly not up to was a terrible blunder by his advisors. Tiger is miscast as a humble, beseeching penitent. It’s not a part he can play with conviction, after years of inhabiting the role of a Clint Eastwood hero, chiseled, imperturbable and unconquerable. Humility requires conviction. Tiger was struggling to convince a skeptical audience that he’s not crying wolf. When he said his wife would judge him by what he does in the future, I think it’s fair to say she was speaking a universal truth.
In an odd way, despite its failure as a performance, Tiger’s first appearance did confirm that this is a man on a precipice, struggling to keep his balance. It was less what he said than the fact that he needed a scriptwriter that showed his vulnerability. Was he brave to confess in such a public way? In some ways, sure, but he also didn’t have much choice in the long run. The evidence that his confession confirmed was pretty convincing from the start—the smashed Escalade didn’t lie.
Will Tiger play golf again? Of course. Will he win major championships? Absolutely. Will he ever regain his place on Olympus? The Greeks understood the hero’s temptation to preen in the wake of conquests. Such acts they found abhorrent, and they embodied this detestation in the notion of hubris. Like a figure in a Greek tragedy, Tiger has risen too high and the gods have smote him (with some help from a temptress or two, but, hey, that’s how the gods work). He will cling to the slopes, his achievements always admired, but Tiger will never again stand on the summit.