Loving to Hate Tiger

Ever since he was a kid, Tiger Woods has been worshiped like a god. Tiger, an African-American, made it into Stanford and then proceeded to dominate a sport that had belonged to whites since its beginnings. When Tiger entered golf, the sport was still reeling from the departure of the beloved Arnold Palmer and the decline of Tom Watson.   The PGA was sorely in need of a hero. No one had the charisma, emotion, and dominance needed to win over the hearts of fans as well as bring new fans to golf. But Tiger, the son of a U.S. soldier, embodied the American dream and quickly became everything the PGA needed him to be. From 1984 to 1996,  no player won the Player of the Year Award more than twice, with the exception of Nick Price (’94 and ’95). Then, at the age of 21, Woods became the youngest player and the first African-American to win the Masters, which he did in 1997. He destroyed the competition by 12 strokes. And that elusive Player of the Year award that no one seemed to be able to hold onto? Tiger won it in '97 after his first Masters title and then won it nine more times from 1999 to 2009. Off the golf course Woods was calm and controlled; the perfect role model for kids. On the links, he was intense and inspiring, bringing the renewed passion back to golf and great TV ratings with it.  He was golf. I loved him--everyone did. We rooted for him. We watched golf because of him. Although Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Davis Love III, and Phil Mickelson seemed to be nice guys too, I could never find myself rooting for anyone other than Tiger.

But, perhaps I should have been warned when, in December of 2008, Woods’ caddy, Steve Williams, said, “I wouldn't call [Phil] Mickelson a great player, 'cause I hate the [expletive].” Let’s just say that that expletive rhymes with “brick.” Williams apologized and explained that Tiger was in no way connected or responsible for his caddy’s answer. Right. I was expected to believe that? But, hey, people make mistakes, and everyone’s entitled to their opinion. So, like everyone else, I let that slide.

This past Thanksgiving, everything changed. It was reported that Woods crashed his SUV outside of his home and had to be rushed to the hospital. It appears that this was likely just a cover-up. Supposedly Elin Woods, Tiger’s wife, upon learning that Tiger was engaging in extramarital affairs, had attacked him. There was a messy separation in which the prenuptial was rewritten. Tiger handed his wife $5 million immediately and she was due another $55 million over the next two years. Elin is barred from telling her side of the story and must continue to show up with Tiger at social events and act in public as if they “were still a perfect couple.”

Like countless athletes before him, Woods has betrayed the public’s trust. In 2003, Lakers star Kobe Bryant, my least favorite current NBA player (because I am a Celtics fan), cheated on his wife and allegedly raped a 19-year old waitress at a Colorado hotel. Because of Bryant’s heartfelt apology, his out-of-court settlement with the alleged victim, and his demonstrated willingness to change, fans have forgiven him. Then in 2007, then Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, pled guilty to interstate dogfighting. In a short press conference, Michael Vick delivered an apology that seemed like it was written by his agents and lawyers.  The reality that he had let down countless fans and kids, both in Atlanta and across the nation, apparently had not sunk in.

Of course, athletes disappointing the public is nothing new. In 1919, Chicago White Sox outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and at least seven of his teammates were indicted, but eventually acquitted, of throwing the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. Still, baseball fans believed that key members on the White Sox had intentionally lost the series. Legend has it that as “Shoeless” Joe left the courtroom, a kid stepped forward from the throng that had gathered to see their idol, and begged of him, “Say it ain’t so Joe!” Jackson let down countless kids and fans, many of who never forgave him for ripping out the integrity of the sport.

Jackson. Bryant. Vick. And now, Woods. All thought they were invincible; above the rest. This attitude of some athletes makes it impossible for me to root for them. These athletes make millions upon millions of dollars playing a sport for fans and are role models for little kids all over the world. They have a duty to the public and are held to a higher standard. When Tiger apologized in his press conference, it felt more like he was upset that he had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar than he had actually realized the extent of his actions. Woods demanded that the public and paparazzi stay away from his kids and the rest of his family.

But Tiger, you don’t get to call the shots anymore. You already forfeited that right when you used your family for your advantage and when you cheated on your wife--numerous times and with numerous different women. Maybe if Woods had taken a year off of golf to straighten out his life, spend time with his family, and miss some majors, I could give him the respect he demanded. But in true Tiger Woods fashion, he announced in March that he would return to play in the Masters. A Woods victory would only add to his legend. A devious publicity move that to me shows that he cares more about himself than his family. The severity of his actions still has not reached him.

This past weekend, when the focus should have been on Phil Mickelson – how he was battling alongside his wife Amy and mother Mary against breast cancerit was instead on Woods’ return to golf even though he finished a full five strokes off the lead . The stories should have been about magnificent 16 year-old Italian, Matteo Manassero, who finished tied for 36th, or Anthony Kim, the next American great who placed 3rd with a tournament-round-low of 65, or the 40-year old K.J. Choi who tied for 4th, or even the guy in 2nd place, Britain’s majorless Lee Westwood, who has finished 2nd or 3rd in a major four other times.

In the same way that I cannot bring myself to root for Michael Vick, and baseball fans across the nation could not forgive “Shoeless” Joe, I could not forgive or root for Tiger. I think that ESPN's Rick Reilly put it best:

“Who you rooting for today among the Americans? The guy who’s trying to be polite? Or the guy who just can’t help it? The guy who’s learning to be faithful? Or the guy who’s always been. The guy who’s working on his temper? Or the guy who never had one. Are you pulling for the guy who came to the masters with his life upside down through his own inexplicable choices? Or the guy who came to the masters with his life upside down through no choice of his own. Me? I’m pulling for Mickelson…You have to root for the guy who was friendly before it was fashionable, who was true without having to go to rehab for it. And who spent most of his professional golf life losing to the other guy, who it turns out, was neither.”

For once, twice, thrice, the nice guy didn’t finish last.

Editor’s Note: This sports column is a regular feature from “The Nightcap” crew,  made up of Ari Zyskind, Nathan Barnett, Dan Campbell, and Kevin Shuai, a group of 5Cers who air a weekly radio sports talk show on KSPC. You can listen in online at KSPCstream.com or KSPC.org (click “Hear us Online via Live365”) every Monday from 8-10 PM.