Tiger Woods Lets the Media Play Through

The first thing we need to think about when we think about the media’s coverage of the Tiger Woods sex scandal is the speech Yahoo chief executive Carol Bartz made to the UBS Media Conference on Tuesday.

“God bless Tiger,” Bartz said, going on to declare that public curiosity about the golfer’s private life will “absolutely” help her website make its target numbers for readers, advertiser money and profits for the year.

The story, she continued, is “better than Michael Jackson dying.” If only because “it’s hard to put an ad up next to a funeral.”

“We build people up just to rip them apart,” said Dr. Lee Wilkins, who teaches media ethics in the University of Missouri’s journalism school. “It’s pretty grotesque when you think about it.”

Particularly when you consider how a juicy celebrity scandal can overwhelm the coverage of serious, even important, news stories. “It’s what we call a story on a stick,” she continued: the kind of story a reporter can report on Google, or in the crowd camped out near Woods’s house. “But it’s not enterprise journalism. And there’s nothing new here.”

Which is part of why the story about the story about Tiger Woods is so compelling. Because this tabloid mud-fest is actually just another facet of the heroic tales he has inspired for so much of his brief, yet perpetually examined, life.

Bartz, as it turns out, is only the latest in a long line of observers who can’t resist treating  Eldrick “Tiger” Woods as a living abstraction. More than a man, more than the vast majority of professional athletes, he has become a projection: The embodiment of all the dreams, fantasies and fears we have for ourselves.

It’s virtually the only life Woods has ever had. Which may be why he has been so successful at using his own media persona as a combination shield, power source and marketing device. Just as he does on the golf course, he’s played all the angles, breezes, hills and hazards to his own advantage. The only trap he never anticipated was how his own ability to focus on himself could work against him. And once it did, how quickly the media narrative can pivot from unquestioning adulation to unrelenting contempt.

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It has always out there, just beyond the edge of the glorious vision the young African-Asian-American cut on the golf course. As a 15-year-old amateur in 1991 he was already attracting national attention, such as the column that appeared in the Miami Herald on Christmas day that year, in the midst of a junior tournament Woods was playing in.

“The country’s best junior golfer,” wrote Robert Lohrer, “confident enough to be mistaken as arrogant, creative enough with a golf club to be described as a genius.” 

A genius. At 15. Just six years later the writer Marino Parascenzo scoffed at the young golfer’s decision to trade the remaining two years of his college eligibility for professional status. “Tiger Woods, black kid and genius golfer was getting stale as both a story and a sale,” he wrote. So dismiss all that talk of how three straight amateur championships
left him with nothing else to prove on the sub-professional level. “It was the money.” 

As tempting as it is to get bogged down in Parascenzo’s choice of “black kid” as an identifier, let’s move on to the “genius” part, and acknowledge how often that word has been used to describe Woods. It finds its way into nearly every profile and news story, including the headline of a 2000 Washington Post story (“A Stroke of Pure Genius”) about the angst of golfers who couldn’t compete with the young champion. Nine years later Sports Illustrated’s Selena Roberts declared” there is no arguing his genius,” even as she tried to figure out why the 33-year-old seemed stalled at 14 majors titles. Which, she had to admit, was an awful lot of majors titles for a 33-year-old to have won.

What no one seemed to acknowledge was that genius — or the intense confidence, focus and self-control that allows a person to be that successful that much of the time — also indicates the existence of less appealing traits. As Esquire’s Charles Pierce revealed in an unvarnished profile in 1997, the still-college-aged athlete could be as rude and profane as a fraternity brother. And regal, too – when Woods noticed Pierce writing down the sex joke he had just told he ordered the reporter to take it off the record. Pierce refused (“Too late,” he snapped back) but the story did nothing to halt Woods’s rise as a corporate pitchman, to say nothing of his performance on the world’s golf courses.

Or maybe Woods’s audience secretly appreciated the crack in his relentlessly perfect public face. Because sports stories, as with all tales of otherworldly abilities and achievements, are all about human possibility. And if there’s one thing humans have in common it’s that we’re all flawed creatures. Thus, no idol gets to triumph forever, if only because that would undermine their fans’s sense of connection; that thrilling sense that the hero’s victories are also ours, because they lived, breathed and failed like everyone else.  

So while golf reporters spent years either looking the other way or simply not reporting Woods’s rather active extra-marital life, their erring on the side of privacy (or secrecy, depending on your perspective) also served to heighten the impact of the eventual, possibly inevitable, eruption.

As it turned out Woods’s genius — that freakish ability to remain focused and confident even when the weather turned ugly and antagonists breathed down his neck — was also his weakness. He was too self-involved to ignore his own appetites, and too confident in his self-control to imagine any game blowing up in his face. He was the genius; the golden child. Doesn’t he always win when it counts? 

Not all the time.  


If only because he’s not hitting a ball now. He IS the ball.

Woods has spent so much time creating and tending to his public image he didn’t notice that he had also made himself into a living alter-ego for a vast and quirky audience of fans and viewers. It’s a whole new game, with angles and traps he never imagined encountering. But he’s in the middle of it now. The cameras are on, the whole world’s watching.

And while his fans don’t want him to lose, exactly, they won’t be heartbroken, either. Genius golfers don’t come around every day. But heroes do.

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