Reading Tiger Woods: The Legend, The Myth, The Man

Really. Tiger Woods has been
sleeping around? Really, his relationship
with his fembot wife
from the Swedish Bikini Team was a
sham? Really, the man whose father
proclaimed him to be the messiah not
just of golf but of the world is an egomaniac?
Really? Really, the man who
spends his time traveling the world and
playing on the nearly ubiquitous but
quintessential man-made landscapes
that define “the geography of nowhere,”
who lives in what I can only imagine
to be the ultimate gated community of
Windermere, Florida–this man has a
woman in every port? Really? Really,
the man whom scores of fans admire
for his conquests of these landscapes is
also notching his belt with female conquests?
Really.

I must admit to a number of things
about Tiger Woods. First, I must admit
that I have been a Tiger fan. I am not a
golfer but I watch golf when Tiger plays,
especially when he is either “making a
charge” or atop the leader board. For
whatever reason, I thrill to watch Tiger
destroy a course and the field of pasty
white guys plus Vijay Singh and a handful
of Asians. I especially like those type
of runaway victories that smack of godhood,
as with Tiger’s first victory at the
Masters in 1997 when he conquered the
most hallowed of golf courses, Augusta
National, only months into his pro
career, deconstructing (a non-English
teacher would probably say “destroying”)
a course that has since had to be
reconstructed to remain golf’s Promised
Land.

I was also a sucker for Tiger’s one-legged
victory in the 2008 U.S. Open
just before he announced he had a torn
ACL and would undergo season-ending
knee surgery. The greatest of athletes
seem to have this in common: they are
able to perform at championship levels
when mere mortals could not.
 
I thrill to watch Tiger destroy a course
and the field of pasty white guys plus
Vijay Singh and a handful of Asians.
 

Like Michael
Jordan’s flu-performance against
Utah in the 1998 NBA finals, which I
remember clearly, or Willis Reed’s legendary appearance after a knee injury,
which I wasn’t even alive for but can
appreciate still. In this way, too, Tiger
is transcendent, and I ate it all up.
I must also admit that when I heard
about Tiger’s affairs, I laughed. All the
signs were in place for exactly this sort
of thing–the messiah-status created
by his father Earl Woods, his marriage
to a bikini model, his general egomania,
his occasional swearing outbursts
that blatantly disregarded both social
norms and role-model status.


Tiger Woods’ Deconstructive Power

Despite all these despicable traits,
however, I lionized Tiger in my own mind. Why? Tiger Woods is 34 years
old, my own age; he’s a Gen-Xer, like
me. In many ways he is symbolic of
my generation, especially as he has
smashed perhaps the final high-place
of the white sporting world: the sacred
ground of golf.

This is what I call the deconstructive
power of Tiger Woods, and some
personal experience does enter into
my appreciation for Tiger’s role at this
point. For two summers during college,
I caddied at one of Minnesota’s
most prestigious golf courses, Interlachen
Country Club. Interlachen is too
short and landlocked to host a modern
PGA tournament, even though in 1930
Bobby Jones famously skipped a shot
across the water at #9 to win the third
leg of his triple crown. Today, however,
or at least when I caddied there in the
’90s, Interlachen was still a stronghold
of the old boys’ club. I heard
both women and minorities
derided there. A woman I caddied
for dubbed my Colombian-born friend, “the black”–not the worst of sins, perhaps,
but symptomatic of how far
removed this world was from
people of color.

For two summers at Interlachen, I
kowtowed for tips, carrying two bags
per round at a minimum price of $30
each. Assuming the weather was good,
two rounds per day came to an absolute
minimum take of $120. My best day
was probably around $230. Yes, there’s
money in golf and I have prostituted
myself for it.

The one Tiger joke I heard then, as
he emerged into the professional world,
came from an old woman at least in her
late 70s, one of my early and poorly
paying “loops.” I don’t remember how
the body of the joke went except for the
general question-answer format, but
I clearly remember the punch-line. It
went like this: “What do you call Tiger
Woods as a professional? ” And the answer:
“A Thai-Coon.” Lovely–a legitimate
ethnic label coupled with a racist
slur that together referenced the majority
of Tiger’s lineage: his mother is Thai
and his father is African-American,
with some Cherokee and even Chinese
blood in the mix.

“Ha, ha,” the woman laughed after
she delivered the punch line and hit
her crap tee shot wide right. “I love Tiger.
I think he’s great.” Yes, don’t you
just love him?

I loved Tiger Woods because, if
there was anything that Gen-X could
offer the world, I thought, it was Tiger,
a one-man wrecking ball of the vestiges
of white privilege in Western culture.
This was our issue; it was Cobainesque
in its own way:


With the lights out it’s less dangerous


Here we are now, entertain us


I feel stupid and contagious


Here we are now, entertain us,


A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito,


my libido

Okay, it’s a stretch, but I guess Tiger
was that racial amalgam that defied
all the social structures that seemed
broken to our angst-ridden generation.
After growing up with discussions of
why African-Americans couldn’t play
quarterback, I saw Tiger as an in-your-face
answer. After one of Tiger’s early
Masters’ victories, after hearing Fuzzy
Zoeller joke that Tiger should serve
“fried chicken” and “collard greens” at
the Masters Club Champions’ Dinner,
I pulled all the more for Tiger. Tiger
would rule the white man’s game and
prove the white man didn’t rule.

So I pulled for him. My wife pulled
for him. Millions pulled for him. Even
my mother-in-law–she’s Lao–pulled
for him, citing his Thai blood.


A Psychological and Archetypal Reading

So, yes, I bought into the myth of
Tiger Woods; I helped make the myth of Tiger Woods. A n important part of
the myth was the name itself. Would
Tiger, named for the ultimate predator,
be Tiger if he had instead remained Eldrick?
This begs for another question: was Tiger born or was he made by Earl
Woods’ self-fulfilling prophecy? Whatever
the case, by age two, with predatory nickname in hand, Earl and Tiger
had found their way onto the talk-show
circuit. (You can still watch it today
at www.youtube.com/watch?v=_wHkA_983_s). His was to be more than fifteen
minutes of fame, however.
 
Tiger’s actions are exactly what we as
a culture expect–no, demand–from
our version of the Byronic hero. He’s
playing the role perfectly: he’s from
everywhere and nowhere, a genius
yet uncontrollable, dominant yet
dangerous.
 

Child prodigy
was only the beginning. Tiger won
an unprecedented three U.S. Amateur
titles, then turned pro to more of the
same. Then in 1996 came the Sports Illustrated
article where Earl Woods declared
Tiger a messiah to unite the races:
“Tiger will do more than any other
man in history to change the course of
humanity,” Earl Woods said. Really?

Yes, because…he’s playing a
sport that’s international. Because
he’s qualified through
his ethnicity to accomplish
miracles. He’s the bridge between
the East and the West.
There is no limit because he
has the guidance. I don’t know
yet exactly what form this will
take. But he is the Chosen One.
He’ll have the power to impact
nations. Not people. Nations.
The world is just getting a taste
of his power.1

True godhood on the golf course followed
the prophecy. Then there was a queen for King Tiger. Now a harem. All
of which makes complete sense.

If Tiger was to be a modern-day
messiah, as Earl declared, then he had
to be a messiah of the global capitalist
dispensation. Thus Tiger achieved celebrity
on all continents, the pressing
crowds of men and women rising above
even rock-star status. Thus he won
championships on several continents,
and the path is now being
cleared for him to win a gold
medal in the Olympics.
Thus he is the face of a billion-dollar
economic empire; thus he
married an international bikini
model; thus his indiscretions
included the new global
technology of “sexting.” Thus,
once again, Tiger makes his
home every where and nowhere,
on the ubiquitous golf
course and in the ubiquitous
gated community. I would
dare to say that Tiger is rootless and
identity-less.

Furthermore, Tiger is a messiah of
a secular, postmodern age. This means,
true to my Gen-X admiration of him,
that his multiracial pedigree and global
citizenship constitute his validation.Golfer=Savior? It
also means that his ethics point us not
to some higher moral plane but rather
to the idea that man is the measure of
all things. Tiger lives by his own moral
code; he is above mere mortals in how
he can be expected to live because of his
genius. I would even venture to say that
this is how we as a culture want him
to be–nay, this is what we’ve groomed
him to be.

Consider the television and film archetypes
that modeled Tiger’s promiscuous
behavior. On a lesser, comic scale
there was Sam Malone from Cheers, a
laughable would-be stud but an ‘80s
star nonetheless. More significantly,
there was Bond, James Bond, whose utter
isolation as a pawn of Cold War governments
leaves him nameless, placeless,
loveless–and yet the ultimate lover.
Bond’s character is an archetype, a
character whose legacy stretches back
in literature to at least George Gordon,
Lord Byron, whose characters from the comic Don Juan to the serious if melodramatic
Manfred were terrifyingly attractive–and typically as good with
the ladies as was Byron himself. Biblically,
of course, we can stretch back to
Solomon if we’d like. In any case, Tiger
Woods is a type of Byronic hero for our
day and age, a Wild West club-slinger
who blows into town for a tournament
showdown and after a short stay rides
off into the sunset with another notch
in his belt.

Tiger’s actions are exactly what we
as a culture expect–no, demand. He’s
playing the role perfectly: he’s from every where and nowhere, a genius yet uncontrollable,
dominant yet dangerous.
His modern-day harem is the ultimate
status symbol, that object of conspicuous
consumption reserved for the elite.
His behavior, if he can emerge from this
“scandal” relatively unscathed, will
only add to his status in our culture.
It’s really not even a scandal, simply
plot development for Entertainment Tonight.

After all, other athletes have
emerged unscathed–even triumphant–from would-be scandals. Tom
Brady, before his knee injury and the
decline of the New England Patriots,
garnered cultural praise for his playboy
fatherhood status. An AP article on
a preseason game once lauded Brady
for attending the birth of his child with
his ex-girlfriend, an actress, then flying
to the preseason game and leading
the Patriots to a victory, all the
while getting more press for dating
Giselle Bundchen, a supermodel.
Nicely, Giselle has just
presented Brady with his second
son, born close to Christmas
Day.

There will be no better proof
that this is the kind of behavior
we want from our heroes than
what it will take us to forgive Tiger,
which is simply this: more winning.
Remember Kobe Bryant’s alleged
rape case several years ago?
Wiped clean as soon as he returned
to championship form. Only if Tiger
follows the formula of Mike
Tyson–that is, starts losing, tattoos
his face, and bites off Phil Mickelson’s
ear–will he lose his luster with
us as a culture. This goes to prove that
other dictum of global capitalist culture:
no press is bad press. Even Iron
Mike is back in the public eye thanks
to Tyson, an award-winning 2008 documentary film on his life. No, if Tiger
Woods comes back to continue his run
at major championships, we will chalk
it up to his godhood, and this episode
will in the future be fodder for trivia
questions that document Woods’ messiah-
run: “In what year–the same year
that Tiger Woods didn’t win a major–did word of Tiger Woods’ multiple affairs
first break?”


Naturalism and Metanarrative

If Tiger is merely the product of our
age, as well as an archetypal character
in some metanarrative of human existence,
then we need to reconsider Tiger
as a character. Perhaps Tiger can’t help
it–his behavior, I mean. Perhaps, as
with the characters in Naturalist fiction,
Tiger is simply a victim of forces greater
than himself. Perhaps Tiger is simply
another Tess of the D’Urbervilles–or, more appropriately, Alec
what’s-his-name, the upper-class
slime-ball who takes
advantage of Tess. If
this were the case,
if we consider Tiger
a sort of pawn
in a larger story,
then the measure
of Tiger’s worthiness,
true to the best
naturalism, is how he
conducts himself in the
face of these forces. He
must act with nobility
and dignity, which might
include anything, I suppose,
from a public apology
to making up with
his wife by giving her a
lot of money to “brave”
acceptance of his outcast
status (very Byronic) to
rehab for sex addiction to
claiming he has a medical condition that’s part of his very nature
to fatalistic suicide (the latter two very
naturalistic). I would be willing to bet
on which path he chooses. Any of them
will draw press and since any press is
good press, any of them will do.

But now I myself must face the
question I’ve raised. Is Tiger a victim
of forces larger than himself ? If so,
does this clear the way for me personally
to pull for him once again? It’s an
interesting question. My gut tells me I
won’t, that I don’t pull for slime-balls.
Of course, doesn’t the fact that I won’t
pull for slime-balls illustrate that I myself
was looking for a messiah in Tiger
Woods? That my definition of messiah
includes sexual morality without swearing
or egotism (very Gen-X of me) but a
messiah nonetheless, perhaps recast in
my own image? Haven’t I just argued
for several columns that Tiger’s a product
of his age, that he’s been manufactured
by a global capitalist culture and
is therefore somewhat less individually
culpable than he might be? On both accounts,
yes. And isn’t Tiger, even with
a flawed character, still able to destroy
the idols of golf ? Yes, but it would have
been better for him to maintain moral
superiority while doing it. That’s what
Jesus would have done.
You should hear great irony in that
last line.

I hate naturalism. I hate thinking
that there are forces greater than ourselves
that can pop us like a pimple. I
hate thinking that I might be carried
along by a narrative in which I play an
unwitting part. This, as I understand it,
is quite American of me. As an American,
I want heroes who are themselves
a force of nature. I want a hero of unbending
will.

Wait a minute. There I go again.
Perhaps the scariest thing in all of
this is how we construct, deconstruct,
and reconstruct our heroes. And how
Scripture and Christ deconstruct them
all. Ultimately, in Tiger Woods I can see
the mold for how I cast my idols and how
the narrative of Scripture and the example
of Christ cast them down. There
is nothing new under the sun after all.
So will I pull for Tiger Woods after this? Certainly not like I used to. Really,
I won’t pull for anyone quite the
same again. Until the next time someone
emerges who transcends the game
itself, whose sterling character is above
reproach and….

Lord, have mercy.

ENDNOTES

1 Gary Smith, “The Chosen One,” Sports Illustrated,
23 December 1996.





Howard Schaap is an instructor
in the English department
at Dordt College in Sioux
Center, Iowa.