Rise and Fire: Coming back to Tiger

April 9, 2015

On Tuesday, as he sat fielding questions ahead of the 2015 Masters, Tiger Woods resembled an aging President. Woods, almost unrecognizable, fielded question after question, each of which danced around the same theme: did the 14-time major champion still have it? After over a decade of sustained dominance, Woods, like a lame-duck Commander-in-Chief, has come to be viewed less in terms of his past accomplishments, and more in terms of his recent failures. The once unshakably confident Woods answers questions today with many sighs and shakes of the head; it appears that even he doesn’t know how much he has left to give or for how much longer he can stay relevant.

If you find yourself feeling empathetic, don’t be alarmed—many are starting to change the way they feel towards Woods, an athlete widely considered to be amongst the most hated in all of sports. To understand this dramatic change in sentiment, one must first understand the trajectory of his career.

There was first, of course, the glory days. Woods burst onto the professional golf scene in 1996, a young upstart poised for a meteoric rise to fame. Over the course of the next decade, Woods won every major championship at least three times, spending over 500 weeks as the world’s number one ranked golfer. Woods was invincible. By the late 2000s, the question was not whether Woods would be one of the best to ever play the game; it was whether he was the best golfer of all-time.

Phase two introduced the world to Tiger Woods the human being, a man many fans came to wish they’d never met. Accusations of marital infidelity led to an extremely public divorce, inciting a mass exodus of Woods’ sponsors and supporters. The face of golf was forced to take a leave of absence, disappearing from the public eye as suddenly as he had arrived. The strong man that had single-handedly jump-started the game of golf amongst younger generations now seemed painfully weak, unable to come to grips with the mistakes he had made.

Phase three was Woods’ reentrance. A neat press conference revealed that Tiger had, in fact, been adulterous, and that he understood the far-reaching consequences of his actions. Then, there was the commercial from Nike, one of Tiger’s only remaining sponsors, which featured his late father asking him for a personal explanation. The unfiltered approach taken by Woods’ camp demonstrated that, if nothing else, Woods cannot be framed as a person incapable of recognizing his personal mistakes. If Woods’ private matters were to be discussed in public, he demanded to be a part of the conversation.

That brings us to today. Now five years removed from his fall from grace, Woods has started to put his life back together. He has recovered strongly from a devastating series of injuries that adversely affected his play, and, as a result, has started to be cast as something of a lovable underdog. Woods will be playing in this weekend’s Masters and, at 40-1 odds, his chances of winning resemble that of a tournament long shot. One gets the feeling that Tiger may have one more trick up his sleeve, and that the world may catch a glimpse of the old Woods.

Are we allowed to root for him, though? Every feel-good story about Woods’ comeback can be countered with a reminder of his deplorable actions. By some counts, Woods was involved in 12 extramarital affairs; quite simply, it’s difficult to observe this disrespect and still root for a person’s future successes.

On the other hand, public figures’ sexual transgressions have been swept under the rug repeatedly in modern times. Kobe Bryant’s 2003 sexual assault case nearly destroyed both his reputation and his marriage, yet the Los Angeles Laker emerged virtually unscathed.Similarly, current New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez has been frequently accused of extramarital activity during his career, yet most baseball fans would marginalize the importance of this aspect of his character, focusing instead on his steroid use.

People seem to believe that it is possible to support an athlete in his professional exploits, then turn around and dismiss his character. I believe that you cannot have it both ways. Until you forgive, you cannot forget.

Tiger Woods made a series of highly misguided decisions for which he has paid a serious price. At this time, however, I, like many golf fans, am ready to let him back into the game we love. Despite the gravity of his transgressions, Woods is still a human being and is doing what he can with what mental and physical strength he has left. I hope he wins the Masters this weekend and allows a little happiness back into the life he himself tore apart. We can never know if Woods has truly changed, but I see nothing wrong with giving him the benefit of the doubt. Good luck, Tiger. 

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