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Tiger Woods’ fall from grace: a lost hero

I have a neighbor, an avid golfer, who a couple of years ago had the opportunity to play Augusta National Golf Club, and was absolutely thrilled. He would play on the course where the Masters Golf Tournament is held each April, the Valhalla, or Eden, of golf courses, sacred ground, where the immortal gods of golf have trod and reside.
I didn’t dare to tell him that you couldn’t pay me to set foot on Augusta National.
To me, Augusta National is an artifact of the Old South, akin to an antebellum plantation, a country club — no blacks allowed, for all but its recent history. It admitted its first black member in 1991.
Just about my favorite moment in a lifetime watching sports was in 1997 when Tiger Woods won his first Masters in a romp, a 12 shot win, 18 under par (still the tournament record), and then donned the winner’s green jacket.
The Founder of the Masters, Clifford Roberts, who served as Chairman of Augusta National for 42 years, once asserted, “As long as I’m alive, golfers will be white, and caddies will be black.”
Yet here was Tiger Woods, just 21 years old at the time, not carrying a bag, but hoisting the silver Masters trophy with his name engraved on it.
It was a great, great moment in sports.
The above begins to get at why I’m in such despair over Tiger Woods’ fall from grace, and why I wince at the incessant jokes, and resist the media furor.
To me, Tiger has, or had, genuine cultural significance. In many ways, he prefigured Barack Obama: he was to sports in America what Obama is to politics. Like the President, he was sometimes said to “transcend race.”
Tiger himself does not discuss race. He has called himself a “Cablinasian” (caucasian/black/native-american/asian) and has been seen as an exemplar of the new multicultural America.
Race has been a part of my social and political consciousness since I began to think for myself, even though I have lived in the whitest states in the union for most of my life. I have been lucky enough to apply my fascination with the intersection of race and sports to my teaching by studying and writing about baseball’s Negro leagues.
In America we take sports altogether too seriously, going to absurd lengths. At the same time, we take them not nearly seriously enough, rarely examining the sources of our national sports obsession and its cultural impact.
We know the Tiger Woods story, how he was raised by his dad, a career military man, to be a golf prodigy. In the essay that celebrated Earl Woods’ 20-year-old son as Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year in 1996, writer Gary Smith observed that “Tiger Woods was raised to believe that his destiny was not only to be the greatest golfer ever but also to change the world.”
Earl Woods was quoted in Smith’s piece saying that his son was “going to help so many people. He will transcend the game and bring to the world a humanitarianism which has never been known before. The world will be a better place to live in by virtue of his existence and presence.”
I bought it. I put Tiger way up on a pedestal, cheered for him in every tournament, and hoped he would use his success in sports to change the world indeed.
Smith, for his part, sounded a cautionary note in his SI piece, asking: “Will the pressures of celebrity grind him down first?”
Evidently, they did.
If this sordid recent episode makes Tiger more humble — and humility is often the by-product of humiliation — what will the impact of this life-changing crisis be on the game, his game? If he no longer conveys perfection, no longer presents himself as invulnerable, no longer lives beyond the limits of normal human expectation, will he still be able to dominate the field in a golf tournament, be the best in the world, the best ever?
Will he still be Tiger Woods, on the golf course?
The daughter of filmmaker Orson Welles was told by her mother after being disappointed yet again by her father, “You’ll have to forgive him, dear. He’s a genius.”
What extremes of self-absorption, what ego- or mono-mania, are necessary to be the best in the world at something? Should geniuses be required to live like the rest of us, or do they deserve the prerogatives they assume, and which so often consume them?
Do “nice guys finish last” for a reason, because they’re nice guys? Does it help to be a selfish and arrogant SOB?
Harriet Bird in Bernard Malamud’s classic novel “The Natural” asks Roy Hobbs what he wants out of life. The young star says, echoing Ted Williams in real life, his goal is to be “the best there ever was in the game.”
“Is that all?” she asks. “Isn’t there … some more glorious meaning to one’s life and activities?”
Later, she invites him to her hotel room and asks him, “Will you be the best there ever was in the game, Roy?”
He says “That’s right.” Then she shoots him.
You’d think by now I’d know it’s hard to be a hero.

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