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The Woods through the trees

After another chapter in the depressing story of Tiger Woods' declining career, Wil Jones takes a wonderfully analytical and provocative look.

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“Hello, World.” These were Tiger Woods’s first words at his inaugural press conference in 1996, his first as a professional sportsperson. After revelations of his infidelity were made public in 2009, one of the most successful golfers- and highest paid athletes- of all, Woods has once again found himself on the front pages rather than the back following his arrest for being “asleep at the wheel” of his vehicle.

Earlier this year, on Memorial Day in the United States, Tiger Woods’s legacy took another grand hit, his unhappiness laid bare through his devastating mugshot and the police footage of his arrest, both released to the public, his confusion behind the wheel of his car a result of prescription drugs.

“HIS UNHAPPINESS LAID BARE”

His story is one that is all too common: a sublimely talented, successful, and high profile athlete crumbling despite their prowess. It is a story we see repeated time and time again across many different sporting disciplines, and one that we have unfortunately normalised and come to accept- perhaps even expect- from those at the very peak of their professions.

Woods seemingly ‘had it all’; extreme wealth from business endorsements and partnerships; vast public appeal and notoriety through his public imagine in the media; prodigious talent that granted him unprecedented success on the fairway.

Is that really ‘having it all’? Perhaps therein lies the problem with what popular culture considers ‘completion’, what we should all be aiming towards. In Woods we had a supposed embodiment of many of the aspirational destinations of happiness: money, fame, and- undoubtedly- talent that could arguably be considered genius. Yet Woods’s tragic demise is evidence that all is not as it seems on the surface; his duplicity of living has destroyed his marriage, estranging him from his two children, and severely tempered his career success, a marked demise for or a golfer who once seemed unstoppable.

Woods was precocious in his golfing ability; he appeared with club in hand on The Mike Douglas Show at the age of 2; by 14 he had won five Junior World Championships; at 21 he was the youngest winner of the Masters; he achieved a career Grand Slam aged 24, again the youngest to do so.

“RETURNING TO THE GAME A SHADOW OF HIS FORMER SELF”

Having been dominant in the sport for almost all his career, Woods tumbled down the rankings in the aftermath of the revelations before returning to the game as a shadow of his former self. In the years that followed, injuries, surgeries, and tournament withdrawals became common, and his physical decline aligned with his performances.

Consequently, during his public unravelling, Woods was dropped by the high profile sponsors who had contributed to him becoming a billionaire by perpetuating his brand as the clean cut American hero as such an identity was hard to square with the devastating revelations. That representation of the mythologised Woods literally applied to Gillette, but they were not the sole company to end their association with him: Gatorade, Accenture, AT&T, and the EA Sports computer game franchise adorned with his name all dropped him.

According to Forbes, in 2016 Woods was still the seventh wealthiest celebrity in America, with a net worth of $740m; though he has suffered financially over the last decade, he is still extraordinarily wealthy. It’s not uncommon to find ourselves accepting the logic that the unique pressures we place upon the famous are directly proportional to the rewards we give them. Alongside the adulation, for some this means the money earned by high profile celebrities comes with a demand for exceptional moral standards being upheld.

For Woods, the image he was held to was almost as fantastical and constructed as his avatar in the computer game. It was in many ways the epitome of American Exceptionalism. Woods’s Father, Earl, was of African-American, Caucasian, and Chinese heritage; here in Woods there was an embodiment of the idea of the American melting pot, all in one man who triumphed emphatically over all others.

Earl Woods had experienced the effects of segregation as the first black baseball player at Kansas State University. Later, he would state that “Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity”. He named his son Eldrick- though, of course, he came to be known by his nickname, ‘Tiger’- and raised him as a Buddhist. Woods the younger later declared that his upbringing taught him to “stop following every impulse and learn restraint [but] obviously I lost track of what I was taught.”

“WODDS WOULD JUST CALL ME CRYING”

According to an insider from Woods’s entourage, dubbed ‘Team Tiger, “Earl always had a cute little assistant […] he’d have women in the crowd from the night before when we’d be in Church doing the Sunday morning ‘caring and sharing’ ceremony during the days of the Tiger Woods Foundation Weekend”. Diana Parr, a former High School girlfriend of Woods, told E! News that the young golfer “would just call [me] crying and say, ‘my Dad is with another woman’ and that would be all he could say”.

Sport is a rare aspect of life where success can be placed into a binary: success or failure, win or lose. In success, there are the very definite barometers of achievement in titles, trophies, and records. With the money, appeal, and adulation that athletes can derive from sport, the drive to reach the destination of success requires ever increasing levels of dedication, as the competition only gets greater.

Much like the idea of Englightement, or indeed Heaven, the sense of enduring a journey to reap the rewards later is a phenomenon understandable in relation to the pursuit of definitive success. It also chimes with the religious inspired narratives we sometimes ascribe to sporting figures.

Yet what happens when you get there, when you fulfil those ambitions, and at such a young age? What happens if the reward you strive for isn’t quite what you imagined? What if the myopic pursuit of sporting success leaves you little time and space to adequately fill in a happy world outside your vocation, something particularly relevant when those around you have vested interests in the ways in which they support you?

Mercurial talent from an early age is no guarantee of success. Indeed, in the likes of George Best, Paul Gascoigne, and Mike Tyson, we see sporting stars with the absence of that support system suffer a marked fall from grace, their intrinsic talent and youthful endeavour failing to become a sustained dedication in the pursuit of success.

These extraordinary talents excel in the heat of competition, finding victory over their labouring opponents almost easy. Tyson won 16 of his first 26 fights by KO or TKO in the first round, ferociously battering his opponents, and at 20 years of age was the youngest heavyweight champion of the world in boxing’s history.

George Best made his debut for Manchester United at 17, a worldwide star for his exploits in the European Cup at 19, known as ‘O Quinto Beatle’: the fifth Beatle. At the age of 15, Paul Gascoigne saw in professional football a wage that could provide for his family who had suffered the turbulence of poverty and tragedy. Stan Seymour, the Newcastle Chairman at the time Gascoigne signed, labelled him “George Best without the brains”. The former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson had a verbal agreement for Gascoigne to join his club in 1988, only to discover the player had signed for Tottenham Hotspur on the basis that the London club had offered to buy his family a house.

“GONE IS THE DISTINCT SENSE OF PURPOSE, A TANGIBLE GOAL”

We idolise the talent of these young athletes who can perform things their older, more experienced colleagues and opponents could never do. The excellence of such special abilities must jar with the reality of life outside the pitch, fairway, or ring when such circumstances are fraught or intrinsically unhappy; gone is the athlete’s dominance over others; gone is the ease and comfort in their surroundings; gone is the distinct sense of purpose, a tangible goal.

Woods’s marriage to Elin Nordegren, a Swedish Psychology student who met Tiger when she was nanny to the wife of golfer Jesper Parnevik, afforded him stability and a companion, a life away from the performance on the links. On the surface, his marriage was another key component of a happy and fulfilled life. Yet his infidelity led to him receiving counselling for sex addiction, and his marriage to Nordegren, with whom he has two children, ended in divorce.

The idea of Woods in the American, and global, imagination- cultivated from his very first endorsements at a young age- was shattered. Instead of the exceptional, talented, aspirational figure, he was now tarnished. There is no room for insidious promiscuity, adultery, and gambling in a mythology that values monogamy, marriage, children, and dominance in competition, however unhappy or unfulfilling it may make the mythologised individual.

A harrowing sight: Tiger Woods’ mugshot.

The companies that gleaned from Woods an appeal in the imagination of his supporters and the public alike- those that had advertised and attractively configured their businesses through association with him- began to pull away as he became a figure of ridicule, dismissed from his elevated position in the consciousness of the people.

Having idolised Woods, now removed from his pedestal he was there for the taking; having received all the adulation and reward of the amphitheatre in his triumph, he would now receive its ire, not least in meme culture.

The baying crowd is, in part, a proxy for the more barbaric aspects of communal human behaviour; abuse, ridicule, bigotry, and loathing are all justified and accepted by the idea that sport is often a suspension of real life, a means of channelling such feelings into an artificial facsimile of a savage species’, apparently, intrinsic desires.

This idea of compartmentalised, contained, and controlled brutishness is regularly troubled by all hooliganism and violence, but in Eric Cantona’s flying kick, and the Pacers-Pistons brawl, we see the divide between spectator and performer broken, destabilising the idea of the ‘unreality’ of sport, particularly in relation to the pressures from an interactive audience.

It can often feel like only the most vicious verbal and psychological abuse- racism and sexism- in the sporting or cultural world receive the condemnation they deserve. Other forms of aggression and projected loathing from the crowd that go ignored are, by implication, an unspoken but accepted ‘natural’ facet of competition, a burden that the athlete must accept when stepping in to the arena.

Historically, boxing showed the crowd at its most voracious; the national and racial connotations of supporters backing one over another in a bloodsport still retains a sense of vicious bigotry at its corse. Tyson- a poor black man who grew up around the high crime streets of New York with an absent Father and a Mother who died when he was 16- was both feared and admired for his fighting prowess, at once a sensational competitor and athlete, as well as being deemed out of control; his antics against Evander Holyfield and his imprisonment giving gravitas to the idea of a man literally fighting for his place in the world both in and out of the ring.

Woods succeeded in a sport that is one of the most elitist; requiring access to private land, membership of a club, and a dress code, it is a game that is intrinsically bound to the status of white, corporate America and Europe. Considering the limitations placed upon his Father, it is entirely fair to suggest that Woods’s success in golf was achieved in part despite his racial heritage. The young Tiger had his sublime talent married to the idea of an aspirational figure triumphing against the odds, an idea expanded and then maintained through the associated corporate obligations he was tied to in order to sell products by offering vicarious excellence to the buyer.

“REPEATING THE SAD LEGACY OF AN ADULTEROUS FATHER”

What do we do with a fallen star? “For all that I have done, I am so sorry”, said Tiger Woods- in 2010, shortly after the initial revelations of his infidelity were made public. Whilst responsible for the harm he has caused to those closest to him- not least his poor wife and children- the shame, surely, cannot be all his own. Having repeated the sad legacy of an adulterous Father, there is the danger of incorporating Woods into another toxic mythology: that of the absentee, sexualised Father figure.

In the aftermath of Woods’s arrest, he was displayed and mocked, not least by publications promising the image of his mugshot within their article for the small price of a visit to their website. Once again, Woods became a product; that of the media scapegoat, someone we are told it is morally acceptable to ridicule from a distance, where companies benefit from advertising through association with him, albeit on more pejorative and less beneficial grounds.

Mark Garnett and Richard Weight said of George Best, “the British like their heroes to be tragic ones: possessed of enough glamour and talent for stardom to be lived vicariously through them; yet flawed and vulnerable enough for the public not to be threatened by their success.”

We could do well to remember Woods as the incredibly successful golfer he was, rather than the hero he was made into; nor, indeed, the sad figure he is currently treated as, his image dulled by personal anguish and distorted by its public depiction, not least when the motivations behind this mockery have such vicious origins and wider intentions.

Currently, Eldrick ‘Tiger’ Woods has won 79 official PGA Tour events, 14 majors, holds the lowest scoring average in PGA Tour history, is one of only five players to have won a Career Grand Slam, is the only player to have won the four major championships in a row, and has been PGA Player of the Year and Tour Player of the Year eleven times.

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Sport Editor for 2017-18