And when will we see a positive headline about him again?
He’s a golfer who can’t golf, a professional athlete who can’t exercise. He’s a devoted son who lost his father and a husband who wrecked his marriage. Tiger seems to have everything and nothing; he’s a billionaire celebrity, sure, but by now everyone knows he was found asleep in his car, hardly able to keep his eyes open, never mind operate a vehicle. The police report said he was “cooperative, confused,” and the dash cam footage confirmed it. The video is, frankly, hard to watch—Officer Fandrey delivers the most disheartening line:
“Do you know how you got to this point—where you’re at right now? You have no clue? Okay.”
If taken as metaphor, the question is a dark reflection of Tiger’s current life state. His mugshot spread immediately, both because we’re fascinated when our heroes struggle and also because, despite years of scandal and headlines and tabloids, we still feel like we know very little about Tiger. Here, in an image and some paperwork and a video, was an unfiltered look at golf’s Bruce Wayne. We try to read into it: could this be chocked up to poor medication management and a simple mistake? Or is the DUI the latest and starkest sign of Tiger’s fall from greatness?
The police report was more reassuring than the initial headline, in some ways. Tiger hadn’t been drinking, and he was polite to the officers—he complied with their requests. But more than comforting, it was deeply unsettling: Tiger has never been described as “cooperative” nor “confused.” He’s assertive and certain; scenes play out the way he wants them to. That control has always been instrumental to the on-course greatness and the off-course perfection for Tiger, and a reminder that greatness is inevitably fleeting, that perfection is an illusion.
Given how tightly controlled Tiger’s public life has always been, news of his rampant infidelity was a truly shocking revelation. But in many ways this latest story doesn’t feel shocking. That makes it easy, if irresponsible, to read further into. The visual of Tiger stranded in his car, helpless and alone, feels like the latest and worst in a series of disappointing headlines about a man who has only ever found balance as a component of his golf swing.
The end was never going to come quietly. Tiger stated again and again that he’d never play a tournament that he didn’t think he could win—but of course, anyone as irrationally competitive as Tiger is always going to think he can win. Regardless, he was always an unlikely candidate to linger into old age on the senior tour, yukking it up with other stars of the 90s.
We’ve gotten used to disappointment when it comes to Tiger. The last few years have been a blur of tournament withdrawals, surgeries, injuries, comebacks, more injuries, more surgeries, and now, this.
Where will the good news come from now?
Golf misses Tiger desperately. He still moves the needle more than any other player in the game; no other star has mustered nearly the same level of cross-cultural appeal. Check any golf-related publication this week and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a headline that isn’t Tiger-related in some way. But now, for the first time, it seems as though Tiger needs golf far more than the sport needs him.
Still, he’s not done. At 41, he remains a relatively young man. It’s just that he seems incapable of doing any of the things we grew to admire him for, and thus far reinventions of himself—his book, his foundation, his course designs—have done little to replace competitive golf.
It’s hard to redeem the off-course stuff. Trust and credibility take a lifetime to earn and a moment to undo, and Tiger’s sex scandal was so outlandish in scope and secrecy that it made us realize how little we really knew beyond his public persona. With that illusion shattered, everyone in the state of Florida is sure they have a secret Tiger scandal story, whether it’s about booze, women, drugs—and while nearly all of them are sure to be untrue, how can we be sure?
Off-course redemption is possible, of course. He could come clean. Say he’s got problems. Admit he’s human. Tell us, without press releases or prepared statements or corporate-speak, the full story of what’s been going on. But Tiger is intensely averse to this part of the process, and he certainly doesn’t feel that he owes us an explanation. He’s right; he doesn’t owe us anything.
But what that means is that if Tiger’s is to be a redemption story, its pivotal chapters will take place on the course. He has set up his entire life that way, defining himself to the public through competitive domination, making it clear that everything else was either unimportant or none of our business, usually both. As a result, some enduring part of his legacy remains on the line whenever it is he next tees it up, and yet his chances look slimmer than they ever have.
Falling is part of the greatness life cycle, particularly in this modern age where we demand to know horrible things about our stars. We delight in building them up and we delight even more in tearing them down, whether for serious crimes or just because we get tired of them. Nobody is perfect, the rich and famous perhaps least of all, and as the social media public we’re armed not just with a microscope but with a hammer, too, with which we can inflict serious pain.
As Tiger’s mugshot spread across the internet, another story competed for headlines across the sports world: Frank Deford, sportswriting pioneer, had passed away after a 54-year career.
He wasn’t a golfer, but Deford was taken with Tiger and the cult of celebrity that surrounded him. In 2000, Tiger was Sports Illustrated’s latest Sportsman of the Year. Deford wrote the story; he marveled at the universal adoration Tiger was receiving, but he’d been around long enough to realize: nothing lasts.
“Sometime soon,” Deford wrote, “we will weary of the tedium of his persistent success and start peering more deeply into that heavenly smile and beyond those steely eyes. Won’t we? Because that’s the nature of the beast—us. This, right now, may be the best Tiger will ever have it. Until, that is, he becomes a Grand Old Man, and we fall in love with him again.”
Seventeen years later, Tiger’s relationship with the public is more convoluted than ever. His mugshot gives us our starkest look yet beyond his smile and into his eyes, and we devour it, and keep looking, and make jokes on the internet.
What now do we expect of Tiger? I think Frank miscalculated: we’ve already fallen in love with him again.
But what will the next headline read?