12.08.09

Shattering the Tiger Dream

As the golfer's handlers assess their damaged pitchman, Janice Min on how a post-racial poster boy fell from grace.

The first U.S. golf course designed by Tiger Woods is being marketed, along with its adjacent lush country-club homes, on the Web site for The Cliffs at High Carolina. With a blissful ignorance of current events, four video vignettes reveal the Woods of 10  mistresses ago strolling amid breathtaking fall-foliage scenes of the Blue Ridge Mountains as his perfectionism and family values are extolled. “With a wife and two kids, your perspective on life changes,” Woods muses in one video. “I want to bring them up here and feel safe and secure… my priorities changed when I had kids.” All told, the almost automaton Woods references family 14 times (two mentions of his wife, three of his kids, and nine of "family").

Woods’ Swiss-style neutrality on all issues—including race—had unspoken appeal to his sponsors and golf fans.

Alas, Woods’ carefully constructed Utopia was the equivalent of emotional astroturf. His actual dystopia involves astonishing recklessness (exhibit A: sex with a Perkins’ waitress in a church parking lot), extreme cruelty (cheating with abandon on his twice-pregnant wife), and previously unknown extravagance (“He lives the whole Entourage lifestyle,” pro golfer Notah Begay III told Us Weekly of the boozing, Ambien-popping superstar). In fact, everything we have learned about Woods post-crash is in stark contrast to the man Sports Illustrated once believed to be “boring with a capital B.” “[Tiger] works hard on perpetuating that cool, calm and collected image,” said the magazine in 2003. “He makes no waves, takes no stances. We get the feeling that money and winning are more important to him than anything. And that's kind of hard to cozy up to.”

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Clearly, that’s the way he and his handlers wanted it to be. Deliberately blank, void of detail and human quality, he presented a fairytale marketer’s dream not just of domestic Utopia but of a racial one, too. He was a hard-working, gifted non-white who transcended divisions of color like no one since Oprah Winfrey (who once introduced him as “America’s son” to thunderous applause on her show). So much so that he was even enlisted to sell multimillion-dollar country-club homes, with taped messages of family and safety, on the border of North and South Carolina—a state that still flies the Confederate flag. It’s no surprise, really, that when asked in 2003 about the NAACP boycott of the state, Woods refused to engage. “I’m a golfer,” he said. “That’s their deal, not mine.” In a world divided by black-white, left-right, good-bad, Woods had become the ultimate post-racial poster boy in a sport that only in 1961 removed its “Caucasians-only” clause, and in just the year before Tiger won the 1997 Masters, had forced one Alabama PGA Tour spot to stop banning blacks.

Certainly, Woods’ Swiss-style neutrality on all issues—including race—had unspoken appeal to his sponsors and golf fans (a sport with very low African-American participation). Adamant about not being labeled African American, Woods calls himself “Cablinasian”, a mix of Caucasian, black, Native American, Chinese, and Thai. Perhaps that’s why in 1997, he quickly accepted pro golfer Fuzzy Zoeller’s apology after he called Woods a “little boy” who might serve “fried chicken.” Years later, through his agent, Woods said there was no “ill-intent” in a Golf Channel anchor’s call to have his competitors “lynch him.” Even in 2006, when asked about hate mail, Woods replied, “People have different views, and I understand that.”

In a 2001 anthology, Sports Stars, two academic authors reference an earlier Business Week story that explained Woods’ “breath of fresh air” popularity by saying Americans were “tired of trash-talking, spit-hurling, head-butting sports millionaires.” “Although race is not explicitly mentioned,” the authors write, the comments were “clearly about African-American basketball players… routinely depicted… as selfish, insufferable and morally reprehensible.” Woods was none of those things—as far as we knew. He was a cut above. And we ate it up, perhaps looking for perfection in others where we lacked it ourselves.

Now that Woods has already established himself as golf’s preeminent player, perhaps his handlers—in their frantic rewriting of the Tiger Woods 2.0 script—can bring themselves to encompass some of his human qualities. Not the profound idiocy that he’s “just another black guy,” as some Web site commenters are asserting, but that he’s a guy who is not so different—maybe just a lot richer and sleazier—than many others in his messed-up personal life. After all, on a day when Woods’ mother-in-law was rushed to the hospital amid reports that his wife’s relatives have gathered in town to console his wife, the Fauxtopia of Tiger Inc. rings even louder. My favorite line from the Woods’ country-club sales’ videos? "Families obviously need to spend more time together," says Woods. "It's as good as it gets."

Janice Min is the former editor in chief of Us Weekly.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Tiger's Masters was in 1991.