There was a time, not long ago, when Tiger Woods was the most predictable, boring, blandly corporate figure in all of sports. He was also the biggest and most powerful one, by a rather large margin. It seems sort of comfortable to remember that now, doesn't it?
That time when you knew Tiger Woods would show up to obnoxious bro cheers from the gallery, hawking Gatorade and Nike and NetJets and EA Sports and Gillette Fusion razors, representing corporate efficiency for various wealth management services, the very embodiment of the humming high net worth American economy. You could set your watch (Rolex, of course) by him. Tiger Woods was stage managed and protected like a rock star, a president, a Wall Street CEO and foreign dignitary all wrapped up in one. He was an American export, a global conglomerate to himself.
Remember: Woods spoke at President Obama's inaugural festivities and was greeted, and treated, as if the Lord himself had stepped down to give his official endorsement of grandeur to the otherwise minor spectacle of the first African-American president being sworn into office.
Listen to the applause for Tiger -- the one thing, back then, both Democrats and Republicans could agree on -- but mostly: Listen to the introduction. No "four-time Masters champion." No "one of the greatest golfers of all time." Not even "golfer," really. Just: "Ladies and Gentlemen, Tiger Woods." He didn't even need an introduction. He was omnipresent: He was everything. You could have made an extremely strong argument that he was one of the five most famous people on earth -- more famous than the man whose presidency he was ushering in. Obama -- America -- was just another extension of the Tiger brand.
That was January 18, 2009. Ten months later, everything would fall apart. And now he's showing up at ski events out of nowhere with no front tooth.
There is considerable debate as to why, exactly, Tiger Woods had a missing front tooth at girlfriend Lindsey Vonn's World Cup skiing event on Monday. It was a surprise appearance in Italy for Woods, who ostensibly showed up wanting to honor Vonn's incredible achievement -- she broke the record for World Cup wins by a woman, essentially assuring her place as the greatest female skier of all time. Of course, his presence ended up not just overshadowing it, but evaporating it all together. It reminded me of being in Sochi last winter, when the one thing everyone could agree on was how relieved they were that Vonn wouldn't be competing because of a knee injury. All felt bad for Vonn … but more than that, they just didn't want the Woods sh-t show to take over the Games. Because it would have. It did yesterday.
And it was all about that stupid tooth.
Has, as Deadspin posited, Woods always been missing the tooth? Was it knocked out by Elin Nordegren, Tiger's ex-wife, years ago? The most ridiculous theory came, perhaps not surprisingly, from Tiger's agent Mark Steinberg, who said that Woods' tooth was knocked out by a cameraman while attending the ski race, something race organizers completely deny and something not a single person, let alone someone carrying a camera, saw happen. Let's also not forget that Woods was wearing a Michael Jackson-esque skull mask to hide his face in the first place.
But all of this is beside the point. The point is now Tiger Woods has entered what Bill Simmons used to call the "Tyson Zone." Tiger Woods is now more a freak show than an athlete, or even a celebrity. He's now someone who is capable of anything.
There is a point of celebrity that some people hit that they can never come back from, a moment when active engagement with the outside world becomes so rare that they're incapable of understanding how it even works anymore. That's when they crack. Elvis Presley handled it by gaining 200 pounds and shooting Roman candles at the help; Michael Jackson destroyed his face and began cloaking his children in veils; Britney Spears shaved her head and starting smashing cars with golf clubs. We do this to these celebrities more than they do it to themselves. The face they show us -- the warped, unrecognizable one -- is evidence of our attention, our intensity, our obsession. The thing they once were, the thing that made us care about them in the first place, that thing is gone. What we look at now is the husk.
Woods is now the husk. Forget the golf, even though he was the 32nd-ranked golfer in the world at the end of last year and infamously hasn't won a major in more than six years since all the troubles. Forget the stepping on Vonn's day. Forget the mask. Even try to forget the silly tooth.
Look, instead, to Woods' recent attempts to "humanize" himself. Woods has become so separate from the rest of earth that even his attempts to sound life-like are removed and bizarre. The most obvious of this was the piece he "wrote" for the Players Tribune in November, which was so out of touch and confused that I can't help but think the editors of the online magazine published it because they don't like him. The one time Woods shows us a bit of personality in 30 years of public life and it's to stomp his feet over an extremely gentle piece of pseudo-satire from Dan Jenkins, of all people. (While assuring us that he likes to think he has a good sense of humor.) It makes you wonder how much more of him has gone. It makes you wonder what other lunacy there is beyond the tooth. Or if there's anything left of him at all.
But honestly? How could any of us have gone through what Tiger Woods went through -- what Tiger Woods put himself through -- and retained any semblance of what we were before. In one year, Woods went from sonorously lending his gravitas to the presidential inauguration to … this:
Watch that full video today, if you have time. I don't care what Woods did with however many women: That's a ludicrous, debasing thing to put someone through. That's what happens when hundreds of people who don't care a lick about Tiger Woods but who want to continue to get rich off him prop his carcass up on a dais and hope he takes enough public whippings that in a couple of months, at least a little bit of cash will still fall out of him when you shake him. Tiger Woods was so important to so many people that he wasn't allowed to be a person. He was only supposed to be an impersonation of one. And now he's neither.
And it will never stop. Here's the Orlando Sentinel, from last September, in a piece on Woods' rehabilitation from injury:
He has been taking things day-by-day, rehabbing. You'll excuse the Golf World for standing along the greens, cheering every rep on the bench press. Golf, like the sport of boxing, is on the ropes these days. Dick's Sporting Goods recently fired 500 in-store PGA Golf instructors, reflective of declining interest in golf. The National Golf Foundation reports that approximately 400,000 people left the sport in the past year. Tiger irrelevance = golf irrelevance = shrinking greens in bank accounts. The re-emergence of Tiger won't fix everything, but the wow factor is inescapable. The challenge for Woods is to become relevant again other than re-inventing himself as the bearded lady on the tour.
Tiger Woods has gone through something few humans have ever had to go through: The complete and total vivisection of his reputation, his public persona, his whole life. (There are now hair metal song parodies about Tiger Woods that have become legitimate hits.) We built him up to be perfect, we ripped apart in the public square when he was far from it … and now that he's broken, we're demanding that he save the game of golf one more time. After all that.
Tiger Woods no longer resembles Tiger Woods, or anyone else who has ever walked the planet. This is what he, and we, have wrought. It's no wonder Woods has become so erratic. It'd make any of us want to bust out all our teeth, start jarring our urine and never, ever leave the house again. But we won't let Tiger do that. We'll never leave him alone. This is what we'll continue to get.
And that might be enough. Tiger's freak show, like Tyson's, or Jackson's, will become its own currency. That's what that "bearded lady" line is about. And maybe that'll be enough. Maybe, if the golf doesn't come back, it'll be all he has left.