Earlier this week, Tiger Woods, noted golf enthusiast, reached the world's No. 1 ranking for the first time in about 2½ years. I don't remember anyone ever caring all that much about the No. 1 ranking in golf before Woods regained the spot -- even the agate text in newspapers still seems to rank them by earnings -- but it feels like a big deal. Tiger hadn't held the ranking since his little incident over Thanksgiving 2009, and the subsequent seemingly endless string of "incidents" that emerged afterward, and with The Masters coming in a fortnight, it contributes to the notion that Tiger is "back." Even if he's probably going to lose the ranking this weekend.
(Such is the fate of Tiger that the notion of him being "back" requires, as a parallel narrative, proof that he's in a committed relationship with a popular fellow athlete. This is our new reality.)
Anyway, because Tiger is Tiger, he -- before, during and after scandal -- is 6 percent Human, 94 percent Concoction Phil Knight Stumbled Across In The Lab, the official Tiger Woods Distribution Machine had to celebrate his No. 1 ranking last week. (Seriously: I bet Tiger's EKG printouts are just one swoosh after another.) Thus, the piece of promotional material shown above.
As you can see, there's a goateed Tiger staring down a putt -- I assume that's what he's doing; it's possible he just spotted an otter -- with the words "WINNING TAKES CARE OF EVERYTHING" blasted across the picture, with "Tiger Woods, World #1" beneath it. The implication is so clear it's less "implied" than "screamed in your face." Tiger is fine. You're glad all that stuff is in the past. He wins at golf, and that's all you care about. Love him again … oh, and also here is some stuff that you should buy.
Also inherent in the message is something that is so undeniably true about sports that it's bizarre that anyone would possible argue against it: If you are good at sports, nobody cares what kind of person you are. The Associated Press story about the ad tries to drum up some outrage about this, but it's a pretty good sign your argument is a weak, straw man one when the only people you can find to quote to support your position are people you drum up on Twitter.
(Side note: Hey, journalists, we really need to stop quoting people on Twitter in stories. If you have something you want to say as a writer, just say it. Don't make poor Annie Kessler, 25 of Columbus, Ohio, stand in for you, explaining why "she felt compelled to tweet" that she thought the ad was a "poor choice." The AP just made it national news that a twenty-something Ohioan felt "compelled" to tweet. Other "compelling" reasons to tweet include "yawning," "difficulty finding the remote control" and "sharing in the collective experience of human existence." If you don't like the ad, AP, say so.)
I'm not sure Tiger Woods' sins were so reprehensible that they deserved the punishment of these last 3½ years in the wilderness. Of course, Tiger offended the corporate image gods far more than he did the big one in the sky, so I suppose he got off relatively easy, all told. But the real reason it's becoming acceptable to cheer for Tiger again is not because he has a scrubby-clean new famous athlete girlfriend, or because we as an American culture love giving second chances, or because no one ever quite figured out how to spell "Nordegren." It's because Tiger is winning again. More than anything else, we love a winner. It's time to be honest about that.
Already, it feels like a decade ago that the nation collectively decided that LeBron James was a horrible human being and deserved to suffer in public for our amusement. (I was at the forefront of this). Then he went out and won a championship, and not only did we all decide that he could win a championship after all, we all came to the conclusion that, hey, he was a pretty swell guy, too. That people still love and revere Michael Jordan is the ultimate proof of this; I'm pretty sure he's the most miserable person on Earth, perhaps the textbook example of why winning, and the thirst to win, is corrosive to one's soul. The reason Lance Armstrong is doomed to be hated the rest of his life has less to do with his offenses and more to do with the fact that he's too old now to go out and win another Tour de France to make us forgive everything again. You name the offense, and we've forgiven it, or at least conveniently forgot about it, in the name of winning.
I find this less hypocritical than I probably should, if just because what an athlete is like, as a person, matters to me a lot less than I suspect it does to a lot of other people. It's not particularly logical to care about athletes' personalities. The only reason we care about athletes in the first place is because of what they do on the playing field. We may learn, and come to like and admire, certain things about them during the course of watching those sporting events, but the reason we even are paying attention in the first place is because of the games. And as we've discovered time and time and time again, even though we might think we know these athletes as people by watching them play, we don't. The only thing we can count on them for is winning, and losing. Everything else is just image management. Wanting to know these guys is begging for disappointment. They are, after all, human beings, as tough as it can be sometimes to accept that.
If we didn't learn this from Tiger Woods, I'm not sure who else could possibly teach us. Tiger is back, winning, and that cures everything, because it always has, it always will and it always should. The trick, for all of us, is remembering that, at the end of the day, that's all there is. Tiger Woods won for a long time, lost for a long time and is now winning again. He's still the same schmuck he always was. And I, and you, will continue to not have the slightest idea who that is. And dammit, that's fine.
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