Tiger Woods has always been The Invisible Man. To him, the world was a perfect place when he could walk down the 18th fairway on a Sunday afternoon drinking in the cheers of his adoring fans, collect a large trophy and a massive cheque, say a few words on the engrossing subject of birdies and bogeys in the media tent and then – poof! – become invisible until it was time to tee it up again.
Sure, there were occasional Tiger-spottings: Tiger front row at a basketball game; Tiger laughing it up some place with another sports celebrity such as Roger Federer, Michael Jordan or Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. Even those rare appearances felt staged, as if they were part of the non-stop image-crafting being by Tiger and his managers at IMG. In fact, the celebrity connections Tiger made were usually business-related: he, Federer and Jordan were all Nike endorsers, and he and Manning were both represented by IMG. Coincidence? Hardly.
That’s why his ability to again become invisible now, at a time when he is being stalked by half the world’s paparazzi and a large chunk of the world’s tabloid media, is hardly surprising to those who know him. It may be a little more difficult these days than in the past. It may take a little more planning and more security but it isn’t all that different than Tiger standing over a crucial putt on the 18th: when he puts his mind to something, he can usually pull it off.
Even when word began to spread in late January that Tiger had checked into a sex-addiction clinic in Mississippi, everything was extremely hush-hush. The clinic had no comment; Team Tiger – naturally – had no comment. Rumours abounded about Tiger receiving special treatment – proving he can demand and receive special treatment <itals> anywhere <itals>. Even in disgrace, he still managed to intimidate people.
Think about it: at least one of Woods’ affairs had been going on for 31 months before it became public. The most famous athlete on the planet, arguably one of the most famous<itals> people <itals> on earth, was carrying on with a woman in Las Vegas for 31 months and the story never leaked. It may have almost leaked, there might have been some whispers in the locker room – and that’s all they ever were because almost everyone in golf lives in fear of The Wrath of Tiger – but it stayed secret. If nothing else, Tiger Woods built a wall around himself that was almost impenetrable. Even now, with the wall broken, his number one goal seems to be not so much to repair his marriage as to repair his wall.
Which, if you think about it, makes sense: the wall has been a part of Tiger’s life for a lot longer than Elin Nordegren.
Let’s not turn this into a psychological study of a fallen athlete because 10 psychologists will give you 10 different reasons why Tiger felt the need to run amok the way he did even while guarding his pristine image 24/7/365.
Whether his father Earl did emotional damage to his son with his own dalliances and by bringing about the break-up of his marriage to Tiger’s mother is a question only Tiger can answer. Here’s what we do know about Earl: he taught his son very early that you give away nothing and you control everything.
When an American TV network made a very bad movie based on his early life 11 years ago, Tiger was asked at a Masters press conference how it felt to have someone make an entire movie based on his life at the tender age of 22. In a rare moment, Tiger let his guard down and allowed his true feelings to show.
‘To be honest, it pisses me off,’ he said. ‘It pisses me off that people I don’t even know are making money off my life. I wish there was some way to stop them.’
What pissed Tiger off was the double whammy: someone else was making the money and he had no control. In Earl’s world, someone would have to pay big money for the rights to make the movie and Tiger and his managers would control the content. In the Earl-Tiger version of Tiger’s life, he breaks Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 Majors and then accepts the Nobel peace prize.
The notion that Tiger allowed his life to spin out of control because Earl was no longer there to counsel him is as silly as the email Mark Steinberg, his manager at IMG, sent to New York Times golf writer Larry Dorman not long after the early morning accident that began this debacle: ‘Give the kid a break,’ Steinberg wrote.
The kid? That would be a 34-year-old billionaire with two children.
There again, though, is a glimpse into Tiger’s view of the world. When he was 21 and getting ready to play in his first Masters as a pro (which he went on to win by 12 shots), Tiger had lunch with Arnold Palmer in the champions’ locker room at Augusta. Tiger spent a lot of time grousing about how tough his life was. ‘I can’t be a normal 21-year-old,’ he said. ‘I have to talk to the media all the time, sign autographs, do photo-shoots for sponsors …’
When Woods finally stopped, Palmer looked at him and said: ‘You’re right, Tiger, you’re not a normal 21-year-old. Normal 21-year-olds don’t have $50-million in the bank. If you want to be a normal 21-year-old, that’s fine – give the money back.’
Tiger didn’t want normality as much as he wanted everything: he wanted to be the richest athlete of all time (a goal Jordan taught him was important), he wanted to win every golf tournament and he wanted to never have to answer to anybody about anything.
Even when someone had the temerity to raise a question about his perfect life, Tiger deflected it or ducked it as easily as he spins a wedge to a halt. Last spring, the great NFL player Jim Brown publicly wondered why Tiger hadn’t done more for minorities with all his money and the staggering public platform he had developed.
When one of Tiger’s apologists, granted a rare one-on-one TV interview that was set up largely to promote Tiger’s golf tournament outside Washington DC, gingerly asked about Brown’s comment, Tiger had already been prepped with his answer. ‘You know, in the past three years our learning centre [The Tiger Woods Learning Center] in California has helped more than 10 million people,’ he said.
Ten million people?
Putting aside the logistical improbability of ‘helping’ 10 million people in three years (100 000 in three years would be fantastic work), Woods not only made the comment with an absolutely straight face but got nothing but a knowing nod from his questioner – no follow-up at all, as in, ‘Where in the world did you get that number?’
That’s what Woods has grown accustomed to in the past dozen years. In most golf interview rooms if he said the Earth was flat, people would write it down. Most golfers will usually answer a few extra questions either one-on-one or to a small group after a press conference or as they walk to and from the practice ground. Not Tiger. He’s so security-obsessed that a PGA Tour official had to walk into the locker room at one of his first tournaments to inform him that his security guards could <itals> not <itals>order the media to leave just because Tiger didn’t feel like talking.
Those who have been part of the very closed Tiger circle learn quickly that to talk at all to anyone outside the circle can quickly lead to expulsion. His first caddie, ‘Fluff’ Cowan, was so friendly and outgoing that he became a bit of a cult figure on tour after Woods won his first Masters in 1997. Within two years he was gone. His first manager, Hughes Norton, enjoyed the give-and-take with the media. By the end of 1998, he was also gone. Butch Harmon, his first teacher, also a hail-fellow-well-met, lasted longer because Tiger really felt he needed him. But after he had won seven Majors between 1999 and 2002, Tiger felt he didn’t need him either.
In their places are ‘Snarlin” Steve Williams (caddie); Mark Steinberg (manager – known as ‘Dr No’, until his ‘give the kid a break’ email gave him a couple of new nicknames) and Hank Haney (teacher), who is polite to all and willing to talk openly about anyone he has taught – except for Tiger.
All of which leads to the most oft-asked question in this entire tangled web: how could one of the great control freaks of history allow himself to completely lose control of his life this way? Anyone who claims it was an unhappy marriage or an over-developed sex drive entirely misses the point. Tiger Woods went on these binges for one simple reason: hubris.
He did it because he believed he could do it and no one would catch him and, if someone did somehow catch him, they wouldn’t dare out him. The one time he appeared to be in jeopardy was three years ago when the National Enquirer, the leading tabloid newspaper in the US, reportedly had one of his ‘friends’ ready to talk for the record. If one believes the ex-editor of the Enquirer, Team Tiger went into action: suppress the story, they told the paper, and Tiger will pose for the cover of Men’s Fitness, a magazine owned by the Enquirer’s parent company.
That version of events has been denied by the Enquirer’s current leadership but some who know Tiger think it passes the smell test: Tiger doesn’t usually do things for free and there he was on the cover of a magazine that paid him nothing. Did he suddenly become a fan of Men’s Fitness?
Put simply, Tiger never believed any of this could happen to him. And if he hadn’t fled his house in those early hours of 27 November who knows if it ever would have happened. Even after the accident, the Woods hubris was still very much in play: by not talking to the police for three days he made a non-story into a story. If he’d let the Florida Highway Patrol into his house the day after the accident, the cops probably would have left behind the $164 ticket they later issued and been given a couple of autographed photos for their trouble. Their report would have reflected whatever Tiger and Elin told them.
Instead, it began to look like a cover-up almost from the beginning, with IMG insisting Tiger’s injuries were minor while he literally refused to show his face in public. Within days, there was blood in the water and the tabloid sharks circled and pounced.
Through it all, Tiger tried to be Tiger, issuing escalating statements through his website: there was an accident, he was fine; OK, there may have been some ‘transgressions’; and then came the release of the near-hysterical voicemail sent a few hours before the car accident to the girlfriend in Las Vegas, begging her to take his name off her mobile phone.
There was a weak attempt by apologists to deny it was Tiger. But it was. If there was any doubt about his voice (and to those who know him there was none), his use of the word ‘huge’ twice in a few seconds was a dead giveaway. Go back to any Woods interview and listen: everything is huge: making a putt is huge; winning a tournament is huge; being able to help 10 million people is huge.
So now Tiger is the Invisible Man again until he decides when to make his not-so-triumphant return to golf.
Perhaps he can come back and dominate golf the way he did for 13 years. It’s a certainty he will never again be the almost universally beloved figure that he was. But one other thing is just as certain: Tiger the man will remain as invisible as ever, appearing inside the ropes to wield his magic, talking in his famous non-speak way about birdies and bogeys and then disappearing into the mist again.