I was sitting sipping Bahamian beer with my wife at Rum Runners and listening to an ominous storm front move across Pelican Bay when I first heard the news of Tiger Woods' "car accident". I had my back to a dusty television jammed precariously between what looked to me like a 1950s loud speaker and an over-sized pool cue rack, but the sound of my wife bellowing over the charmingly bad seventies rock and a tall ebony barkeep racing for the jukebox volume hushed the revelry for a moment. Suddenly the tinny echo of the CNN reporter's solemn announcement filled the void. It was "serious"; he said over and over, prompting a corpulent woman from Tampa to gasp, "He's dead!" Her companion, a gangly, mustachioed hippie with a cheap Hawaiian shirt removed the ragged straw hat from his sweaty head and sighed, "First Michael Jackson, now this."
Indeed, my wife agreed, Jackson was dead, murdered by a quack with nerve gas and a secret celebrity code; his whereabouts unknown, because apparently no one cares anymore who or what killed the King of Pop, and soon, when they dredged Tiger's remains from the Florida everglades, likely masticated beyond recognition from a surge of ravenous crocodiles, there will be little anyone will care about - troop levels in Afghanistan, National Health Care Reform, or the all-important Black Friday retail numbers, which would doubtless decide the immediate economic future of the Western world.
No, everyone within earshot agreed: even the slightest injury to Tiger Woods would be beyond devastating news.
For starters, Woods, as the skinny brunette twenty-something from Nashville reminded us, easily rates in the top five of planet earth's most famous people; certainly its most recognized athlete. He is this generation's Babe Ruth or Muhammad Ali, transcending his sport, his race, his culture, his very humanity. Hell, as the panting barkeep offered, "Anyone that has a goddamned logo with his initials on every type of clothing and has the balls to constantly wear the thing in public is like some kind of Superman."
Yes, Tiger, the man for whom only one name may suffice, does wear a logo of his initials upon his head and emblazoned on his form-fitting golf shirts, making him without debate our latest Nietchzian Ubermensch; an almost pristine caricature of the modern American Adonis; a multi-racial, youth-driven, handsomely slender master performer of his craft, obsessed with victory and perfection and cashing in. Tiger, with his $100 million a year endorsements, his gorgeous blonde Viking wife and two adorable kids, GQ cover style and jet-setter decorum, seems so likable he can comfortably straddle the most difficult of dualities: Lovably unapproachable.
Could a rare profitable commodity so utterly indestructible truly be dead? Could he actually be unable to continue to set impossible standards of performance in the highbrow, country-club caste-crazy game he dominates with apparent ease?
The entire episode and its barely decipherable details seemed to set a pall on the whole island for the entire next day, which would have kept any normal couple from setting aside a three-day marathon of substance abuse, but I am happy to report, hardly curtailed us. My wife despises golf, which she has more than once dubbed "an elitist self-flagellation" in sober moments and far lengthier and even less comprehensible mockery under the influence. I have little use for the sport, as I have not played since high school, but do recall more than a decade ago predicting on a local television panel of sports journalists run by my friend Michael Miner, now a major player in almost every New York area sports media outlet, along with the gentleman currently running Westchester County, that Tiger would be the most celebrated athlete of his time. My esteemed colleagues differed on their prognostications since at the time Woods had not yet hit a golf ball for a dime.
Needless to say Woods eclipsed even my loftiest expectations, as he did for everyone else paying attention, as we all were on Saturday morning; the wife and I, half-asleep and ornery from an extended stopover at Miami International Airport. Every television and newspaper was busy arousing suspicions and offering half-cocked commentary. Now it seemed the Thanksgiving 2:30 am "car accident" happened between his driveway and the adjacent curbside, with smashed windows and his wife "hovering" over his "barely conscious" body with (gulp!) a golf club.
It was beginning to look like a feeding frenzy would not only be unleashed, but this time, for a change, merited. This was no imaginary boy in a balloon or anonymous kid trapped down a well or sold into slavery by dog-fighting trainers, or rich gargoyles suckering other rich gargoyles out of their land-raping money, or the delicate nuances of drunken teenage pop stars exposing their genitalia. No. This was serious business, and it would not be ending soon.
Before long back in the States and at the control center here at The Desk, the information poured in fast and furious, some refuting and contradicting the earlier ones, others expounding on what could best be described as the most mishandled philandering and subsequent publicity fallout in recent memory.
Not one, but two major stories in the National Enquirer and Us Magazine surfaced with hardcore dates and voicemails and text messages between our beloved Tiger and some Las Vegas floozy. Then another sex kitten emerged, then retracted, then re-emerged, and all the while nothing from Tiger or his considerable "camp". Soon the police would downplay the case as a "weird mishap" and voices from the other side of reason began defending the poor guy's right to privacy, which by all measures of logic is usually sold down the proverbial river with the type of ridiculous celebrity attributed to the few and the brave and the stack of cash accompanying it.
My favorite comments came from athletes who claim that somehow explaining oneself to the press or to the fans is a "professional courtesy" and not an impetrative, as my long-lost sportswriter pal, Barry Stanton once mused to a coked-out Lawrence Taylor during a charity golf event, "No one pays top dollar to see you play football in the park with your pals." Ironically, this exchange of intellectual lobbing was met with the wielding of a golf club fairly close to Stanton's head. He escaped unharmed, but his point hit home.
Humans tend to be attracted to the subtext of almost every innocuous and banal subject, especially when it contains salacious details or dark secrets of the famous. But this is far different. And although Tiger eventually released a "statement of apology" and had come to accept his "transgressions" there is something infinitely intriguing about the indestructible reduced to indefensible. That is not just an American phenomenon, but mostly a human one.
I believe Tiger would have a better "Leave me alone, this is a private matter" defense if he didn't revel in his Master Of The Universe persona and didn't profit immensely from it, just as the case could not be defended seriously when the president of the United States used the people's property and time to diddle on his spouse.
But no president, not even the current Super Cool one - also a multi-racial handsome, youth figure, who is constantly on public as well as political trial - has been as popular as Tiger Woods for the past decade-plus. Only he, perhaps the amiable Peyton Manning in football and certainly the smooth Derek Jeter in baseball approach his level of sports persona earning power. In another ironic twist the multi-racial Jeter, fresh from a renaissance season and a fifth World Series title, was named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year this week.
Hey, if Jeter's teammate, the enigmatic Alex Rodriguez can go from tar-and-feathered steroid cheat, choker outcast, to World Champion hero class-act teammate in six months, what can Tiger Woods do with this nugget of personal "self-flagellation"?
You see, in the end, there will always be someone somewhere who will offer the argument that we just love to build 'em up and knock 'em down, but then they ignore the fundamental beauty of a free society; that it provides a platform to which those can build themselves up with the always thorny opportunity to come down easy or hard.
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