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In the Wake of Tiger's Sins, What Matters Most -- Reputation or Reconciliation?

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As the eye of the Tiger continues to heal behind closed doors, his statement of contrition on Friday was the first step in what will be a long journey out of the woods to repair the huge divot in his family and get his personal life and public persona back in sync.

Tiger Woods is the latest among many civil servants and celebrities whose public trust has been tested by moral failure. Amidst all the "woulda-, coulda- and shoulda-beens" since the news broke, he got run over by speculation fueled by his silence rather than getting ahead of the story like he does the rest of the pack at most major golf tournaments.

Despite what may be the fastest and farthest meltdown of a brand in recent memory, however, Tiger dipped into a counter-intuitive lexicon of transparency and accountability that distinguishes him from most other popular icons who have recently found themselves in his spiked shoes. In his latest confessional declaration he referred to his recklessness as "infidelity," building on his initial reference to personal "sins."

Sin is a word so seldom used in our culture that society has almost lost any point of reference from which to acknowledge or embrace the concept. In an effort to rationalize away bad behavior, immoral activities are often downgraded to mistakes and indiscretions, or responsibility blame shifted to one's upbringing or another individual.

I once heard sin defined as "an attitude of indifference towards God," which starts in the heart long before an act is committed. Of course the Bible speaks of Sin as inherent in our fallen human condition, for which everyone is in need of redemption -- including Tiger. Without introduction, God welcomes all men who turn to Him in repentance and faith. Perhaps through this ordeal, God may finally have Tiger's attention.

No Messiah
To my knowledge, I don't know that Tiger has ever expressed identification with a particular faith or professed to have any spiritual convictions. But in fact, perhaps no one has had to overcome such enormous spiritual expectations as he, established from the beginning by his father, Earl Woods.

In a 1996 interview with Sports Illustrated, the senior Woods told the reporter his son would have a greater impact than Nelson Mandela, Gandhi or Buddha:

"Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity...He is the Chosen One...The world is just getting a taste of his power."

Whether that reference was meant to be Messianic or merely metaphoric is not clear; but what is now painfully obvious is that neither applies.

It is axiomatic that an addict acting out in his addiction doesn't define the man, though if applicable to Tiger, it still doesn't give him a free pass. But anyone who has submitted to the process of recovery on which Tiger seems to have now embarked eventually discovers that they are far better in their brokenness than in their giftings or grandiosity, because it is at the bottom where one finds grace.

What Do We Lead With?
In an effort to feed the beast of our celebrity-driven culture over the past two weeks, media gatekeepers have had to face a daily challenge of media triage with a bizarre twist. Rather than having to choose their lead from among substantive stories -- like the economy, health care or President Obama's commitment of 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan -- theirs has been the tough call between photos of or voice mails to Tiger's newest alleged paramour, and the sordid details of what became no longer shocking news of his latest bad lie.

In a 1984 TIME back page essay entitled, "What Should We Lead With?" Roger Rosenblatt wrote:

Journalists put the question in practical terms: What should we lead with? The rest of the population asks more generally: What matters most? They come to the same puzzle....What we confront in making such choices is not the events alone, but ourselves; and it is ourselves we are not able to place in order. The question is not what the press decrees is this week's news. The question is us. What should we lead with, what matters most?

All of us have followed this evolving story with fascination akin to driving by a car that is on fire by the side of the highway -- we have to look. But as Tiger has expressed repentance, sought forgiveness and asked for a "Mulligan" on his marriage, I think we need to give it to him. Restoration and redemption is possible if he faces his demons and does the hard work before him. But as a society, we are "sightseers for suffering," and can't give it up or let it go. As Mr. Rosenblatt states above, ultimately "it is ourselves we are not able to place in order."

What Matters Most?
What matters most is not satisfying our prurient interest in salacious gossip and innuendo, nor does it involve questions of when Tiger will return to the tour or the impact on his career and endorsements. Rather, as he pledges in his latest statement, it is to give him the space to find safe harbor to focus his attention on being a better husband, father and person.

Perhaps Tiger's greatest impact will not be how he has transformed golf, but rather how he transforms as a human being. Like his dad, who invested so heavily in his future, Tiger's own legacy may be found in the next generation of Woods as he attempts to properly father his own daughter and son.

Even when Tiger was in top golf form, he was never above constantly fine-tuning his game with a swing coach, with whom he would review the fundamentals of stance, grip, swing and follow-through, measuring the results by the resulting distance and trajectory of the ball. But, for anyone who has ever sought out such advice, the end-game is not hitting the ball straighter and farther, but rather the feeling one gets as one surveys from an elevated tee box the ground conquered in a long drive or tournament won.

It is the same with marriage. In Mere Christianity, author C.S. Lewis wrote:

"Love as distinct from 'being in love' -- is not merely a feeling...It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run: being in love was the explosion that started it."

If Tiger approaches his marital relationship with the same passion and dedication as he does golf, he can strengthen his grip (on his life and family), work on his stance (one woman, for life), perfect his swing (the integrity to keep his stories, not just his elbow, straight) and recognize the importance of follow-through (on his commitments).

Of course marriage is a partnership, requiring similar reconciliation and forgiveness from his wife Elin. For an ordeal that started in Tiger's driveway with an accident in his Escalade, perhaps lyrics from Buddy Holly's classic song, "Not Fade Away," provides her a blueprint for recovery:

"My love is bigger than a (black) Cadillac, I try to show you but you drive me back;
Your love for me has got to be real, you're gonna know just how I feel.
Love is real not fade away;
Know our love not fade away."

Whether or not the prodigal son has returned home remains to be seen, and the jury is still out on whether their love is real and not fade away. But one thing is certain: God is a God of second chances, whose love is real and not fade away. In golf parlance, we always have a "gimme" with God, whenever we stop trying to be our own savior and start to put our trust in Him and His Son. That is the message of Christmas.

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Larry Ross is president of A. Larry Ross Communications, a full-service public relations agency that provides cross-over media liaison emanating from or targeted to the Christian market. With more than 33 years' experience influencing public opinion, Mr. Ross' mission is to "restore faith in media," by providing Christian messages relevance and meaning in mainstream media.

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