part twenty-seven


Tiger Woods went on TV a couple of weeks ago. He had been caught cheating on his wife. In fact it turns out he had assembled a harem of nineteen mistresses that we know about. He has now gathered around him a team of specially selected people (recently adding former presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer) to help put Humpty Dumpty's image together again. From here on I'll be referring to these people as his "handlers." At stake is the annual squillion dollar basket of product endorsements. Tiger Woods feeds all the managers, advisers, publicists, foundation people, security people, accountants, assistants and so on. If the Tiger Gravy Train goes off the track, a lot of people lose their jobs.

The first thing the handlers did was to arrange a televised, scripted, choreographed apology. This was a blunder. There's no way such an apology is going to look sincere, and it was about as convincing as a community theatre audition. For example when he was telling the press to stay away from his family his nostrils flared, his jaw tightened and his eyes narrowed telegraphing righteous anger; and the very instant the subject changed, so did the emotional cues. It looked like he'd had the advice of a drama coach and a focus group or two. Letter perfect and checklist correct. Slick and plastic.

Then he did that Jay Leno trick ("don't blame Conan") when he denied that his wife had ever attacked him physically. The details of the Thanksgiving blow-up certainly do imply that the Misres chased him out of the house with a short iron. And the fact that he denied this when he didn't have to strikes me as a passive aggressive way of trying to focus attention on somebody else and portray himself as a victim. It's kind of unmanly, but people do that and his handlers probably thought they were being clever when they advised him to do that. Tiger has arms like a hickory and his wife is a toothpick. You don't want the subject of spousal abuse coming up in any context at all.

Tiger is no longer what the philosophers call an independent moral agent. He has made his last decision as a free man. He won't be able to say anything, buy anything, go anywhere visit anybody without the approval of a cabal of publicists, therapists, managers, media consultants and lawyers. His handlers call every shot and will until the money runs out. However, Tiger is the one who will endure the consequences of the decisions of his handlers. The handlers have essentially turned Tiger into a puppet.

This team has one object, and that is to regain the big fat endorsements by rehabilitating Tiger's image. Even if they are unsuccessful, they're going to make a lot of money parasitizing Tiger's accumulated fortune. If Tiger wins, they all win. If Tiger loses, they still win. Tiger won't be able to buy, for example, a cabin cruiser. His advisors will tell him that would look bad to the public. If Ari Fleischer wants to buy a cabin cruiser, he doesn't have to wonder how it looks, but Tiger is going to find himself on a short leash with an allowance and lots of minders telling him he can't do stuff.

No interviewer is ever going to ask him a question about golf again except as padding for an article. It's the Pete Rose thing. His accomplishments as an athlete are eclipsed by an ethical breach, and so it will be with Tiger. Thirty years from now people will be saying things like, "Remember Tiger Woods? Golfer? Had nineteen mistresses?"

I'm struck by how closely the Tiger Woods story follows traditional Faustian literature, wherein some mortal gives up his soul and his free will in order to achieve some earthly goal. Check not only Goethe's "Faust," but also modern adaptations like "Bedazzled" or "Damn Yankees" or "The Producers."

Here's a warning from all those works. The Devil's representative can lead you to the gates of Hell, but you have to step through on your own. If some trusted advisor gives you a speech that goes something like this: "This is your choice. Don't let me influence you. It's totally your decision." Buddy, that guy's leading you to hell. It's a literary convention that turns up in all selling-your-soul-to-the-devil stories.

April is going to be interesting. Tiger is going to start playing again. What if he can't win any more? What if he's heckled and loses his cool? What if he punches a fan? What if he wins and the crowd doesn't clap and cheer, but instead silently watches him don the winner's jacket. Or what about the slow clap? A silently disapproving crowd with one guy in the back clapping at one-second intervals. That'll melt your knees.

This first tournament isn't likely to go well. Tiger's not in control of the outcome. The crowd is. Sponsors aren't primarily concerned with Tiger's golfing performance. Nike and Cadillac will be watching the crowd. Do they still like Tiger? Have they forgiven him, or are they making jokes as he plays past. If Tiger comes out and crushes the competition that could make him less sympathetic. If he comes out trying to look sad and puppy-eyed in order to garner sympathy, that's not going to go over with the male consumer demographic. If he wins, then there's no way he can avoid the cameras and micropphones, and that's the one thing he doesn't want. If he loses, the sponsors and the fans might think he's lost his edge, and that can't be good either.

On the other hand, he has to start playing golf sometime. That's the only skill he's got besides lying, betraying his family and collecting mistresses. The Tiger train runs on golf. The first tournament after the crack-up is going to be hard whether it's now or a year from now. Tiger isn't going to sneak back into golf. Best to dive right in, but it's not likely to go well for Tiger. You know the other golfers on the tour aren't going to give him a break. If he starts to win, they've got a magic button they can push to make him lose his cool. His handlers will have coached him not to respond to taunts, but that's just going to make him look like a pussy to his peers. Even the runtiest semi-talent on the tour will be able to smart off to Tiger and not get punched in the nose. See what I mean? Tiger faces a thousand little catch-22's.

I'll bet his handlers get a doctor to prescribe some mood elevators to help him handle the pressure and endure the insults. Tiger! Remember that's how they got Michael! Flee! Run away! Fire your advisors!

Here's my prediction for Tiger's future. Dermatologists joke that their specialty is most lucrative because their patients never die and never get better. Well, from the point of view of Tiger's handlers, that's the way they can make the most money. They're not going to work themselves out of a job by succeeding and they're not going to let the golden goose die if they can help it. So I think we're looking at a long, slow decline in which Tiger becomes increasingly isolated and dependent on his handlers. Not many get away from Old Scratch once things have gotten this far.


Matters Literary | Arkansas Travelogue home page