I Am Tiger Woods...But Who Am I?

Who is Tiger Woods, really? Is it a question that any of us - anyone at all - can answer with any certainty?

I don't mean for this to turn into a People-style expose on all that has happened in TigerWorld of late. Rather, this will be my take on the bizarre and meticulous crafting of Tiger's image and persona.

More than any athlete (I would even say more than any celebrity figure) since Michael Jordan, what we know about Eldrick "Tiger" Woods has been both obsessively controlled and crafted. Part of this is due to the careful handling of Tiger's myriad sponsors - with Nike leading the charge - who have a vested and extremely moneyed interest in making Tiger good for all demographics. While no one will come out and say it, there is a fine promotional tight rope to walk when you are responsible for selling the image of a bi-racial guy dominating what has historically been a white man's game. I was always struck by what the late Earl Woods, Tiger's father, thought about his son's anticipated impact on the world, famously saying that Tiger would transcend race. This must have been music to Nike's ears - here was a black (or, at least, black-looking) kid they could sell to the inner-city kids who had never before been exposed to the sport, but he wasn't so black that he would scare off the average golf fan: white, male, and middle-aged.

As Tiger slowly but surely took over the sport, and then the world, a phenomenon occurred that I can only describe as a reverse getting-to-know-you. By the time Tigermania hit critical mass, we had already learned everything we needed to know about him: his father put a club in his crib, he was the bi-racial product of a Thai mother and black father, he could play by age 2, he had a swing and follow-through designed by God himself. We didn't need to know anything else, and when new information became available - Earl's illness and eventual death, Tiger's marriage to Elin Nordegren, the birth of Tiger's first child - it was always in the context of his impact on the sport and how it would affect his next tournament, never about the man himself.

Lost in all of this were things we take for granted about those we know, those we consider our friends or welcome into our lives: Is he funny? Does he prefer cats or dogs? What's his favorite ice cream flavor? Now, this isn't to say that we should (or much less want to) know all of this about our celebrities. Much to the contrary, there is usually a backlash that follows whenever celebrities try to be too much like "us" - it comes across as forced at best and opportunistic at worst. But what is fascinating about Tiger's image is that there seems to have been little to no effort made by his handlers (or the man himself, much less) to share this information with us regular people. Sure, Tiger will appeal to the average sports fan in all of us by appearing at the occasional Stanford basketball game - but, remember, he didn't even graduate. Then, there he is courtside at an Orlando Magic game if for no other reason than he lives nearby.

So, what does this all mean? It's a big question, but it might be the most interesting part of this entire Tiger-based fiasco. When you know nothing about a person, can you really express shock or outrage at their engaging in behavior you never would have expected from them? Even Tiger's peers, his fellow PGA golfers, when pressed for their opinion on the issue, could only speak to it in terms of how Tiger reacts out on the course. His focus, his determination - never, "Well, Tiger's a big family man, so I'm just blown away that he'd do this or that".

In many ways, Tiger is the most well-known athlete in the world without us knowing very much about him at all.


  1. For me key is that based on winnings/salary, there are many athletes paid significantly more than him. It's his endorsements that make him as rich as he is. However, for making that much in endorsements, no one knows anything other than his image. For as many public appearances as he makes (almost exclusively at promotions for the products he endorses) he has never really slipped up.

    As for not graduating from Stanford, I've got no problem with that. There are many pro football and basketball players who are proud of their college even if they haven't actually graduated...or attended class for more than one quarter.

  2. My favorite line was this: "a phenomenon occurred that I can only describe as a reverse getting-to-know-you." I think you skim over part of the reason - Tiger grew up as a prodigy and his greatness was anticipated by first his father, then others. There is a little bit of Kobe to his story in that he has never known anything other than isolation from the mainstream. What if there is nobody who knows him well? Apparently not even his wife and family did.

    In a greater sense, I think we already know the answer to Tiger's "who am I?" While in a personal sense he was performing a "reverse get-to-know-you" as he ascended, in a professional sense he became well known and even beloved through golf. What if, as his father predicted from infancy, Tiger simply IS a golfer. Because how would anyone answer the question "who am I?" apart from the definition of their greatest achievements, their high water marks?

  3. By the way, it's weird how all the previously snapped photos of Tiger and his wife in public are colored by what we now know. So when I look at them at that Magic game, I think "I wonder how happy or unhappy they are at this point?"

  4. So, I sent an email to our favorite sportsguy asking if Tiger entered the Tyson Zone quicker than anyone in history (even Tyson himself) - what a crazy few weeks for the guy. I guess we now know why he's been so guarded over the years?

    I found this article to be somewhat revealing; it's more about his PR guy, but does shed a bit of light into how hard Steinberg's worked on Woods' image.

    What are your thoughts - in light of the past few weeks, would you become more or less guarded if you were Tiger? I think I'm in the "less" boat - fess up to all and you'll be pushed out of the spotlight quicker, IMO (see: Alex Rodriguez vs. Barry Bonds).

  5. What time did you send the email? Simmons tweeted this morning:

    sportsguy33 Gotta do it: I'm putting Tiger in the Tyson Zone. We quickly/improbably reached the point where no Tiger story can shock me.

    about 3 hours ago from web

  6. I sent it around 8 this morning; I'm assuming I'm not the only one to send such an email.

    I truly wouldn't be surprised by anything that comes out about Tiger; this is not cause he's done so many crazy things, but more for the fact that he was so "perfect" that any little blemish gets blown out of proportion. Who knows how much of this is true, but it's been such a crazy 2-weeks that if someone came out saying he punched their baby for crying during a round of golf, I sure as hell wouldn't scoff as loud as I would have 3 weeks ago.

  7. He has couched his guardedness in the last few weeks as "a private matter between him and his family," as if he's intent on doing what it takes to make his wife forgive him. If that's his goal, then he should be as open or as guarded as she wants him to be, for the sake of her and their kids.

    If for some reason it doesn't work out with his wife and they end up getting divorced or something, then it's entirely up to him how he reacts and in that case I do agree that his best approach is to be open about everything, be remorseful, and move on.