WASHINGTON — It's always dangerous to elevate someone to heights generally reserved for mythological gods or those rare individuals whose contributions to mankind transcend what is normally expected of humans. When they fall, as they inevitably do, the reverberation can be thunderous.
Tiger Woods was lifted into iconic status not because he had discovered a cure for a heinous disease or had devoted his life to uplifting causes at great sacrifice, but because he could hit a golf ball better than anyone else in his generation. While that is an amazing physical ability that many of us envy, it is hardly a talent that deserves a ranking with the likes of Jonas Salk or Mother Teresa.
Yet that is where millions throughout the world placed him until it was discovered that he was just a mortal after all and that his position atop Mount Olympus had left him so deprived of oxygen that on occasion he was forced to descend to levels occupied by those with baser instincts. He now finds himself trapped in one of life's deeper roughs from which extrication may be not only difficult but extremely painful.
Certainly the straight-arrow, role-model, private-family-man image that has been part and parcel of his enormous commercial success is probably gone forever. The torrid revelations could be expected to find his marriage, at least in a traditional sense, following close behind. Already reports have his gorgeous wife and her twin sister planning a return to Sweden, his children in tow. Whether or not the marriage survives merely as a financial union, which was the reported proposal from Woods, is anyone's guess. One indiscretion might even be forgivable, but not 10, according to one reported mistress count.
The endorsements that provide him $100 million annually seem solid. But are they? One sponsor, Gatorade, has announced it is canceling a product named for him, and news reports have noted that since he rammed his expensive sports utility vehicle into a fire hydrant and tree outside his Florida mansion, his image has been missing from television advertising even during a golf tournament he sponsors and where he found it prudent not to appear. Legal experts, however, say his contracts are tightly written in his favor.
Meanwhile, as they say, the beat goes on with more and more of the mainline press joining television, the tabloids and the late-night jokesters chipping away at the "privacy" he seems to so value even in this crisis — a reluctance to clear the air that nearly every public-relations analyst seems to condemn.
Who is to blame for the sudden disclosure of Woods' mortality? Well, certainly he has to bear most of the burden. Either naively or arrogantly, he apparently believed his superstar status was enough to allow him immunity from normal standards of behavior. He could line his pockets by pushing wholesome products and role-model imagery on the one hand while doing something entirely different on the other.
Those who paid attention during his spectacular golfing achievements saw undeniable evidence of someone who had become increasingly removed from his fan base. His demeanor always showed an element of the spoiled little boy who had been provided opportunities and treatment far beyond what most of us have at that age. That he was unapproachable outside his small circle of friends seemed to confirm the arrogance theory. Early on he refused even an invitation from then-President Bill Clinton. In sharp contrast, Arnold Palmer, who popularized golf in the TV era, never stood above or lost touch with his loyal "army."
But then, don't the legions of adoring fans — whose massive turnouts and television viewership when Woods is on the course — bear some of the responsibility? Had they not raised him beyond the pinnacle of what one might grant any athlete and bought so thoroughly into the pitch of his sponsors, perhaps he might have behaved differently. They also might have recognized that, after all, he is just a game player — a wealthy one and a brilliant one, but still a man who hits a little white ball for a living, which in the scheme of things is not terribly important.
E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at [email protected].