How an American hero crashed to earth

Tiger Woods has finally given some substance to the flood of rumours provoked by his car crash, writes Rupert Cornwell
Click to follow

Oh, the little things that set the world in a tizzy. A piece of careless driving on a private estate in Florida, for instance, in which no other car or person was involved, and for which a fine of $164 (£98) frankly seems rather excessive. Yes, a pricey Cadillac SUV has acquired some rather large dents, but its occupant was not seriously hurt. But that occupant happens to have been called Tiger Woods. And mere mortals are apt to get in a tizzy when the intoxicating fumes of scandal suddenly dispel the clouds of majesty at the summit of Mount Olympus.

Not for 15 years, since OJ Simpson's white Bronco made its stately way down California's Interstate 405, has an American traffic incident attracted so much attention. But then again, in the pantheon of US, maybe in all global sport, no current god can match the Tiger. The world's best golfer is the planet's richest athlete, the first to have earned a billion dollars from his trade. His perfection on the course has been matched by his inaccessibility off it. Nothing sullied his reputation, unless you count the odd flash of unseemly anger at himself when that perfection briefly faltered. Until now. Tiger, it appears, has the same failings when confronted by temptation as most other rich and famous members of his sex.

Yesterday, Woods seemed to implicitly confirm what every gossip monger on earth has been saying since the accident: that his careless driving was not unconnected with a pair of nubile ladies suddenly emerging from the deep rough, one denying she had a fling with him, the other claiming to have had one, flogging mobile phone transcripts to prove it.

"I have let my family down and I regret those transgressions with all of my heart," the tarnished Tiger disclosed in a second statement on his website. "I have not been true to my values and the behaviour my family deserves. I am not without faults and I am far short of perfect."

But that, he indicated, was as far as he would go. This was a matter solely for him and his Swedish wife Elin, a former model, to work out "behind closed doors." These feelings "should be shared by us alone. Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn't have to mean public confessions."

Hitherto the personal part of Woods's life has unfailingly unfolded behind closed doors. No celebrity has been so hungry for anonymity. Privacy for him is a fundamental human right. 'Privacy' indeed is the name of his yacht from which he practises scuba diving. "The fish," he once remarked, "don't know who I am."

Privacy also is at the very heart of the sport he plays so incomparably.

America has had other transcendent sporting heroes: DiMaggio from baseball, Michael Jordan and now Lebron James from basketball, and a host of football quarterbacks who've captured the national imagination, from 'Broadway Joe' Namath to the seemingly eternal Brett Favre, having the season of his life at the age of 40, in perhaps the most brutal sport of all.

But golf is different, and Tiger's achievements are arguably even more remarkable. The above mentioned superstars found glory in team sports. Golf is utterly lonely. A player has opponents, but ultimately he is competing against the course and, very often, against himself. Of other sports, tennis perhaps comes closest. But to win Wimbledon or another Grand Slam, a player has to win just seven head-to-head matches. Almost always, moreover, he will have been seeded, and thus be assured an easier path to the later rounds.

By contrast, 150-odd players compete in a golf major on an absolutely equal footing. They are not seeded; at any given tournament, perhaps 50 of them have a chance of winning. Yet Tiger has managed to win 14 majors, more than anyone except Jack Nicklaus, and can expect to remain in his prime for half a dozen more years.

The secret of his success is not merely a God-given talent. Woods has incredible focus and drive, he is a perfectionist for whom second place is a defeat. America adores winners, and Woods commands a following that none of his peers come close to rivalling. His presence turned the fusty PGA tour into one of the biggest draws in televised sport – never more so than on a Sunday afternoon final round when the Tiger is in contention (or equally likely, cruising to victory).

But his qualities, while they make him a role model for excellence, are not ones that especially endear. Woods is vastly respected and hugely admired. The colossal galleries that follow him hang on his every stroke. But he is not loved as Arnold Palmer was, or as Phil Mickelson – the nearest approximation of a rival to him – is loved today. These two betrayed their frailties. Tiger by contrast is stainless steel, impervious to visible emotion until the moment of victory.

And even in the supremely individual sport of golf, he is an odd man out. Up to a point, he is an American of colour who transcends race, like Colin Powell and Barack Obama. Nonetheless, in the collective public consciousness Woods is a black man in an overwhelmingly white sport (even though he likes to call himself 'Calbinasian,' reflecting his Asian, black, native American and Dutch ancestry).

Rarely has he given a hint of political preference. Asked during the 2008 primaries what he thought of Obama, the Tiger confided that "he's extremely articulate and very thoughtful," only to add in the next breath that "I'm just impressed at how well, basically all politicians really do, how well they think on their feet."

Perhaps this reticence is because he belongs to the predominantly Republican universe that is the PGA – one Ryder Cup star once turned down a White House invitation from Bill Clinton "because the President's a draft dodger." Or maybe it's because great fortunes made from sport are bipartisan in origin. Once asked why he didn't publicly support a black Democratic candidate in his native North Carolina, Michael Jordan simply replied, "Republicans wear sneakers too."

Now Tiger has succeeded Jordan as the most marketable figure in US sport, with annual income from endorsements of $100m or more that dwarf his earnings from prize money. Today, the fate of those endorsements is perhaps the most hotly debated topic in the industry of sport.

As yesterday's announcement made clear, he plans to tough it out. There will be no tearful admissions, whatever media consultants may advise. And the chances are that, like David Beckham in a similar predicament, he'll emerge more or less unscathed.

The Bronco ride of OJ Simpson – an earlier black sports idol with a white blonde wife – of course ended in ruin. But OJ was convicted by public opinion, if not by a criminal court, of savagely murdering that wife. Tiger, if the gossip columnists have it right, was fleeing his white wife who was chasing him with a golf club.

And the timing could not be better. This is what amounts to golf's close season. That Tiger is skipping his own tournament in California this week is an embarrassment; but the tournaments that matter do not start until early spring. By then his facial lacerations will have healed.