It's been almost a week now since the richest man in sports, with the gigawatt smile and (apparently) the self-control of a Tibetan Monk, has be exposed for the lying scoundrel with all the morals of a starving alley cat, he really is. (Apologies to alley cats). However, considering the sheer number of illicit relationships he seems to have had, he might be congratulated for having the incredible multi-tasking skills to accumulate a billion dollars, concurrently, with those pursuits.
But with the Tiger Story, the American media sank to a new, new low; easing beyond the low watermark set by Tiger himself. This time, they missed the story entirely. But I guess it would take a golfer, like me, to see it.
I don't expect integrity or even honesty in public figures. In billion dollar athletes, even less. But you see, I'm a golfer. The last true romantics. We're an odd bunch - we expect a lot from each other. So in that way, yes, I expected the greatest golfer of our generation to hold up his end of the unspoken, but well agreed upon, bargain we all have made.
There is no modern sport in which the singular notion of honor is so prominently featured as golf. It is the only game played where you can call a penalty on yourself. There are no referees. It is only each golfer's honor and sense of fairness which governs the game. The Greeks may have had the market on self-sacrifice and personal integrity beneath Olympus, but in our era, it has been in golf whose participants cherished honesty and fair play above all else.
Baseball, basketball, football, hockey....... to subvert the rules and "get away" with something while the referee's back is turned is considered merely part of the game. You never see a batter argue with an umpire in favor of a strike over a ball. In football, there are as many as 8 different officials observing the game at all times just to keep things coherent. Even then, instant replay is often used to determine whether a catch was made or an infraction breached. But not in golf. With his address at the first tee, the golfer binds himself inescapably to the ideal of his sport's rules and its impeccable standards being upheld.
This blind allegiance to honor does not come without a price. Recently, during the US Open, a young amateur who was living out every golfer's dream by being with-in one shot of making the 36 hole cut, called a penalty on himself while addressing a putt. On the lightening fast greens, the" ball moved" he said, and stepped away. The TV cameras did not detect it, his playing partner did not notice it, no one in the gallery admitted that they had seen a slight movement.....but the amateur did not back down from his claim. He assessed the penalty and proceeded to finish his round ...one shot outside the cut. A truly gut-wrenching finish. But the game of golf had given this young man his opportunity... to expose whatever were his depths of integrity. And he took full advantage.
I thought of another famous incident a few years ago during the Tuscon Open. In the desert rough, Tiger Woods had left his drive stymied behind a huge boulder. Using the "loose impediment" rule, Tiger judged the 500 pound boulder to qualify as such and had a willing gang of onlookers roll the boulder from his line of play. Technically, the ruling stood. The boulder was not embedded as it was placed there as a landscaping ornament. It was amusing at the time...but what did it say about Tiger's sense of the "spirit of the rules"? The loose impediment rule clearly never contemplated a 500 pound boulder...but technically, it qualified. It's also highly doubtful any other player would have tried such a stunt...let a alone have dozens of fans available and willing to move it for him.
And what did he gain? What was the point. A single stroke in a middling tournament....at a time in his career Tiger already made several lifetimes of fortunes? Then as now, it stuck me there's something about Tiger's attitude toward the "spirit of the rules" which bothers me. As though he saw them, in this case anyway, something to toy with, to outwit. That he could play his own game, make his own rules.
But unlike in golf, the rules of life rarely allow one to parse them so delicately. Remain so untouchable, so aloof. Life's rules are much broader, less defined, their consequences more arbitrary...and breaching them, even in spirit, especially in spirit.....comes a toll more exacting.
Talk will revolve for some time about whether Tiger's behavior is anyone else's business but his. Maybe it is...maybe it isn't. But I'm sorry if that doesn't keep me from passing judgement on him; just as I would do with any other golfer who has shown such ruthless disregard for the truth. I have no problem judging him for clinging to his Swoosh besotted facade of personal honor and integrity for the public, the press, his sponsors and his wife, all the while pursuing and living a lifestyle marred with the trappings of exactly the opposite of those values.
I am not in a place to judge Tiger the man, but I'm perfectly comfortable judging his honesty and character of a fellow golfer....
There's an old saying, "If you want to know the truth about a man, play golf with him." None of us will likely get to play a round with Tiger Woods.....but somewhere there's a man who played golf against Tiger a few years ago down in Tuscon. And that man watched Mr. Woods directing a gang a men to move a boulder out of his way. My guess is that he learned the truth about Tiger Woods commitment to integrity, about his sense of "the spirit of the game" .....before last Friday's car crash.