Purification ritual leaves stain on the world of Woods
Published 21/02/2010 | 05:00
O edipus: "What is the rite of purification? How shall it be done?" Philip Roth starts The Human Stain with this epigraph. It comes from Sophocles, but it might have been written by Team Tiger Woods.
Creon gives the answer: "By banishing a man, or expiation of blood by blood." Tiger was banished to 45 days of sex-addiction therapy, where he fretted over temptation and restraint before motoring down to the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida -- as one does -- to apologise to "friends, colleagues and close associates", aka cold-faced mourners.
The majority of hand-picked golf writers were listening in from Champions Room D and E at the nearby Sawgrass Marriott. A Marriott is always a good place for "credentialed reporters" to consider life's complexities. A few lucky ones were closer to the self-crucifixion, but were not permitted to ask questions. "Notes, colour and background" were to be pooled. How do you pool sensory impressions? What colour is shame? Those golf guys will have worked it out.
Watching the Woods performance a second time, I thought again of Roth: "There is something fascinating about what moral suffering can do to someone who is in no obvious way a weak or feeble person. It's more insidious even than what physical illness can do, because there is no morphine drip or spinal block or radical surgery to alleviate it. Once you're in its grip, it's as though it will have to kill you for you to be free of it. Its raw realism is like nothing else."
On the first viewing, you thought: "If he's acting, give him the Oscar now." They must have hoped no one would watch it a second time. It was only on replay that the mechanics and intent of the self-laceration poked out.
Contrition was at work; let's not doubt that. Its parallel mission, though, was stealth bombing of all who stand in the way of his comeback.
The first giveaway was the prohibition on cross-examination by sports writers. The second was the complexion of the invited audience in that PGA clubhouse room. They were from rent-a-flock. After his tour through the highways and byways of regret, Woods followed the arrow to his mother and gave her a hug: the first broadcastable evidence of reunification in his clan.
Regrets? Boy, did he have a few. No one can cause that much damage without lighting a blaze in their conscience, but the mid-morning mea culpa was only the corporate and mediated version of his suffering. Notice how he fixed his eye on the camera and paused for the killer line: "For all that I have done, I am so sorry."
This was catch-all remorse: a one-off job-lot of mortification. It started with Elin, his wife, then went off in search of the "people in this room", his fans, "kids around the world", his business partners, employees and "the staff, board of directors and young students" at his charitable foundation, which featured high on his list of folks to whom he felt the obligation to say: "I am embarrassed that I have put you in this position."
This is where a voice in the head cried out: "Don't do this, please. Not the global suck-up to humanity." But Woods ploughed on, finding the two big confessional notes: "I was unfaithful. I had affairs. I cheated." And: "I convinced myself that normal rules didn't apply . . . I felt I was entitled", which is an admission a focus group might have told him to cough up.
In The Human Stain, Roth posits that the function of such public humiliations is to allow Americans to enjoy "the ecstasy of sanctimony".
Whatever the reaction out there in the country clubs across the golfing world, Woods had business to attend to on Friday morning. This was his chance to rebut suggestions that he might have used performance-enhancing drugs, deny his wife had clouted him with a golf club the night he drove into a fire hydrant last November and implore the paparazzi to leave his family alone.
"They staked out my wife and they pursued my mom," he complained. Oh, yes, Tiger wasn't going to prostrate himself up there without getting in a few uppercuts of his own. Another persistent accusation was also dispatched with transparent PR cunning: "When I do return, I need to make my behaviour more respectful of the game."
When. With that evasion you could hear a hundred PGA execs slide under the table. Viewing figures have slumped 55 per cent. Ticket sales are down 20 per cent. But, straight from the book, Woods finished with a plea, thus shifting the moral onus to the audience: "I ask you to find room in your heart to, one day, believe in me again."
Something weird in me wishes he had floated up to that lectern, stuck his middle digit up to our voyeuristic planet and gone home to his family. But that's not how they scripted the purification ritual.