Tiger's victory brings on mixed emotions -- and that's OK
I can usually tell when I've got an opinion that's going to stir things up. For instance? I don't like doughnuts, pineapple does belong on pizza and I've never seen an episode of "Game of Thrones."
I'll give you a moment to collect yourself.
If I'm not in the mood to stir up the crowd -- in person or online -- I tend to keep these takes to myself. So as I settled in to watch the Masters on Sunday, I decided to enjoy Tiger Woods' dramatic final round without getting into my personal feelings regarding his so-called "redemption story." In the past, simply mentioning that I feel conflicted rooting for him has earned me doughnut-take-level contempt.
I made it all morning keeping my qualms to myself, until right around Tiger's tee shot on the 16th hole. He'd just taken over the lead, and supporters were out in full force on my Twitter timeline. What struck me was not the happiness they felt in watching him pull off a miraculous return to the top -- that was to be expected -- but rather their demand that everyone else feel the same way.
"If you're not pulling for this guy today, you are heartless," one user tweeted at me.
This all felt very familiar. Every fan thinks his or her team's win is the greatest achievement on earth, but Tiger fans have been uniquely unforgiving when it comes to dissenting opinions about their guy. For years, I've been shouted down for even mentioning that a return to the top of the leaderboard might not be as wholly redemptive as some would suggest. The injuries, surgeries and doubts about his future are a massive part of Tiger's comeback tale, but there are some people, myself included, who won't easily forget the rest of his downward spiral.
Ever since his tabloid-fronting heel turn from beloved superstar and family man to troubled philanderer in 2009, I've struggled to separate my feelings about Tiger the man from my feelings about Tiger the golfer. Plenty of professional athletes cheat on their wives, but rarely do we have the intimate details of the ways in which that marital trust is broken. In the case of Tiger, we heard reports about an array of women, including sex workers, a VIP host in Las Vegas, an adult film star and a server who used to wait on him and his wife at Perkins diner. We learned of unprotected sex, prescription drug abuse, a rehab stay for sex addiction and, as recently as 2017, an arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence of Vicodin, Dilaudid, Xanax, Ambien and THC.
People deserve second chances, and the ability to recover from rock bottom and find success again is admirable, but a return to the winner's circle can't erase the pain and suffering of the people hurt along the way. I find myself feeling deeply empathetic toward his ex-wife Elin Nordegren, imagining what those months and years must have been like. Knowing how some of my own friends have been affected by infidelity in their parents' marriages, I wonder what Tiger's children may face in their own future romantic relationships. Some don't care about these things when they choose which athletes to root for, and I try not to begrudge them that, but I won't accept the directive that we all must feel that way.
It's mostly unique to athletes and other celebrities, this desire to whitewash the worst of things. If a friend's husband cheated on her with countless women, threatened her health by engaging in unprotected sex, ended their marriage and put their kids through hell, would you be quick to forgive, or only if he was great at golf? It's fascinating how Tiger fans get downright angry when they're reminded that his comeback story isn't just about spinal surgeries and swing changes. Especially since the fact that he was, in many ways, the architect of his own precipitous fall makes his rise all the more compelling. His story is far more complex and rich than merely overcoming injury.
I was rooting for Tiger to win on Sunday. I wasn't looking to ruin the moment, and I wasn't suggesting that anyone -- on television or otherwise -- needed to address a years-old scandal, I was merely pushing back on the idea that Tiger should be universally loved and supported. People argued it wasn't the time to offer up a dissenting opinion, but when else do you point out that demanding support for a flawed hero is problematic?
The final round of the Masters was as compelling as any, and the tale of Tiger's first win at a major in more than a decade was unbelievable enough without sugarcoating his rise from rock bottom and rejecting those who wanted to discuss it in its full context. In fact, one of the most fascinating things about Tiger's story is that the very same flaws that make him relatable to some are the reason others struggle to support him.
We love to dig into the layers of sports to get to the stories and stakes beyond the box score or scorecard, to empathize with the battles that go beyond the physical and understand the athlete as human being. We like to dissect others' interests and get to the deeply personal roots of fandom. Acknowledging how conflicted I am about Tiger seems to incite great anger, when instead it could inspire great conversation. We could talk about how and why people "fan," who and what drives our passion, our emotions and our connection to sport. Instead, asking to address the full story disrupts the fairy tale that some want Tiger's comeback to be.
After Tiger won, one Twitter user wrote, "If you're not crying, you're not human."
I wasn't crying. I was certainly moved by the relief on Tiger's face when he sank the putt on 18 and raised his arms in triumph to a delirious crowd. I liked seeing the smile on his face as he hugged caddie Joe LaCava and realized the years of doubt, pain and hard work had paid off. The athlete in me appreciated the ride and all the challenges -- mental and physical -- that he had to suffer through in order to feel the joy of victory once again.
But as I watched him hug his children, both of whom are finally old enough to appreciate the moment, I felt more sadness than joy. The visual was certainly profound -- this man, whom we used to see fall into his father's arms after victories, was now, more than a decade after his last major win, celebrating with an embrace of his own children. But the very personal moment made me think of Tiger's humanity, of the full scope of his comeback story, and the people he hurt along the way.
You can root for that perfect scene on the final hole and still see it within the context of his larger story. My humanity doesn't hinge on whether Tiger's win brought me to tears. In fact, perhaps it's more fully evidenced by the fact that it didn't.