Tiger Woods said in a statement that the accident details are a "private matter."
Fred Vuich/SI
Monday, November 30, 2009

This is going to sound very, very wrong... because, well, it is very, very wrong. But I'm sorry. I'll admit this straight out: I am fascinated by this Tiger Woods accident story. I'm fascinated, and I'm paying close attention, and I will read whatever stories come out about it. Sure, I know it's wrong. I know it's gossip. I know it's rubbernecking on a highway. I know. Tiger Woods and his family deserve some privacy in their lives. They should have the right to go on without having to share the most personal details of their lives. They should not have to deal with reporters and photographers stalking them. And so on. I believe these things with all my heart.

And still... I'll read every word. I cannot help myself. I'm dying to know. But I suppose I should clarify — I'm not dying to know what really happened that night. I have a pretty good guess at that. No, I'm dying to know how Tiger Woods and his people are going to handle all this.

See, here's the thing: Someday, mankind will invent a robot that can make birdies on every hole. I have no doubt in my mind about this. I don't believe it will ever be fun to watch robots play football or baseball or basketball — there's something physical about those sports that craves humanity. But golf is different. Because in golf, reaching a robotic level of perfection is the ultimate goal (see Hogan, Ben). Can you repeat your swing under pressure? Can you read the wind? Can you read the greens? Can you drain all the emotions from your body and make the big putt on the 18th green? These are the traits of the super-robot — and even now the mind can imagine a golf-playing robot that will repeat the perfect swing every time, calculate the wind perfectly and will have the sensors necessary to read every blade of grass on the green.

I believe that golf robot will be built sometime in the next 20 years, I really do. And, beyond the initial curiosity, I know that I won't care about it. I won't have any interest in watching that robot stripe drive after drive, hit perfect shot after perfect shot, make putt after putt — it seems to me that's not the interesting part of watching golf. The interesting part is the human part. The interesting part is watching Jean van de Velde blow up on 18. The interesting part is Arnold Palmer charging on the back nine. The interesting part is Tom Watson coming to 18 with a chance to pull off the greatest triumph in golf history and hitting his approach shot TOO WELL. (Is there another sport where doing something too well hurts you?) The interesting part is a 10-year-old boy with a poster of Jack Nicklaus on his wall and a dream of one day winning more major championships than Jack did.

That 10-year-old became Tiger Woods, and he has made his life mission — at least his public life mission — to (1) Win those 19 professional major championships; (2) Make a billion dollars; (3) Make sure people know as little about him as possible.

These are all perfectly reasonable goals, though they can conflict. Golf, we are told, is the most illuminating of sports. Corporate types talk all the time about how they want to play golf with clients or business partners or employees or adversaries in order to measure them. Golf (they say) can tell you about a person's composure, a person's decision-making skills, a person's level of daring and so on. Billions of people have watched Tiger Woods play golf under the most extreme pressures, so you would think we would have learned some things. And we have. He's damned good at golf. Also, he swears a lot.

Then, for an athlete like Tiger Woods to make billions of dollars, he needs to be in the public eye, as a spokesman for a company, as a star of commercials, as a person people can believe in and even love. You would think the person would need to show a little bit of himself — even if it's fake and just a persona. People who knew Johnny Carson would often say that he was nothing at all like the person who hosted The Tonight Show. That was a character he played when the camera lights popped on, night after night after night.

But Woods — well, remarkably, he really has not even created a public character for himself. He is, instead, a blank slate. People talk about how Michael Jordan was the first to create that blank slate — the "I am whatever you want me to be" form of sports celebrity — but I never thought that was quite true. Jordan had a persona — as a wisecracking basketball player who was not trying to change the world but was instead perfectly content to joke around with Spike Lee, play in a movie with Bugs Bunny and cut your heart out with a big shot in the final seconds. Later, he had the weird baseball period of his career*, and the gambling stories emerged, and he could not walk away from basketball, and he had that sad Hall of Fame speech. But the sense in his prime was that people KNEW Michael Jordan, even if they didn't really know him at all.

*I know people have made fun of Michael Jordan as baseball player — and others were wildly offended by it — but I always loved that Jordan tried it. I don't know all the reasons he did... maybe some of the conspiracy theories about it are true. But it seems clear that he wanted to see if he was good enough to play ball at the highest level. I think that's a very human thing. Jordan was not good enough, or he started too late, or whatever. But he tried. And when I think back on Michael Jordan's career, it's probably my favorite thing about him.

Tiger is different. I don't think people beyond his close circle really feel like they know Tiger Woods. And maybe even those people don't know. Is he funny? Some say yes, but I've never really heard him say anything especially funny. Does he like talking about politics? Movies? Sports? Can he tell a story? Is he a good listener? Does he have interesting thoughts about faith? Does he get on the floor and play with his kids? Which Austin Powers movie did he think was funniest? Any of them? Is he happy or unhappy with the direction they are taking Jim and Pam on The Office? Does he put money on Free Parking when he's playing Monopoly? Does he park near the entrance or exit when going to a Target? Who does he think writes better, Delillo, McCarthy or McDermott?

We don't know. We know he was raised to play golf. We know he plays it better than anyone in the world. We know that he does not like cameras clicking during his backswing, and he has a remarkable ability to get himself out of golf danger, and he does not miss many important putts. We know he married a Swedish model, and they have two cute kids and a couple of dogs. We know that he is friends with Roger Federer, though what this means is really anyone's guess since Federer is not exactly an open book himself.

Beyond these few tidbits, you can go to Tiger's Web site and go to the "Did You Know" section to find out more juicy details such as:

• Tiger's alarm clock is set at 5:00 a.m. sharp.*

*Do we really need the word 'sharp' there? Do people often set their alarm clocks for 5:03 a.m.? The other day, we bought some oranges in Florida, and the salesman told us they were 'completely seedless.' Did I need the word 'completely'? How useful would 'almost completely seedless' oranges be?

• Tiger's inspirations are his parents and Nelson Mandela. Think about how much inspiration there will be in the air if he takes his mother to see the movie Invictus?

• His perfect day would be a day in which he surfed, skied, played golf and went spear fishing. All in one day. So in other words, Tiger Woods' perfect day is... pretty much any day he wants.

• His biggest challenge is to become a better person tomorrow.

• His favorite soundtrack — and this is by far my favorite answer — is "anything from '80s and early '90s." I mean, you're not even trying now. Really? ANYTHING from the '80s or early '90s would be his favorite soundtrack. "Hey, what's your favorite soundtrack?" "Oh, I don't know, it's like 'Purple Rain' or 'Weird Science" or 'Amadeus' or 'Electric Bugaloo' or 'Chariots of Fire' or 'Eddie and the Cruisers' or 'Schindler's List,' or, you know, the music from that one with the guy from that thing, you remember?" Plus, what kind of question is that in the first place. Your favorite soundtrack?

Point is: Tiger's life is not any of your business or my business or anyone else's business. And that's cool. That's his right. But, here's the thing: He plays golf. He does commercials. And people still want to know. We want to know because we are invested in him. We won't spend hours and hours on weekends watching the birdie-making computer play golf. We won't buy Cadillacs because the robot drives them. We won't care if he uses the American Express card. We won't point the robot out to our children. We won't put little furry robots on our drivers.

I suppose that Tiger Woods is as good at playing golf as anyone in the world is at doing what they do. He is as good at golf as Springsteen is at performing, as Auster is at writing, as Streep is at acting, as Jobs is at predicting the next big thing. But it's the humanness behind all that that makes him interesting. How does someone get so good at something?

All of which brings us back to the beginning: Earlier this week, word spread that Tiger Woods was in a car accident. At first, I guess, there were all these rumors about it being serious and so on. Soon, though, it became apparent that it was not too serious. And then a few details leaked out. Nobody could be too sure about the details — but the reports said that Woods was out at 2:30 a.m., the one-car accident was near his house, there was no alcohol involved. Weird. Then, more details, apparently his wife Elin was the first to the scene — she heard the accident — and she saved him by pulling him from the car. And then, word emerged that she had pulled him from the car after breaking a back car window with a golf club. Maybe both back car windows. Reports conflicted.

And then, police were asked to come back to talk to Tiger later because he was sleeping. When they came back the next day, they were told to wait another day. When the came back the next day, they were told Tiger was not talking.

Oh yeah — this should probably be mentioned too: There was a report in the National Enquirer just two days earlier — it's the National Enquirer, so you can make your own judgments — that Tiger Woods was caught cheating with a woman the Enquirer so eloquently called "The New York City party girl."* The party girl has denied it, but yeah, that is in the air too.

*I like this part, too, from their follow-up story: 'The Enquirer's blockbuster cover story was verified with polygraphs...' Polygraphs? Really?

To be honest, I don't find much of this too interesting. I can probably piece together in my mind a version of what happened that night. Maybe it's right, maybe it's wrong, but I just tend to make presumptions about 2:30 a.m. car accidents with windows broken by wives swinging golf clubs shortly after the National Enquirer claims the husband had an affair. It's one of my many flaws. Anyway, I try not to make judgments about how people I don't know live their lives. I have enough work to do back home.

What I do find interesting — endlessly interesting — is how Tiger Woods handles this. He has always been able to so carefully control his image. And now, well, this is out of his control. And he knows it. Sure, he can ask for privacy — as he did in a statement on his Web site — but he must know that this is public gruel now. This is the first time in a long time that something big about Tiger Woods has been revealed without Tiger Woods officially endorsing it. And when it comes to the world's greatest golfer, people will grab for something real.

That's the weird part of the media world today. There are voices attacking us from all sides. There is more coverage of sports and politics and entertainment and business and everything else than ever before. But so little of it is real. So little of it has any substance, any meaning. "What's your favorite soundtrack?" "Oh, anything from the '80s or early '90s." Just like that.

Well, here was this moment in Tiger Woods's life, a painful moment, an intensely private moment that ran naked into the public square. Something real. So now what? How will he handle this? What will we learn about him in the process? Will he stick with the wife-saved-him-with-golf-club story? Will he pretend it never happened? Will he sue the National Enquirer? Will he go on Oprah? What does Tiger Woods do when the story gets away from him?

I know I shouldn't — but I'll be following along.

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