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It took years and several affairs, but finally we saw real Tiger

Photo: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Tiger Woods hugged his mother, Tida, after issuing his statement.

This was the Tiger Woods that I wanted to see — not just for the last three months, but for the last 14 years.

This was a real person with real flaws and real failures that he really acknowledged. Tiger has always preferred to sell an image instead of being himself; this was obvious even before he crashed his car last Thanksgiving. Ironically, at the moment when Tiger's image is most at risk, he finally showed us who he is.

He showed some emotional vulnerability. He said he had affairs because he felt "entitled" and "so selfish and so foolish," that "I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to" and lost track of who he was.

This is all true, and you can judge him harshly if you want. But think of how hard that is to say. A lot of us have trouble apologizing to our spouse or our boss when we make a mistake. Think about what it must be like to apologize to the world.

I don't know what else people can ask of the guy. Should his wife, Elin, have been there? I'm sure a lot of people think so. But if you were Elin, and your husband's affairs were broadcast around the world, and "Saturday Night Live" did a skit about you beating up your husband, and your husband went into sex therapy, and (as Tiger seemed to imply) you still don't know if your marriage can work long-term ... well, I think you might feel humiliated enough. Besides, if Elin had shown up, there would have been cracks about standing by her man and what kind of ring he bought her and whether she was there for show. As Tiger said: He created this mess. He is the one who has to deal with it.

Sure, Tiger got prickly, even angry, when he talked about the paparazzi following his daughter to school or people spreading lies about his wife. But you know what? I liked that, too. It appeared genuine. That's how a lot of us would feel.

Tiger can't be an automaton anymore. And that means he is going to get ticked off once in a while, like we all do. He might say dumb things and crack inappropriate jokes in public. I hope he does. It's what humans do.

And this brings us to a little topic of some importance to Tiger: the rest of his life.

In 1996, when Tiger was named SI's Sportsman of the Year, his father, Earl, told the magazine's Gary Smith that "Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity ... he's qualified through his ethnicity to accomplish miracles. He's the bridge between the East and the West. There is no limit because he has the guidance. I don't know yet exactly what form this will take. But he is the Chosen One. He'll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations. The world is just getting a taste of his power."

That was just hype, another layer of myth by the Tiger camp. In retrospect, it was the first public sign that there were two Tigers: the one that Tiger's camp was selling, and the real one. Most of us missed those signs. But they were there.

I don't know if Tiger can do "more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity." That seems like an awfully high bar. But he can do more than he has done. He can speak out against injustice once in a while. His foundation does wonderful work, but Tiger has power that he hasn't used — power that most superstar athletes don't use. If he wants to leave a legacy beyond golf, he has the means and the platform to do it.

This Tiger story got so big — with new allegations every week and everybody on the planet asking, "So what do you think about Tiger?" — that it was easy to forget: This was a sex scandal involving a private citizen. We're not talking about Watergate here, or even an athlete using steroids or an actor evading taxes.

So much of the public reaction was voyeurism masquerading as outrage. But there was a degree of genuine outrage, too, and I don't think it was just because Tiger cheated on his wife. It was because people felt duped, and because Tiger seemed like he didn't care about anybody but himself.

After all, it's not like Tiger had one moment of weakness or even one full-time mistress. He blazed a trail of narcissism from Orlando to Las Vegas and probably around the world.

He thrilled us with his play, but Tiger's on-course demeanor has always been standoffish at best. Caddie Steve Williams is famous for barking at fans. Tiger never stands alongside the putting green and signs autographs. Physically and metaphorically, nobody was allowed to get to close.

I hope the era of two Tigers is over. As he said himself: Words will only take him so far. Elin (and the rest of us) will measure him by his actions. And that's why one of the most interesting things Tiger said was that he hasn't "ruled out" returning to golf this year.

Think about that. Everybody from media analysts to his fellow players has assumed that Tiger will play in the Masters in April, because he is Tiger and it is the Masters. He has prepared for that tournament since he was a toddler. He became truly famous there, in 1997.

The idea that a healthy Tiger Woods would choose to skip the Masters is astounding. But judging from his comments on Friday, that is likely.

Fourteen years after becoming an international phenomenon, Tiger Woods finally introduced himself on Friday.

Hello, world.

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