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Is Tiger Woods buckling under the weight of his own fame?

Tiger Woods
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Photographers shoot Tiger Woods during the second round of the 2012 Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St Annes Golf Club.

The first time I interviewed Tiger Woods was like a trip to the dentist: One guy did all the talking, the other sounded like he was in a whole lot of pain. It was a phone call in 1998, and I was sitting in my office at Sports Illustrated, thinking maybe Woods was just having a bad day. We were supposed to be talking about his first video game with EA Sports, which seemed like the type of thing a kid his age (22) might be happy to talk about, but he sounded like he’d rather be doing something more fun, like cleaning the dirt out of his wedges. If I’d been smarter I would have seen that this unanticipated intransigence was going to be the new normal, and that it was going to be a problem. Because somewhere deep inside, Woods, already hugely famous after winning the 1997 Masters, didn’t want to be famous at all.

The news that Woods will miss the 2014 Masters after undergoing back surgery in Park City, Utah, on Monday, has reminded us of his various physical ailments through the years, the four operations on his left knee, the ruptured Achilles tendons, the neck issues. But that’s not what I keep thinking about. Maybe I should blame Halle Berry and Jennifer Garner, who recently urged California lawmakers to prevent paparazzi from freely stalking celebrities and their children. Or I should blame Oprah and her TV intervention with Lindsay Lohan. Or I should blame Gary Smith, the SI writer who in his 1996 Sportsman of the Year article on Woods wrote of the upcoming battle between Woods and the ruthless, unstoppable machinery of celebrity worship. Or I should blame Jaime Diaz, who in interviewing a 14-year-old Woods for Golf Digest got the quote that should be on his tombstone: “Why do they have to know so much?” Because what I’m thinking about is not how many points “microdiscectomy” would be worth in Scrabble, but the idea that Woods’ back and his career ultimately buckled under the weight of his fame.

The easy part of this column has already been written, circa late 2009 and 2010. It goes like this: Woods made a Faustian bargain with himself in regards to his fame, namely that if he was going to be blindingly famous, he was going to at least get something out of it. (Something, that is, in addition to endorsement riches.) He went out and got that additional something, or it came to him, and that additional something had a fake tan and limited career prospects and wanted more than Woods could give, and the uneasy arrangement collapsed, and Woods paid with his marriage, his endorsements, (some) fans, and we can only guess what else.

The hard part of this column is the argument that Woods’ other big career-wrecker, his injuries, is also somehow tied up with the corrosive effects of fame. No one really knows why a guy gets injured. Some of it is just lousy luck. Jim Litke of the Associated Press compares Woods to Mickey Mantle, whose body also broke down, also prematurely curtailing the career of a legend. But, Litke adds, the iconic Yankee “contributed to his own demise as a ballplayer by staying out late too many nights, something to which Woods has already pleaded guilty.”

I don’t know why Woods’ body fell apart, but I suspect that his longstanding obsession with weightlifting at least accelerated his deterioration. That’s not my theory -- if it’s anyone’s, it’s Hank Haney’s. Woods’ old coach has been saying Woods overdid it with the weightlifting for a while now. And his assertion has only grown more credible with every passing injury to Woods, to the point where another oft-injured Tour pro, Golf Channel analyst Arron Oberholser, tweeted earlier this week, “I believe there is such a thing as over training ones body for any endeavor. I’m a victim of it myself. I believe Tiger is too. #bummer.”

The question I keep coming back to is why Woods did it, why he over-trained. And the answer I keep coming back to is his fame. Painfully uneasy in the public eye, he consciously or unconsciously built a suit of armor around himself. He added layer upon layer of muscle to the point where something in him must have believed that to all those cameras, all those prying eyes, he would be bulletproof, unassailable.

That’s armchair psychology, to be sure, and working out helped him, too. It made his Nike golf shirts fall just so over his shoulders. It allowed him to more fully leverage his fame with women, men and Fortune 500 companies. It gave him something to talk about with his jock friends Derek Jeter and Michael Jordan. Perhaps Woods simply enjoyed the exercise, as his friend and old Stanford teammate Notah Begay III asserted earlier this week. And Woods no doubt felt a kinship with his Vietnam veteran father Earl by training with the Navy SEALs.

But I keep coming back to the fame thing -- and Lohan and Justin Bieber and Michael Jackson and seemingly every child star you’ve ever heard of, including Woods. Something about all that unrelenting attention compels them to start altering their bodies and their minds or both, and they don’t know when to stop.

I hope Tiger Woods comes back. I hope that like Canadian Graham DeLaet he is transformed and revived by this operation. But no matter what happens going forward Woods is further proof that fame rarely spares the famous. As with sunshine, a little is nice, but too much will kill you. SI’s Smith wrote in 1996, “The machine will win because it has no mind. It flattens even as it lifts, trivializes even as it exalts, spreads a man so wide and thin that he becomes margarine soon enough.”

We keep waiting for Woods to get up off the mat, but maybe the fight is really over. Maybe, after an epic brawl that covered two decades, the machine finally won.

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