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Shattering of Tiger Woods's carefully constructed public image is grist for gossip, but it's just a sad story

Tiger Woods
Robert Beck/SI
Tiger had crafted an image of domestic bliss with Elin (at the President's Cup, on Oct. 11) until reports in the tabloids broke it down.

When celebrity falls, as Tiger Woods did last week in admitting to certain "transgressions," we rush to the scene, eager for the best view. You know the drill. We scour gossip websites in search of lurid new details. We parse the inevitable public apology. (Was he contrite? Should he have been more specific? Did he write it, did his lawyer?) We become a nation of public-relations experts, debating crisis management strategies with friends on Facebook, in checkout lines, on treadmills at the gym. (He should come clean and get out in front of the story. No, he should stonewall until it blows over. Where should he start his rehab campaign? On 60 Minutes? Oprah? Letterman?)

The shattering of a public image has become an event, a topic of speculation much like the Super Bowl. You can get odds online (3 to 1 as recently as Sunday) on whether Woods's wife, Elin Nordegren, will file for divorce before the end of the year in the wake of the golfer's apparent multiple infidelities. In his mea culpa Woods complained that we want to get too personal with him, that "problems within a family shouldn't have to mean public confessions." Well, yes and no. In many ways our reaction to his situation is terribly impersonal.

Sadness? It's an old-fashioned emotion. Maybe we're too jaded to be sad, having been down this road with other public figures so many times before, with Kobe Bryant, with Alex Rodriguez, with David Letterman, with married politicians who hook up with call girls or take off for, ahem, the "Appalachian Trail." There was a time, when this sort of thing was new to us, that we would have thought more about how sad this story is, about Woods's humiliated wife, about the shame that he almost certainly feels, about how hard it will be to shield their two young children from the fallout. But maybe these days we are more likely to skip all that and, instead, tweet the latest Tiger joke: Have you heard about Woods's new movie? It's called Crouching Tiger, Hidden Hydrant.

PENANCE

The public, of course, knows when it is being sold an image, and we truly aren't averse to that. The problem for Woods is that his carefully cultivated aura — committed family man, ruthlessly disciplined, always in total control — has been exposed as clearly false. Now he has to give us something we can accept as closer to the truth. If he wants to regain anything approaching the high regard the public once had for him, he's going to have to open up to us more — and for a man who named his yacht Privacy, that's going to be harder than winning the U.S. Open on a wrecked knee. While Woods's corporate sponsors had not cut their ties with him at week's end, no doubt aware of the American public's capacity for forgiveness, that support is surely conditional on how well he is able to fix what he has broken.

Just a few months ago Woods was visiting President Obama in the White House, but it's hard to imagine another invitation coming anytime soon. The golf community, well-known for its conservative mien and low tolerance for public indiscretion, will be especially slow to forgive. In short, the world's greatest golfer is used to the public's swoon, but for the first time since he joined the PGA Tour he will feel an awkward chill, anger even, and it will have nothing to do with whether people are still buying Nike gear.

Even some of Woods's friends on the Tour want to hear more from him. "I'd like to see him come on TV and just pour it out a little bit, show what's happened a little bit," says Steve Stricker, Woods's playing partner in the Presidents Cup in October. "I don't know if that will ever happen."

Does Woods owe the public further insight into his private life? Of course not, but this is not about what Woods owes us; it is about what he wants from us going forward. Does he want the same thunderous reception from the gallery as he approaches the 18th hole that he has enjoyed? Does he still want to be admired as a pioneering role model, and not just appreciated as a great golfer? If he cares about those things, he will have to earn them back by being honest with us and revealing at least some of his pain. That is his public penance. The public, in a way, is like the spouse who has been cheated on. If you want to repair the relationship, you need to do more than just say you're sorry — you have to let us look you in the eyes and make our own judgments.

Other celebrity athletes may have committed worse offenses, but no one in recent memory has acted in a manner so at odds with his public persona, and thus fallen so far. Even as he was guarding his privacy, Woods encouraged the tableau of the ultimate family man, the beautiful wife there to embrace him and hand him the beautiful baby after winning another major. Woods seemed charmed — he wasn't just the greatest golfer on the planet, he was classy, dignified, admirable. Even if we're not totally shocked that he isn't perfect, we thought his biggest flaws were along the lines of throwing the occasional club or cursing in range of the microphones.

CIRCUS

Yet there he was on Thanksgiving night, crashing his Cadillac Escalade into a fire hydrant and a tree at 2:30 a.m. outside his house in a gated community outside Orlando. After playing hide-and-seek with Florida Highway Patrol officers for four days, Woods was cited for careless driving and fined $164, closing the police investigation. But the tabloid investigation was just heating up, and soon allegations of extramarital affairs were coming in on almost a daily basis. At least nine women had been romantically linked to Woods by week's end, one claiming to have had an ongoing relationship with him for the last 31 months.

There was also a New York Post report that the Enquirer had obtained photographic evidence of Woods's infidelity in 2007 but had agreed not to make it public in return for his agreeing to pose for the cover of Men's Fitness. (Both publications are owned by American Media.) The Post's source was former Men's Fitness editor-in-chief Neal Boulton. American Media CEO David Pecker told the Post that Boulton's story "is absolutely not true."

Two weeks ago, we would have dismissed such tawdry rumors about Woods as laughably implausible. Not anymore.

SADNESS

What is sadder? Woods's attempt to make his private life look too pristine to be true, or his knowing, deep down, that he was selling a lie? Either way, it's hard to imagine now how anyone could have envied Woods so, given the mostly self-imposed pressure of being seen as Mr. Perfect. "I admire Tiger tremendously," Arnold Palmer once told SI's Michael Bamberger, long before Woods's troubles arose, "but I wouldn't trade my life for his for all the money in the world."

In the digital age there is nothing that does not come to light. Covering up a paper trail is hard enough; erasing an electronic trail is nearly impossible. It was inevitable that Woods's alleged behavior would eventually come out, given the numerous potential sources for a leak — and surely he was smart enough to realize that.

While it's a stretch to say that the prying tabloids and websites did Woods a favor, they will eventually come to his rescue by replacing his scandal in their headlines with someone else's. Just as Manny Ramirez pushed Alex Rodriguez aside on the steroid beat, just as Woods has embarrassed himself more than Letterman in the womanizing arena, so will someone come along to divert attention from Woods.

In the meantime he can't hide forever. Woods will have to come out and face the public, perhaps at the San Diego Open at Torrey Pines in late January, if not before. Who knows how much more detail he will offer up, but he will have to let the public look into his eyes. Maybe there will be genuine sadness in them, and we will feel sorrow for him in return. That might be the best thing for both the star who has been so robotic and for a public always on the lookout for the next falling star. It would remind us that no matter how fascinating or entertaining a scandal might be, it is always a sad story.

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