Assessing Woods, the media and the major themes of Monday’s press conference

A lot of people seemed to see Monday’s Tiger Woods press conference as a chance to learn a little something new about Tiger Woods. If that was the goal, well, I’m usually a bad judge of such things, but I tend to think Tiger did quite well, better than I expected. I don’t know how much of what he said was real and how much of it was scripted only to sound real, and it doesn’t really matter. I have no interest in judging the guy and never have had any interest in judging the guy. For the first time in this whole ridiculous saga, he looked and sounded sincere to me. He made no excuses. He blamed no one else. He did not lash out at anyone. He kept private what he wanted and needed to keep private, but he shared much more of himself than I expected from having written about Tiger Woods for more than 15 years.

I thought there was an especially interesting quote, when someone asked Tiger how he expects to feel when he goes to the first tee on Thursday:

“It feels fun again. You know, that’s something that’s been missing. Have I been winning? Have I been competing? Have I been doing well? Yeah, I have. I’ve won numerous times the last few years, but I wasn’t having anywhere near the amount of fun. Why? Because … look at what I was engaged in. When you live a life where you’re lying all the time, life is not fun. And that’s where I was. Now that’s been stripped away, and here I am. And it feels fun again.”

You can buy it or not buy it — everyone decides for themselves. But to me, well, I liked that guy. I can’t say that I’ve often LIKED Tiger Woods. I admired his game. I appreciated his dedication. I respected the way he went after perfection. And, this is true, I was proud to write about him … proud because he is one of the great sportsmen in American history. He is my sportswriting generation’s Nicklaus, my generation’s Mays, my generation’s Unitas and Ruth and Brown. You don’t get to choose the personality or the accessibility of the great athletes of your time.

Sometimes, Tiger would say something interesting, and other times he would not. Mostly he was dismissive. But he was always interesting as a golfer, whether rebel or establishment, whether shark or fisherman, whether leader or pursuer. He was always interesting because he was so … amazingly … good. I always liked Tiger Woods as a subject. I never liked (or disliked) him as person; I never even suspected he wanted to be liked. Anyway, the Tiger Woods on the podium on Monday, the one who took responsibility for whatever he did and seemed sincere enough about wanting to be a better man … yeah, I liked him. I hope he can get what he wants out of life.

Then again, I never really saw this press conference as being about Tiger Woods — I think we all can more or less piece together the Tiger story. Golfing prodigy. Impossibly successful. Impossibly rich. Impossibly famous. Put up flawless front. Lived a secret life. Believed himself invincible. Got caught. Wants to rebuild. It’s a common story. And this would all be none of our business — this IS none of our business — except that he’s Tiger Woods, and human curiosity is insatiable, and it’s all out there because, as we tell ourselves again and again, perhaps to make ourselves feel better, “Times have changed.”

Maybe times have changed. But I thought that in a larger sense Monday’s press conference was not about Tiger Woods … it was about those times. It was about the media. It was about the audience. Because, let’s face it, we all knew more or less what Tiger was going to say. As mentioned, I thought he seemed more introspective than I expected, but not much. He was going to say he was sorry, and he was happy to be back playing, and he had let his life get out of control, and he hoped to be a better man. He was going to give a few details about the Galea situation because he needs to end any HGH talk, and he was going to talk about how he’s changed and how he hopes to keep changing. That’s what we expected. That’s how it went. That was pretty much how it had to go.

But Tiger isn’t the only one on trial here. No, we are on trial too, right? We are on trial because for the first time, the media — both mainstream and the non-mainstream — has taken down a truly dominant athlete and shattered him not because he’s a criminal, not because he’s someone who played the game unfairly or endangered people’s lives or illegally recruited athletes or messed with his or her sport’s integrity. No. Instead, Tiger Woods was exposed as a man who lived a wild life and cheated on his wife.

And let’s face it, most of the people, in fact just about all of the people, who actually reported the various Tiger stories — TMZ, the National Enquirer, US Weekly, the various tabloids — were not in this room. These were sportswriters. And they came at this story from all sides. Some were involved in writing the Tiger Woods stories, and some were not. Some commented, some did not. Some were harsh and judgmental and some defended him and some did not particularly care about any of it. Some relished the story and some miserably wrote it because they had to do so and some avoided the thing altogether. And no doubt, some — more than some? — have had their own personal regrets that they are plenty happy to not have splashed on the cover of the National Enquirer.

So how would we as media handle this thing? Well, I’m not a media critic, but it seemed to me that it was actually pretty good. The questions sounded pretty respectful, but pointed enough. I did not think anyone hit below the belt or came across as absurdly judgmental. I suspect some will think it should have been harder-hitting and others will think it was absurdly moralistic to start with, but as these things go, I thought the questions were mostly pretty sound.

To me, the questions broke down into 12 general categories.

1. Questions about how he was able to live that life (and still win golf tournaments): 6 questions.
— This clearly seemed to be the No. 1 thought on the mind of the media members… which is good because I think this is probably the No. 1 question on the mind of the people who actually care about this story. Why did he do it? How did he do it? How did he think he would get away with it? And with his life a steady stream of heated texts and secret rendezvous and lies, how did he continue to win golf tournaments through it all? Tiger was pretty strong on this topic — he won because he’s a good golfer, and he did it all because he could, because he was Tiger Woods, because he could get away with just about anything, and because he told himself it was OK.

2. Questions about Galea and various drugs: 5 questions.
— These were mandatory questions in our era of performance-enhancing drug suspicions — and because everyone knows that if it was found that Tiger DID use a PED of any kind, his entire golf legacy is shattered. Tiger said he never used any illegal drug, ever, not even non-performance-enhancers, and said that he worked with Galea because he had worked with many athletes. At best, associating with Galea was a very big miscalculation by a team that should not make those sorts of miscalculations.

3. Questions about golf this week: 5 questions.
— This is much more in our wheelhouse… back on solid sports ground. Questions about Tiger’s game — he does not know exactly what to expect, but he intends to try and win.

4. Questions about his rehab: 4 questions.
— I’m not entirely sure why Tiger Woods refuses to say that he attended sex therapy rehab when everyone seems to know that’s the case. Maybe keeping that secret is part of the therapy. Whatever, this created a couple of the more testy moments in the press conference and also a touching one, at least for me, when Tiger talked about the regret he has for being in rehab and missing his son’s 1-year-old birthday. I suspect that will hit people differently, but a couple of years ago, I missed Halloween and taking my kids trick-or-treating. It just feels lousy to miss things that you can never get back. I made myself a promise that I would never miss it again, not ever, not until they were too old to trick-or-treat. Tiger apparently made himself the same promise about his kids’ birthdays.

5. Questions about why he didn’t talk sooner: 4 questions.
— I didn’t particularly care for these questions — Tiger said he wasn’t in the right frame of mind to hold a press conference earlier, and I buy that. Anyway, it’s his life, and while I understand that he probably had to answer questions in order to get back to golf (and to reshape his life, if that’s indeed his intention), I don’t think he OWED media folks any answers about any of this.

6. Questions about his knee injuries: 4 questions.
— A lot of talk about Tiger’s knees. Apparently they’re doing fine except when it’s about to rain.

7. Questions about his family: 4 questions.
— Touchy topic… Elin is not coming, and that’s all Tiger was going to say about that. It occurs to me that Tiger is really trying to do something here that has never been attempted by an athlete. He is trying to save a marriage and keep his family together WHILE being in a media hailstorm. I suspect that “Casablanca” might have ended differently, too, if media members were constantly badgering Ingrid Bergman about what REALLY happened in Paris and what she REALLY thought about Victor Laszlo and what REALLY went on that night with Rick up in the office.

8. Questions about new perspective: 4.
— Tiger says he plans to try and respect the game more. He knows that winning isn’t as important, though of course he will keep trying to do it. And so on. Good lines of questioning and interesting responses, this is the one thing that I suspect will endure in the public eye. How will all this affect Tiger Woods the golfer? Will we notice a difference in his public persona? Will he occasionally smile and wave to a little kid in the crowd? Is it that hard?

9. Questions about how he has been handling things: 3 questions.
— Along the same lines as the first line of questioning — nothing too revealing or intrusive here.

10. Questions about the night when he got into the car wreck: 3.
— Apparently people keep asking even though they know that Tiger isn’t going to say anything more. Well, he did reveal his injuries; he needed five stitches for his lip.

11. Questions about his management team, sponsors and caddie: 3.
— Insider stuff. I’m a touch surprised that Tiger’s sticking with his entire management team, but it actually speaks pretty well of him… he seems sincere about blaming only himself.

12. Questions about the Ryder Cup: 2.
— These two questions were, um, odd, but Tiger says he will play for the Ryder Cup if he qualifies.

All in all, I think, it was a pretty decent performance by everyone involved. Tiger talked about how he is really looking forward to teeing off on Thursday… I think we’re all looking forward to that. This isn’t going away, of course, but for now it would be nice to say: Enough questions. Enough answers. Let’s play golf.