|"""....At the end of Up in the Air, Clooney realizes the error of his ways, that a life shielding human emotion is not worth living, that not everything can be controlled or should be controlled...."""|
COVER STORY Tiger in the Rough
When Tiger Woods finally fell from his pedestal—the car crash, the angry wife, the tales of kinky extramarital sex, the link to a controversial sports doctor—it was one of the greatest recorded drops in popularity of any nonpolitical figure. Given Woods’s impenetrable mask of perfection, and the hints of trouble from one strange glimpse behind it, the revelations were inevitable and very, very costly. Annie Leibovitz catches the icon, pre-scandal, in prophetic isolation, while the author finds the clues in the wreckage.
By Buzz Bissinger Photographs by Annie Leibovitz February 2010
Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.
It wasn’t until after the early-morning hours of November 27—when Tiger Woods got into his Cadillac Escalade closely trailed by a golf club carried by his likely very furious wife, drove his car far less distance than he putts a golf ball, and hit a fire hydrant—that the tens of millions of us who admired him suddenly came to a realization: this was the first time we had ever seen him do something human, except perhaps for when, at the Buick Open last year, he was caught on video shaking his leg, apparently farting, and then grinning like a frat boy.
We know all too well the unraveling that has gone on since the crash. Tiger’s little car ride was as pregnant with imminent implosion as the one taken by another sports celebrity on the San Diego Freeway, followed by a convoy of Los Angeles police cars, in 1994. Tiger’s story has been driven by sex, tons of it, in allegedly all different varieties: threesomes in which he greatly enjoyed girl-on-girl, and mild S&M (featuring hair-pulling and spanking); $60,000 pay-for-sex escort dates; a quickie against the side of a car in a church parking lot; a preference for porn stars and nightclub waitresses, virtually all of them with lips almost as thick as their very full breasts; drug-bolstered encounters designed to make him even more of a conquistador (Ambien, of all things); immature sex-text messages (“Send me something naughty ... Go to the bathroom and take [a picture],” “I will wear you out ... When was the last time you got [laid]?”); soulful confessions that he got married only for image and was bored with his wife; regular payments of between $5,000 and $10,000 each month to keep his harem quiet. It’s all there and more in what is the greatest single fall in popularity of a nonpolitician in the history of public-opinion surveys: a drop in approval from 87 percent in 2005 to 33 percent, with an unfavorable rating of 57 percent, according to a recent USA Today/Gallup poll.
But why? When soccer player David Beckham was rumored to have been in sexual trouble, it may have been disappointing to his fans, but it was hardly surprising. Beckham just had the look of someone who was born to screw around. The same with Alex Rodriguez. The same with Kobe Bryant. (Is there a player in pro basketball who doesn’t screw around?) The same also with Bill Clinton and John Edwards and David Duchovny and Colorado minister Ted Haggard.
But not Tiger Woods. In an age of constant gotcha and exposure, he had always been the bionic man in terms of personality, controlling to a fault and controlled to a fault, smiling with humility and showing those pearly white teeth in victory or defeat, sui generis in the world of pro golf, where even fellow pros and other insiders didn’t really know him, because he didn’t want anybody to know him. With Woods, everything was crafted to produce a man of nothing, with no interior—non-threatening and non-controversial.
I’m aware if I’m playing at my best I’m tough to beat ...
It will always be the ball and me ...
No matter how good you get you can always get better ...
My main focus is on my game ...
That was Tiger Woods, all of which made him the perfect man and pitchman for our imperfect times, a charming nonperson.
In the movie Up in the Air, George Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, travels nearly 330 days a year to fire people with a sympathetic look on his face. He lives his life in airports, and his very emptiness, masked by calculated caring and aphorisms, makes him effective. So it was with Woods, making millions of dollars for endorsing a consulting company called Accenture with smooth and sophisticated ads emphasizing the noble but totally nebulous concept of “high performance.”
But even Ryan Bingham is ultimately no match for Woods. “To know me is to fly with me,” Bingham says at one point, and there is truth in that. But there was no way of ever knowing Tiger Woods—not in golf, beyond witnessing the machine-like relentlessness that made him the most remarkable athlete of our time, and not outside of golf, because he never showed any real part of himself off the course, never stepping outside of the cocoon that he and his handlers, primarily International Management Group, had created. Nothing was left to chance, not even his wardrobe during major tournaments, a careful mix of dark pants and golf shirt and hat picked out in consultation with Nike. He had the trappings of a life: a beautiful blonde wife, Elin Nordegren, who was a former Swedish model; a little boy and a little girl; an obligatory mansion in Florida, outside Orlando. But so much of it now seems like requisite window dressing, props for the further crafting of image and garnering of those hundreds of millions of dollars in endorsements—Nike, Gillette, Gatorade, Tag Heuer, AT&T. It now seems that when he returned home after a tournament and vanished back inside his gated community, the persona he left behind, the one he so obsessively presented to the public, was as empty as Bingham’s Omaha apartment, pieces of furniture without any meaning, a life without meaning.
There was no way of ever knowing Tiger Woods—beyond witnessing the machine-like relentlessness that made him remarkable.At the end of Up in the Air, Clooney realizes the error of his ways, that a life shielding human emotion is not worth living, that not everything can be controlled or should be controlled. But Woods, to the bitter end and with a kind of hubris that revealed his fundamental arrogance, still felt he could beat the tidal wave back. When he was taken to the hospital for injuries, a fake name was used. When the highway patrol came knocking, he refused to speak to them for three straight days. It was only when his paramours started pouring out of every cupboard like tenement cockroaches that Tiger expressed some sort of awareness that he was in deep shit, though he did not do so in person but on his Web site. He must have thought the merest acknowledgment of impropriety would be some type of antidote: he was Tiger. For the second time in his life he badly estimated, just as he had a few days earlier when he apparently thought that most fans would accept the story that his wife had a golf club in hand to free him from his Escalade instead of trying to beat the hell out of him for his infidelity. Once again it was sheer arrogance from a 33-year-old man—not “a kid,” as his I.M.G. agent, Mark Steinberg, still idiotically calls him—who continued to think he could fool the world.
There was once, in fact, a sustained glimpse of the real Tiger Woods. In 1997, Charles Pierce, writing for GQ, got inside. Tiger was 21 at the time, on the eve of winning his first of four Masters. For somebody who at the age of two had appeared on The Mike Douglas Show (where, with a perfect swing, he miraculously hit a stunning shot into the center of a net), he seemed remarkably naïve and remarkably stupid about the ways of the media. The interview was largely a series of profane quips by Tiger, such as “What I can’t figure out is why so many good-looking women hang around baseball and basketball. Is it because, you know, people always say that, like, black guys have big dicks?” At another moment, during a photo shoot where four women attended to his every need and flirted with him as he flirted back, he told a joke: He rubbed the tips of his shoes together and then asked the women, “What’s this?” They were stumped. “It’s a black guy taking off his condom.”
There came another joke about why two lesbians always get to where they are going faster than two gay guys: because the lesbians are always going 69. Pierce’s interview, which he taped, was the only honest and open one Woods has ever given. After that the steel wall of insulation came down, spearheaded by I.M.G.
Joe Logan, who covered golf and the P.G.A. tour for 14 years for The Philadelphia Inquirer and saw Woods play close to a hundred times, invariably observed the same thing whenever Tiger appeared at a press conference during a tournament: he came into the room with an entourage that included several security officials from the P.G.A., Mark Steinberg, and often Nordegren, after they got married in 2004. An almost imperceptible nod would come from Steinberg to begin, and a half-hour of questions and answers would start. Some pro golfers, such as Phil Mickelson, wear their hearts on their sleeves during these sessions. Mickelson could talk candidly about his game and the impact of his wife’s having breast cancer. He could also be snarky and pissy. Never Tiger.