A Tolerable Redemption for Tiger Woods

Last month, the president awarded Tiger Woods the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The ceremony took place in the White House Rose Garden, a couple of weeks after Woods’s desperately prayed-for win at the Masters golf tournament.

It was a serene afternoon, but people carped, anyway — about Woods’s age (43 isn’t old enough), about his currency (Hello? He’s still playing), about the ethics of it all (He’s in business with the president), about his sense of morality (Tiger, why this White House occupant?). He and the president wore similar blue suits. So even sartorially, the optics didn’t look great.

The culmination of the afternoon — the part you think about when you think about a moment like this, the part that’ll run in the papers and on the sports sites, the part that’s right there in the name of the ceremony — was the medal part.

When it was time for the president to lay it upon its recipient, Woods looked funny, unusually diminutive, as if he were receiving a bib. As the president finished, you could see that something else was off: The ribbon was twisted up right in front, on his left side, like all the belts I see mis-spiraled around dresses and raincoats. It wasn’t the end of the world. But you see something like that, a flub, a blemish, during what, even for the very famous, enormously accomplished folks who tend to get this honor, is one of life’s grander, more photographed experiences, and you think, Why didn’t anybody fix it?

His family was there. So was the first lady. Yet maybe nobody fixed it because everybody was too elated to notice or care. Maybe nobody fixed it because these little dings capture the irony of being Tiger Woods now. And a man famous for using the power of clothes (particularly those red polos on tournament Sundays) to intimidate opponents and forecast victory has, of late, been helpless against the plans that apparel — accessories — have in store for him. I know, I know: They’re just clothes. But they’re also these peeks into a state of mind. Sometimes, as with that ribbon, what you’re wearing can be even more cosmic than that.

He came back. Couldn’t you?

Tiger Woods has been as famous for being on the bottom as for being on top, and for almost as long.

He’s spent a decade as a divorced philanderer with a pill problem and a sex addiction and a rebellious back? The epitome of disciple was now the picture of scandal. His sponsors dumped him. Fans’ jaws dropped. And it all seemed just. And there have been moments when it’s felt as if Woods was luxuriating in the justness, in schadenfreude. Moments like the missing tooth.

Four years ago, Woods traveled to the Italian Alps to watch his girlfriend at the time, Lindsey Vonn, clean up again at skiing’s World Cup. He had recently shot what at the time was his worst round of golf ever, at the Waste Management Phoenix Open (the closest toxicity and golf have gotten to Don DeLillo since “Players”), and it just seemed as if things couldn’t get worse for him in matters of celebrity, sports and accidental psychology.

But then he went to Italy and left the house wearing a knit hat and a half-face mask printed with a skull. Not a snowman. Not an elf. Not a Space Invader. A skull. He went fully aware that his front tooth was gone (something about a cameraman accidentally hitting him and knocking it out). It was an image that seemed funny, sad, maybe self-satirizing or, if you were feeling generous, trolling. Our greatest living golfer had become the secondary villain in a “Fast and Furious” movie.

It’s possible that Woods’s professional comeback also satisfies the curiosity stirring in some of us to know how a tolerable redemption looks right now.

Woods’s transgressions aren’t standard #MeToo material. By his own admission at a dreary, style-free news conference back in 2010, he was a bad husband — but also a bad role model. “Everyone has good reasons to be critical of me,” he said, reading from a script. You could hear shame and discomfort in his voice. You could also just look at the unflatteringly roomy blue shirt he wore that day. It didn’t want to be there, either.

So this year’s renaissance — he is playing again at the United States Open underway in Pebble Beach, Calif. — seemed all the more savory for how morally and medically arduous it probably was. To the extent that the average person was ever able to identify with Woods, it was probably in the extraordinary average-ness of his sin and the borderline biblical work we could see him do to climb his way back.

Who knows? He came back. Couldn’t you?

Staying smooth, and politically silent

It’s also possible that, socially, a newly relevant Tiger Woods promises what the previously infallible version did: this dream of integration for a sport fated, in the United States, to remain largely white; this proof, for people like my granny, of black excellence. Woods, of course, was a stubborn racial hero before his fall. His appearance with the president last month confirms how low-key brazenly he remains one in rebirth.

In the Trump era, the sports-champion White House visit has racially fractured some teams. The Boston Red Sox’ white players accepted an invitation that most of its nonwhite players declined. In his prime, Woods rarely succumbed to pressure, not as a golfer, not as the son of a Thai mother and an African-American father, not as the punch line in a classic “Chappelle’s Show” skit in which Asians and black people argued over who’d get him in the first round of a racial draft.

When Woods was down and things were looking really low, I did find myself wondering where, culturally, he would turn. Would he compose something introspective for The Players’ Tribune about the loneliness of being a black guy on the PGA Tour? Would he go cute, instead, mining for succor, lovability and “likes”? How many “Ellen” visits would he make? Who would tell him how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?

But he didn’t go fuzzy or needy. He seemed to enjoy this macabre bizarro self. His idea of making a splash with the kiddies, for instance, was a tweet, from 2016, of himself shirtless, in black sunglasses, with a bleach-blond goatee, a white wig under a black baseball cap and a face of mild menace. He called this look “Mack Daddy Santa.” (It was more mock-gangsta than that. It was “Tyga Woods.”) We didn’t hear from anybody at the Children’s Television Workshop, but he did say that his kids love it. Woods had, at last, racialized himself — as a joke. But it was a sign of life, another signal that if Woods could no longer be a great golfer, he’d make a terrific heel.

Woods has talked about wanting only to identify as himself, as though the wish, of some, for him to be Muhammad Ali merely reinforced the perception that he was as apolitical and racially agnostic as O.J. Lately, that road of racial independence has run through Donald Trump. Kanye West’s implosive iconoclasm went in tandem with visits to Trump Tower and the White House. And like Woods, he got matchy-matchy for them, too, making his hair as yellow as the president’s.

Woods’s alignment doesn’t have any of West’s folly, turmoil or historical blasphemy. He doesn’t have to declaim, declare or disclaim. As the owner of a Presidential Medal of Freedom (and another green jacket), he can maintain smooth political silence. Maybe he has achieved forgiveness. But that missing tooth, that Santa tweet, that twisted ribbon — they’re all saying, “Don’t forget.”

Wesley Morris is a critic-at-large. He was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his criticism while at the Boston Globe. He has also worked at Grantland, The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Francisco Examiner. @wesley_morris

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