On the face of it, Tiger Woods winning the Masters at Augusta, Georgia, makes for an unlikely underdog tale. After all, as early as 1997, as a 21-year-old with only a year’s experience on the professional circuit, young Tiger became the No 1 golfer in the world. In 1997, when he won his first Masters, his father stood beside him. At 43, when he won his fifth after 11 years without a major title, he had his children at his side. But the hurdles that arguably the greatest golfer of the 21st century has had to overcome are not merely physical or even psychological. Woods’ there-and-back-again narrative of triumph is also the story of the complexities of celebrity, of the cocktail consumerism and puritanism that have become such a major part of sporting celebrity.
In 2009, Woods took a voluntary sabbatical from professional golf due to injuries. The announcement also came on the heels of revelations about a series of extra-marital affairs and, following that, a tumultuous period in his marriage. For a sporting figure as iconic as Woods, his personal life had a professional — and financial — fallout. The shareholder cost of Woods’ personal life has been pegged at over $5 billion. Woods’ injuries may have had a lot to do with the slump in his career. But his extra-marital transgressions are what hurt his image.
The culture of celebrity in contemporary America, and much of the world, including India, seems to revel in hyperbole. Half-black, half-Asian Buddhist Woods was a hero as much for his background as his dazzling play on the course. His fall, too, was not seen as a human failing but an almost professional betrayal, at least going by the sponsors. And now, he is Tiger once again — celebrated by Donald Trump and Barack Obama, Serena Williams and Kobe Bryant. In sports, it seems, as in much of public life, it is the politics of perception that builds people up and brings them down.