Tiger Woods: Tiger, Tiger, Hitting Bottom

Jun 05, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

Here is what we know about Tiger Woods. We know that he has routinely vaporized whole fields of competition. We know that he can strike the golf ball with a kind of violent integrity bordering on inhuman grace. We know that he has, in the decade and half he has been involved in the spectacle that is professional sports, bounded closer, closer, closer to breaking a record that none believed would ever fall, Jack Nicklaus' 18 majors. We know that Tiger Woods has made the putts when making the putts truly counted. We know that Tiger Woods has won at least one U.S. Open while competing on what amounted to a broken leg. We know that he is special.

But we also know that Tiger Woods is capable of monstrously distorted conduct. There is Jekyll. There is Hyde. There is Tiger. We know that he gave a press conference on Monday at Augusta National, home of the Masters, Tiger's first major, which he won by a record margin in 1997, and has won a total of four times. We know that Augusta, created by Bobby Jones, is to golf what Chartres is to faith: a place where a kind of worship can occur, where Sundays can achieve an epic aspect. We know why Tiger chose it as the place to begin his recovery.

We know that this was his first press conference since last year, when he apparently got into a domestic fracas with his wife and was (maybe) chased from his Florida home, into his Cadillac Escalade, and while attempting a barefoot and perhaps not-entirely-unmedicated escape, crashed into a tree and a fire hydrant. We know that after this accident, he was revealed to be a probable sex addict, a remorseless connoisseur of the ladies, a serial adulterer who claimed that as he was propelling himself from feat to feat on the golf course, he was also leading a dispiriting secret life of rushed trysts in costly Las Vegas hotel suites, and in cars, and on floors.

We know that Tiger Woods has now pledged to be a better man. We know he wants us to trust him again, to invest in him our trust, but he perhaps also knows that his transgressions, human oh-so human as they may be, are so huge that this will be impossible. And so he has grimly refocused himself on what he needs to do and what he needs to say. We know he is, in the public eye, a disciplined person. We should therefore expect nothing less than terrifying discipline.

But we also know that the he will never be the same. In this we know that there is perhaps hope in this, that there is inside all the canned things he has said since the scandal broke a shard or two of fear and suffering. He has been to rehab and we know he has been to rehab because he has said, I've been to rehab. We know that Tiger Woods, who glimpsed his heights, has now experienced his bottom. We know we should believe him on this one. Because we know that while he may still be lying, lying, lying about the circumstances of his fall and his intentions for the future, he's probably telling the truth when its comes the wretched place he has visited, in the dark cellar of his sad, sad soul. He doesn't look like he's enjoying the climb out. And he shouldn't. He missed his tiny son's first birthday (rehab). Even a heartless sports-marketing automaton would have a tough time with that.

We know that Tiger Woods is now a man of explicit promises, rather than evident greatness. We know that his story is now two stories: the legend of who he is when he competes; and the tale of his personal rehabilitation. We don't ultimately know, or care, if he will succeed. It's safe to assume that he will win golf tournaments again, but really, who's interested in that? Winning will be nice for him, but we know that it won't represent any kind of redemption. It will just happen. And when he's finished winning again, he will still be a shattered individual grappling daily with his bleak demons. We know that this is why we want to extend him our collective sympathy.

We know that Tiger Woods is not alone in this, but at times now, he is utterly alone. He admitted as much when he said that his wife and children would not be coming to Augusta to watch him reclaim what he knew of his glory. He admitted as much when he confessed that he now meditates as he once did, and if you've ever meditated, you know what a stark and lonely yet essential thing it is to guide your inner self. It is a profound challenge. Because we know that Tiger Woods wants to be welcomed back into the competitive fold. But we also know that if he believes in the hard, hard path he has set out for himself, his tournament play will constitute a cheerless interlude between bouts of tying to free himself from the agony of an addiction. The meditation will eventually become more vital than the golf.

We know that Tiger Woods' current and future corporate sponsors will look at him and see this struggle. I have argued at Slate's The Big Money that they may have seen this struggle already. They may be able to work with it. But the narrative of what they knew about Tiger Woods has changed. What was almost instantly luminous, bright with good, is now painted with badness. You could argue that we all somehow knew we would be led here by Tiger Woods. The platitudes and glad words about his return will rain from the sky over the next week and into the weekend. But what the media don't see yet is that Tiger Woods has become a divided entity. We know that Tiger is doing what he must do to restore meaning to who he is. But we also know that Tiger Woods is practically having an out-of-body experience whenever he presents himself to the public. Because in genuinely tragic fashion, we know what we know about Tiger Woods, but it's abundantly clear that Tiger Woods doesn't know what he used to know about himself. He is new. He is utterly and unbearably new.

This is not going to be easy for anyone.