Go with a smile!

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Tiger Woods

Well, here it is, the infamous and extremely controversial Tiger advertisement.

When was the first I had heard of all this? There was a news item where Elin Nordegren used a golf club to “help” Tiger Woods out of a car. I thought, “that’s so cute. This is what marital bliss is like”. Well I was wrong.

Let’s not talk about that long list of porn stars / waitresses / neighbours’ daughters who claim to have had sex with / been semi-raped by Tiger Woods. This is the one man who can make Bill Clinton look like a virgin.

He had shot into the limelight in 1997 when he was one of the youngest to win a Master’s. Then, he was the talented kid. And after that, some people make that transition from tomorrow’s great hope into a great champion, even though we know many didn’t. There was a lot of pride among the Thais, when we found out that he was half Thai and half black. He was probably one of the first famous black golfers, playing a sport that had been mostly associated with white people, the way that Jimi Hendrix was one of the few famous rock guitarists among a mostly white population. For a brief, shining moment, it seemed as though anything was possible, that if he could reach the top, anybody could.

I suppose we can always admire a person who’s a champion. But what really makes a champion a champion? Granted, he has great mental strength. But is that an inborn talent, or something acquired through effort? It’s hard to say. There are millions of golfers out there, but only one Tiger Woods. His focus and his mental strength are legendary. There are times when some people will be ahead of him in the middle of the tournament, and he will come from behind and catch up, hitting incredibly low scores in the last 18 holes. Then there was the period when he had to fade out for 1 or 2 years – he had to learn a new stroke, because the stroke he started off with placed a very high strain on his back. This was a risky move because it could have ended his career – it didn’t. After allowing Vijay Singh to be the top earner in prize money for 1 (or 2?) years, he came back again.

We don’t see a golfer like Tiger Woods much – I don’t think that anybody dominates any sport so completely as he dominates golf. And golf is unlike most competitive sports, where you have around 10-20 years, and then you go downhill just because of old age. People who are good at golf can go on for a long long time.

But even before the sex scandals hit, we knew that he had a dark side. He was brooding and quiet. We saw that nasty scowl when things didn’t go his way. But we could always put it down to – nobody is as tough on himself as Tiger Woods is. He was focused on winning to the point of being selfish.

And when he won, he always kept himself locked up in a bubble. He didn’t talk to many people, or get involved in many community projects. He didn’t give his money away. I think the Thais got sick of him after a while. They saw him earning a lot of money through a company (Nike) who exploited 3rd world labour. In this respect, he was similar to Michael Jordan. Even though black people saw him as a shining beacon of what it was possible for a black person to achieve, he didn’t really have much in common with the common black brother. He was asked to comment on 9/11 and he basically talked about what he did on that day, rather than give a heartfelt speech about the terrorist tragedy. I think in a way, all these people steered clear of controversy so that they could continue making bland, impersonal product endorsements.

Time was when you could have sports champions with big personalities. You used to have big mouths like Muhammad Ali or Maradona or John McEnroe, who were every bit as entertaining opening their big mouths as they were playing their sport.

But these days, for some reason the great majority of athletes are told to shut their mouths, if they wanted to continue their lucrative sponsorship deals. You had to have the right image if you wanted to sell products to people. Thus, 3 of the biggest product endorsers in sports – David Beckham, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods ended up spouting platitudes, saying nothing other than the most obvious things. They had to be handsome, well groomed, and seen to be family men.

Well the irony was that David Beckham and Michael Jordan were shown to be adulterers. David Beckham is back with Victoria, and he managed to save his marriage. Probably the fact that his brand name was so closely associated with his wife’s made it rather difficult for a divorce to take place. Michael Jordan didn’t manage to save his marriage. And this brings us back to Tiger Woods.

We knew that he wasn’t a saint. And a lot of people could forgive him for being grumpy. But being a serial sex maniac was probably something that shocked a lot of people, and his star has fallen. It’s okay to be a grouch if your own morals are impeccable but he’s starting to look like a big asshole. We think of certain people who were great sportsmen but unsavoury characters – Ty Cobb, the great baseball player comes to mind.

Tiger Woods could be said to be out of touch with reality. From a young age, he had had a cocooned existence, surrounded by minders, who answered to his every whim. As the scandal unfolded you had to admire the work of this army of people who was able to keep the public in the dark about so many mistresses. But you also got reminded that Tiger Woods had iron discipline.

You somehow saw all this as a product of his lifestyle. The incredible wealth, the endless touring and training, and time spent away from his family. All this, as well as the loneliness of always being surrounded by people but not necessarily his friends. I got reminded of something else I read about Michael Jordon – other than his intense competitiveness, he was an inveterate gambler, and sometimes used to go to bars, where he would pick up ladies and have his way with them. He was also fond of playing games with many of his friends, and not allow them to end until he finally won. A bit of a decadent lifestyle.

So Tiger Woods had to make a choice – what did he want, did he want his old life back, or did he want his wife? He apologised to his wife, who pointedly did not attend the press conference where he read out his apology statement. I think she realised that he was going to have to choose between her and everything else. There was some tentativeness to the whole issue – they weren’t totally comfortable with the divorce, because of the kids. But she was demanding that he gave up golf – at least, give it up for long enough for her to be happy.

Then, in the end, came that infamous advertisement, which will probably be one of the most controversial advertisements of all time.

Some people felt that it was a "brilliant" advertisement. In a way, yes. How do you capitalise on one of your star assets being disgraced in so public a manner? Just tell the truth. One of the big stories in the Tiger brand is the stern but loving father who raised one of the great champions. The ghostly voice is Earl Woods' own. It may have been taken out of context, but the essential truth is there: that is exactly how he would have counseled Tiger Woods. Great advertisements arise out of truth, and this was the truth. Or was it?

Except: first, it's in rather bad taste to trolley out a dead person to do some talking for you, especially if he's talking for a person whose reputation has been disgraces.

Second, the messages are mixed. I don't think that David Beckham or Michael Jordan has ever had to confront marital infidelity in this way. I don't think they had to do that in the form of an advertisement. They would have hidden away and let the storm tide over.

Tiger is different. Nobody really thinks of him as a lothario. He's black but he's not the stereotypical badass. His work ethic is more Asian. You normally think of him as the stereotypical Capricorn: always working, always striving, always winning, and in some senses, a family man. But this is one of the most stunning and swiftest collapses in reputation we've seen of late. Most people going from hero to zero are much more well known as a zero (Madoff) or as a hero (Muhammad Ali). Tiger is well known as both. No doubt, the fall is part of the story.

But what is the meaning of parading the shamefulness of it all? How is it shame when you're putting it up on every TV, every youtube account?

And when you see that advertisement, all the old questions come up. Is this a man ashamed of himself? Is this a man who is apologising to the public? Or is this a chronicle of a man coming to terms with his path towards redemption? More importantly, when Earl Woods asks "Did you learn anything?" Is he berating his son for hurting those close to him, or his he berating him for being stupid?

The last and most important reason why this advertisement is probably offensive: what are the ulterior motives? Nike desperately trying to find a way to flog more mileage from their fallen star before deciding whether or not to renew his contract? Tiger desperately trying to shore up himself as a marketable image?

No wonder Elin Nordegren was so offended. Like it was all about Tiger Woods. That the first thing he wanted to rescue from the wreckage was not his wife and family. The first thing was the sponsorship deal. Then after that, his golf career (disregarding her wishes for him to spend time away from golf). And his family as an afterthought.

Well - you can't really blame a guy for wanting to have his life back.

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