Column: Tiger Woods on the Good Ship Privacy

Golf star can't be surprised by spotlight on his actions
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

From the day Tiger Woods was born, his parents groomed him to become the best golfer in the world.

Incredibly, it worked. Woods’s uncommon ability to hit a golf ball landed him on the Mike Douglas show – when he was two. He got his first hole in one at six, and two years later he won his first international tournament. Tiger Woods has been the best golfer in the world for his age every year of his life.

Woods’s unequaled ambition also earned him a few bucks – about a hundred million of them last year alone, almost all of it from endorsements.

Perhaps more surprising, the guy seems normal. He’s got brains – he went to Stanford – he has a sense of humor, friends, a beautiful wife and two kids. If anyone had it all, it was Tiger Woods.

And that’s why the stories this week about marital fights and car accidents and affairs with California cocktail waitresses are so surprising. Not that such things are unusual among athletes. On that scale, the week’s events barely wiggled the Richter scale. What – no drugs, no guns, no bankruptcy, or no dog fights? You call that a scandal?

No, the stunning thing is that it all happened to Tiger Woods – the single most self-disciplined man in sports. Before this, his only apparent vice was swearing after a bad shot. And if that’s a sin, every golfer is going to hell.

But there he was, zipping out of his Florida mansion at two in the morning, with no shoes on, with his gorgeous wife chasing after him with a two-iron. When Tiger ran his car into a tree, she caught up to him – and proceeded to hack at the windows, with a complete disregard for basic golf etiquette.

Now, one of my favorite things about American society is our ability to turn any horrible situation into a half-dozen one liners by Tuesday. What’s the difference between a car and a golf ball? Tiger Woods can drive a golf ball 300 yards.

I imagine neither Woods nor his wife are laughing right now. There are some serious issues here, starting with privacy. The unwritten code among sports writers is this: If an affair is between consenting adults, no one reports it. Take Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, whose private lives didn’t become public until other factors made them impossible to ignore. Tiger Woods would probably get the same treatment – but once the police got involved, the story changed.

Woods often gets in trouble on the golf course because he takes so many chances. But when he does, he displays perhaps his greatest skill: an uncanny knack for getting out of trouble quickly. Tiger Woods, the man, did exactly the opposite, taking a bad situation and making it much worse.

Whenever a celebrity screws up, his lawyers invariably tell him to keep his mouth shut – not realizing that the courts are the least of his problems. His case will be tried on ESPN every hour on the hour, and silence only breeds suspicion – and interest. As a character on the Simpsons said: “What is your fascination with my forbidden closet of mystery?” What, indeed.

But Woods’s “apology statement” was even worse, less concerned with apologizing to his family than venting about the media. Woods values his privacy so much that he bought a $20 million yacht, and named it, “Privacy.” But it wasn’t privacy that paid for that boat – it was publicity. Lots of it. And you’d have to be pretty naïve or dumb – and Woods ain’t either – to think you can direct the spotlight to shine only on your good sides.

Woods seems to have gotten about what he deserved: a public embarrassment, though perhaps not as bad as his wife’s, who did nothing to deserve it. But Woods will recover, the money will keep flowing, and he’ll sail off on the good ship Privacy – though he might consider renaming it.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.


  1. By ArborJack
    December 5, 2009 at 11:06 am | permalink

    Golf is ostentation; too back Americans have such a strong attachment to it.

  2. By Jim and Angela George
    December 5, 2009 at 12:45 pm | permalink

    Well written and thoughtful article, John. We don’t usually pay much attention to sports stories, but this is a first rate human interest story, and you nailed it.

  3. By Sarah Prince
    December 5, 2009 at 1:15 pm | permalink

    I agree with the Georges. I’m not a sports enthusiast, but I always enjoy Bacon’s work, whether or not I agree with him. I have also always liked Tiger and couldn’t avoid hearing that *something* had happened (I did avoid seeking out info, though). Glad I waited it out. I still like Tiger.

  4. December 5, 2009 at 2:11 pm | permalink

    Of course, I agree with the Georges, too– but mainly because Mr. George was my 11th grade English teacher. Thanks for all the help, Mr. G!


  5. By Sarah Prince
    December 5, 2009 at 4:36 pm | permalink

    :) I’m a pre-service h.s. English teacher. I guess encouraging writers is a pre-requisite for the job!