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Let Down by a Tiger We Never Knew

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Tannen Maury / EPA

To borrow a timely euphemism, athletes "transgress" so often that when it comes time to calculate the damage, the candor of the confession usually trumps the severity of the sin. Tiger Woods shanked his apology, waiting several excruciating days to state that he had "let his family down" and was "far short of perfect." Alleged mistresses are popping up to dish details of late-night trysts, fans are aghast and the pitchfork-wielding pundits are bloodying their former hero with barely concealed glee. But instead of demonizing a star who was worshipped by millions, it's worth pausing to consider why so many people feel let down by his behavior.

Groomed for greatness from infancy, Woods is the rare phenom to fulfill his promise. He's a multiethnic star with a megawatt smile and what was a clean-living image — qualities he harnessed to become the consummate corporate pitchman, the world's richest athlete for eight years running and the target of unending idolatry. When athletes meet the stratospheric expectations heaped upon them, we have fewer incentives to unwrap their shiny packaging. Now that Tiger's brand has been dented, fans who bought Nikes or quaffed Gatorade at his urging may be channeling their disillusionment into moral outrage. They're less likely to give Tiger a mulligan for his behavior after having spent countless afternoons watching him stalk the course and trounce competitors.

Woods missed a real chance to cushion his fall. His apology was vague and defensive, the feigned surprise at the harsh glare of "tabloid scrutiny" an approach that missed its mark. "I have not been true to my values," he told us. Probably so, but the statement was unverifiable; Woods calibrated his image as carefully as any man alive. Burned by a brash, freewheeling interview in GQ early in his career, he shrank from the spotlight even while courting it to augment his fortune. He shut out the press, cloistered his family in ritzy enclaves, abhorred distractions. This is a guy whose $20 million yacht is named Privacy. For years his interviews have been as scripted and predictable as his Sunday tournament garb, so aggressively bland that those of us who prefer our superstars a little grimy embraced his profane outbursts and predilection for hurling clubs on the course as a welcome dash of humanity. Fans may have loved Tiger, but they never really knew him. They simply knew they were backing a winner, and they basked in the reflected glory.

That same success is the key to his resurrection. As much as we love tearing down our idols, we're suckers for tales of redemption, and for athletes, that story arc bends through the winner's circle. We never forgave Mark McGwire for the fiasco of his congressional testimony because he was done clubbing home runs. Were Pete Rose still hustling around the basepaths, the stain of his wagers would've long since faded. But history shows that had they been able to atone on the playing field, they might've earned back their pedestals. Kobe Bryant, whose jersey is again the NBA's most popular, has buried his legal troubles in the confetti of his latest championship. When the New York Yankees captured their 27th title in November, Alex Rodriguez's steroid use — a scandal botched as badly, from a p.r. standpoint, as Woods' mysterious car accident — took a backseat to story lines about how the revelation liberated him to focus on connecting with his teammates.

Right now it may be hard to muster much sympathy for Tiger, who could comfortably bandage his wounds in $100 bills and still have a few hundred million to spare. But history's best golfer will undoubtedly seize the chance to repair his reputation the way he earned it in the first place. One Sunday next year, Woods will catch fire, tear past the competition and hoist another trophy. When that happens, let's hope fans remember that public prowess does not equal private virtue, and that we should reserve our adulation for those whom we know are actually deserving.

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