Wednesday March 31st, 2010

Sean McManus, president of CBS sports, has decreed that when Tiger Woods plays in the Masters next week it will attract almost the same magnitude of interest as Barack Obama's inauguration. While we have not been treated to that sort of overstatement since John Lennon declared that The Beatles had put Jesus in their shadow, be assured, the level of curiosity will be huge.

The larger question now is not so much how Woods will do as we watch him, but what it says of us who have such a fascination with wanting to watch him.

Now, it's not all just a matter of prurient interest. A large part of it has to do with simply wondering how he'll manage to hit his shots in the eye of the hurricane.

Nothing would surprise me. I've known all sorts of athletes who, in the midst of personal distress, have found success on the field of play, somehow turning the most public place into a sanctuary of private skill. Remember Kobe Bryant only a few years ago, dealing with sexual assault charges, the very possibility of imprisonment, while flying back and forth to Los Angeles, blithely scoring bushels of points for the Lakers? There's no accounting. After more than two years away, after being stabbed on the court, Monica Seles was able to force herself back into a tennis stadium, and somehow, incredibly, willed herself to win the first tournament she played upon her return.

I find some enlightenment in the words of the late sage, Al McGuire, who knew sports stars so well. "Super intelligent people can't be good athletes," Coach McGuire said. "They're too aware." And if there is one thing we have learned about Tiger Woods, it is what little awareness he possesses -- otherwise, can he please explain all those guileless text messages. Rusty he may be at Augusta, but why should we think self-consciousness will hinder him?

Yes, he must know how much schadenfreude will be amidst the azaleas, rooting for the scoundrel to fall on his face. But, of course, he also knows it's an article of faith that Americans are particularly generous with second chances. But are we really? Or is it closer to the truth to say that we just extend that grace to celebrities so that we can have them back and pick over them some more?

And don't even bother trying to be above the fray, asking why should we care about the libertine excess in any athlete's private life? In another time, Shaw's good friend, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, observed: "It doesn't matter what you do in the bedroom as long as you don't do it in the street and frighten the horses." With celebrities -- which is what athletes have become -- sex is just so noisy now for us, in this culture, no matter how many more championships Tiger wins, he'll always remain, in the fullest sense of the phrase, a sex symbol.

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