Back in the days when Tiger Woods was an untouchable American icon, back in an era when he was winning major tournaments with steadfast regularity and was a high-profile pitchman for both luxury automobiles and Saul Goodman’s preferred counterfeit watch brand, back when he was young and fresh-faced and seemed destined to shatter Jack Nicklaus’ record, no one would have bothered to believe a journeyman professional making outrageous claims about him on a radio station in Lansing, Michigan.
But that was Tiger Woods, back when Tiger Woods’ reputation was impenetrable. And that feels like a long time ago. At some point over the past few years, as his marriage broke down and his body broke down with it, Tiger Woods became something far weirder. To see those pictures of him wearing a skull mask at a skiing event in Italy to hide a missing front tooth, you couldn’t help but wonder if he’s veering into Michael Jackson territory. And so when that journeyman professional, Dan Olsen, made claims that Woods might be using performance enhancers and might someday “surpass Lance Armstrong with infamy,” the charges were taken seriously enough to be reported by mainstream media outlets.
Olsen has since retracted his claims, after the PGA Tour and Woods’ agent vehemently denied that Woods had been suspended. It’s not true, but just the fact that it didn’t seem entirely implausible gives us some sense of how public perception of Woods has changed so drastically over the years.
He is, as Sports on Earth’s Will Leitch wrote, firmly ensconced in his “freak show” phase; he now appears so far removed from normal life that it’s getting more difficult to imagine he’ll ever be an object of mainstream affection any time soon. In, say, 2002, it would have seemed utterly absurd to compare Tiger Woods and Mike Tyson; now it feels like an increasingly apt metaphor. The fact that he felt the need to publicly attack a biting satirical column by a legendary sportswriter best known for biting satire may have been the least self-aware and most humorless screed by an athlete who was never exactly known for his edginess.
There is that freak-show angle to this that can’t be denied, which lent Olsen’s claims more weight than they probably deserved, given the lack of evidence behind them. There are, of course, people who are fascinated by the way mega-celebrity and competitive pressure can drain the human psyche; it’s interesting to speculate how Woods might be handling the notion that the one thing he was always good at – the one thing he was physically and mentally constructed to be good at from a tender age – has spiraled completely out of his control. It almost feels novelistic, the way his life imploded all at once, like something out of, hell, a Dan Jenkins novel; but there’s also something inherently depressing about it, too, for those of us who grew up watching Woods transform golf into something counterintuitively electric.
I was there at Pebble Beach in 2000 when Woods overpowered one of the world’s most picturesque courses, and it was one of the few golf tournaments I’ve ever watched that could ever actually be described as stunning: He won by 15 strokes, and it was only his third major championship, but at that point Woods was only 24 years old, and Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships already appeared dead in the water. The only negative press about Woods up to that point, Charlie Pierce’s brilliant GQ piece about his penchant for telling off-color jokes, feels almost retroactively innocent; the fact that it led to a public buttoning-up of his persona to the point that it drained him of any true personality now feels like the sort of overreactive mistake that got us here, to a point where Woods appears increasingly out of touch with reality.
In a month, maybe Woods will be confident and healthy enough to play in the Masters; if not, maybe he’ll make it back for the U.S. Open, or the British Open, or the PGA Championship. The further his golf game veers into uncharted territory – he withdrew from the Farmers Insurance Open last month, and announced Feb. 11 he was taking a break to deal with the issues in his game, and he’s now fallen outside the top 70 in the world – the further our perception of Woods veers into uncharted territory, as well. There was a time when Tiger Woods was the antithesis of weird; now, he’s so far out there that it’s easy to imagine the infamy will surpass everything else.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb