The Cult of Tiger Woods, a rapturous sect of fundamentalist golf fans, still believes that its messiah will get his game and life together. He will return to the top of the scoreboard, thus affirming their faith and, most importantly, restoring the crossover appeal of their sagging sport.
It won’t happen and it’s not because of his sore legs, the reason he has given for withdrawing from the current U.S. Open. "The messiah redeemed" is a powerful narrative even in digital times, but it’s just another "Paradise Lost" dream, as it was for his secret sharer in sport, Mike Tyson.
You really thought they were different?
Tyson was a preteen mugger in Brooklyn when Tiger, at 2, was playing for Bob Hope on TV. Tyson, 14, was in the Tryon School for Boys when Tiger, 5, was giving tips in Golf Digest. But they both were under the influence of driven, manipulative fathers who drove them relentlessly to realize their own visions of whipping a hostile world.
Cus D’Amato, a famous fight manager down on his luck, legally adopted Mike and filled him with his sometimes paranoid philosophies. He taught him to use his fears as a raging fuel to become a well-schooled and brutal slugger. Mike was in his early teens when Cus told me, "He may go down as one of the greatest fighters of all time … if there are no distractions."
Alas, there would be distractions for both boys.
Meanwhile, Earl Woods, a fine amateur golfer and a former Green Beret, was filling his boy with grandiosity.
He said: “There is no limit because he has the guidance. I don’t know yet exactly what form this will take. But he is the Chosen One.”
Both boys grew up in public to become the most compelling athletes of a time when sports crossed over into mainstream entertainment, lost its traditional role as moral training and exploded into celebrity-driven, money-whipped, drug-soaked extravaganzas.
Before they cracked up, Iron Mike and Tiger dominated their sports. It was thought they would prevail as long as they wanted to. Which may be the point. They didn’t want to anymore.
Cus died in 1985, just before Mike, at 20, became the youngest heavyweight champion in history. He soon began to spin out of control: sex, drugs, car wrecks, assaults, divorces. Every misdeed was scrutinized, and he was mostly covered by the media without sympathy or respect.
He lost to a nonentity. He went to jail for rape. Even now, as a mild-mannered family man most recently seen on a cable reality show, Taking On Tyson, in which he trained racing pigeons, he seems on the perilous edge of climbing back aboard the train wreck of his life.
Earl Woods died in 2006. Tiger was 30, a smiling smoothie from Stanford well on his way to becoming the richest sportsman in the world, with an estimated annual income that would reach $100 million.
His strokes were scrutinized, but not his life, certainly not his frequent crankiness on course or the mysterious bulking up of his once lanky body.
Golf writers didn’t dare ruffle the feathers of their golden goose. Tiger was arguably the greatest golfer of all time. He would soon be closing in on Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major tournament victories.
But he stalled at 14 after his Thanksgiving 2009, crash. His secret life of extramarital sex was so adolescent and sleazy that one could only wonder what The Chosen One had chosen for himself. He must have wondered, too.
One thing was clear: Once their fathers were gone, both Tyson and Tiger lost their holds on moral gravity.
What is not so clear is why. Were the manipulative powers of Cus and Earl the only forces keeping their sons in line, were their deaths the freedom that both boys craved, had they hated their forced lives and found a way to self-destruct?
Tyson, at 45, is probably too old to make a boxing comeback. But as a memory of merciless might now diminished and contained (even with scary facial tattoos), he is an amusing curio on TV and in movies. Mike is still interesting, as smart and insightful as I remember him as a teenager.
Tiger is less interesting as a person, but at 35 not too old for a comeback. He will be urged on by his cultists, which include those in the media, particularly TV, in the professional golf hierarchy, and in the apparel and equipment industries for whom he makes money.
But he might as well be 45, like Tyson, the way he has been beaten and abandoned by his life. Neither athlete ever had the chance to create his own character, to be his own man.
Earl and Cus created their sons to whip the world but not to find and hold their places in it. Like Dr. Frankenstein, they died before they could tame their monsters or give them souls.
Robert Lipsyte, a longtime sports and city columnist of the New York Times, is author of the new memoir, An Accidental Sportswriter.
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