A Historian of Golf Rethinks What's Relevant in History After the Tiger Woods Scandal

Mr. Kirsch, a Professor of History at Manhattan College, is the author of Golf in America.

Recent revelations of Tiger Woods’s fateful automobile encounter with a fire hydrant and a tree, followed by his plea for privacy, confession of “transgressions,” and decision to take an indefinite leave from professional golf, have all generated a feeding frenzy by the print, broadcast, cable, and internet media. But what will it all ultimately mean for Woods’s stature in the history of golf? The Associated Press’s choice of Woods a few days ago as “Athlete of the Decade” is an early sign that some writers view his extramarital escapades as irrelevant to his standing in the sports world. In honoring Woods they applied the traditional sportswriters’ policy of ignoring the players’ off-the-field private antics. I followed that practice in my book, Golf in America, by excluding all references to incidents of heavy alcohol consumption, womanizing, or other misdeeds by golf’s celebrities. I dismissed all such misconduct as “beneath the dignity of history.”

Times change, however, and now I find myself struggling with the question of whether such sensational tabloid material should be incorporated into the standard chronicles of golf. Woods’s biographers and modern day muckrakers who write books about the dark side of professional golf will certainly recount all of the juicy details of this sorry episode, but should I do so in a future revised paperback edition of my book? Since I can devote only a few pages to Woods in a 250 page survey of the sport’s history from the 1880s to the present, is his current ordeal important enough to warrant inclusion? A generation from now, will sports historians view the Woods affair as a major event, minor incident, or mere footnote? Or might they omit it altogether?

Today, in the midst of the daily barrage of news about possible drug violations by Woods and perhaps a monumental divorce settlement, it seems like a “no-brainer”—how could I or any golf historian ignore the Woods saga? But if one takes the longer view, it is possible that in due time Woods may return to competition as a chastened and repentant fallen hero who has redeemed himself, at least in the eyes of the majority of the public. In that case, why should he be singled out for special attention and condemnation, when some of his playboy predecessors (and even a few revered golfing superstars) also committed adultery? (Sorry, I am not going to name them here.) On the other hand, Woods’s self-imposed exile could last a long time, and perhaps result in a dramatic decline in his skills and a freefall in his rank among the world’s golfers. If that scenario unfolds all sports historians would naturally relate the whole story, because of the negative impact of his misbehavior on his golfing career.

As of today we do not know if the Woods scandal will have a long term negative impact on his performance in tournaments or his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’s record of major championships. But it has already cost him lucrative commercial endorsements, exposed him to extensive public humiliation, and severely damaged his public image. Given his prior wholesome reputation, multiracial identity, and worldwide fame, not to mention his role in promoting golf among minorities, the magnitude of this affair is unique in the history of golf. It dwarfs all other examples. I know that I am proposing a double standard, but when I revise Golf in America I will maintain my silence about the misdeeds of the golf champions of the past, but I will include at least a brief accounting of the latest developments in the amazing life story of Tiger Woods—the “Chosen One.” 

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jessika williams - 12/21/2009

Elin is obviously looking to make out big here... Why should she take money that HE EARNED with HIS TALENT? - She probably didn't need step by step direction – she probably had Trope's number on speed dial. She deserves child support, absolutely. But certainly now half his fortune. Who knows that pushed him to cheat? She probably held out. I say – if she's pushing for divorce, she knows she's going to make out big. She probably drove him to cheat by holding out and being a bitch.

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