Judging Tiger Woods

By Bob Hiller

What has happened to Tiger Woods? Honestly, can you think of anyone who has taken a harder fall than Tiger? It really wasn’t all that long ago that he was untouchable on the golf course and in the public eye. I believe his weekend schedule used to consist of rolling out of bed, having a cup of coffee, winning a major, and then going to party with Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley. No athlete in the world was as celebrated as Tiger Woods. No athlete was as invincible.

Well, invincible till his Swedish super-model wife found out he cheated on her with a Perkins waitress. She chased him out of the house with a golf club as he drove off only to crash their car into a tree. Ever since then, Tiger hasn’t been the same. Something was lost that night the car crashed. He lost his swagger, his ability to dominate. Since then, constant back problems have prevented him from consistent play on the tour. And, just when it didn’t seem like it could get much worse, Tiger was arrested at 3:00 am on Monday for a DUI. The news may change between the time I am writing this and the time you are reading it, but on last report, Tiger took an unhealthy mix of pain medications, got behind the wheel, passed out while driving, and was found on the side of the road by police in his bruised-up Mercedes.

If you’re a sports fan, or if you’ve just watched the news in the last week, I’m sure you’ve seen Tiger’s mug shot, perhaps you’ve watched the video of his arrest, and maybe you’ve even listened to the endless debate about Woods on sports talk radio this week. One talk-show-caller was furious that Woods was only going to receive a slap on the wrist with no significant consequences “because he’s a famous, wealthy athlete.” The hosts of the show were quick to correct the man, pointing out that Woods had certainly paid a price for this and will continue to do it. Justice would be served and that should be enough. But then, the hosts called for Woods to put out a statement about the incident. Their intentions were good, saying that if he remains silent, he’ll be answering questions about this for the rest of his life. He needs to get out ahead of this before the media controls the story. He needs to explain himself to “us” and apologize.

I’m sure you’ve got your opinions on Woods, your thoughts on what should happen to him as a result of his horrible actions (that DUI is pretty inexcusable), and your own “sports take” on the sort of guy Tiger is. But, why?  Why do we care? I mean, why does Tiger Woods need to say anything to “us” about his sinful actions? Why are angry sports fans calling for Tiger’s head? Why do talk show hosts have to prove that Woods has “paid enough” for his actions? Woods doesn’t owe “us” anything, nor is it our place to judge him for what he’s done. God instituted courts and governments for such things.

Every time some big celebrity has some shameful fall, our culture’s self-righteousness rears its ugly head. We foster some perverse envy of athletes and celebrities, but when everything comes crashing down for them, we are suddenly on our high horses, demanding justice, and thanking God we aren’t like those sinners over there. We get some sick thrill out of looking down from our moral perch at the stoned mugshot of Woods. Woods was on top of the world, and we loved how he entertained us, but loathed him because we couldn’t be him. But, now that he’s “fallen from grace,” if you will, we’re perfectly happy not to offer him any. Justice falls on Woods, and we have some sick (and unjustified) sense of vindication.

Though it is true that our culture has become morally lax, this hasn’t made us any less judgmental or self-righteous. Moral laxity is just as opposed to grace as legalism. Moral permissiveness and legalism are two sides of the same coin. Now, I’m not saying that Woods should be given a pass for what he did. He should receive the punishment he has coming. But, that is the job of the judge and the legal system, not petty golf fans, sports talk show hosts, or, well, you or me!

Some time back my dad and I were discussing (perhaps too judgmentally) the demise of Tiger. My dad said, “You know why I think he can’t get back to the top of his game? Guilt. His spiritual life is invested in Buddhism because he thinks it will give him the tools he needs control himself. But that isn’t working. He can’t meditate his guilt away. He’s not free.” Now, that is something to think about. Woods’ whole life has been one defined by his achievements and/or failures. He has gone big in both. Even his religion is aimed at making him perform better.  But it is all bondage. One wonders if anyone has ever shown him any sort of mercy? Has forgiveness ever come to him from someone else for free? Or, has his life been one of bound by the approval/disdain of the world based on his performance?

Maybe what Tiger needs is for the collective, judgmental “us” to leave him alone. Maybe, no, what he absolutely needs is someone to come alongside of him with no expectations, no demands, only love without conditions. Maybe Tiger needs someone to invest in him without a single requirement. He needs, to quote Paul Zahl’s marvelous phrase, one-way love to set him free from the suffocating bondage of judgment. He needs to know blood has been shed for him.

And, before we can cast judgment on Tiger for this, let’s be honest, don’t we all need that kind of grace?