Deconstructing Tiger Woods

A recent poll ranked Tiger Woods as the most unpopular athlete in America.

Just 5 years ago, Woods was one of the most popular athletes in world.

I had been a big Tiger Woods fan, but when I learned of his serial infidelities, I admit I wanted to see him play badly. I wanted to believe, as I’ve always wanted to believe, that character affects performance.

Ironically, now that Woods has not won for two years, I’m not sure I was right.

We know now Woods had no more character in 2009, when he won 6 times, than he did in 2010 when he was winless. It’s only been since Woods’s true character has been exposed, accompanied by the public humiliation, that his game tanked. That only suggests a link between public humiliation–not character–and performance.

When we try to justify virtue based on outcome–for example, how it affects one’s athletic performance–we are subordinating the value of virtue. We are suggesting athletic excellence is more important than moral excellence.

Earlier this year, at another PGA Tour event, Webb Simpson was leading with a few holes left. As he prepared to putt, just after soling his putter, the wind moved the ball. Only Simpson saw it. You couldn’t even see it on the television replay. But Simpson saw it, called a penalty on himself, and was assessed a one-stroke penalty. The announcers praised his integrity. Simpson ended up losing the tournament by one stroke. Simpson’s virtue cost him the tournament, which proved the value of virtue, at least to Simpson.

In his 1997 film, Deconstructing Harry, Woody Allen explored—through a character who was a thinly veiled caricature of himself—the question of how someone can be so successful in art and such a failure in his personal life. This irony is exemplified at the end of the movie when Allen’s character, a famous writer, takes a prostitute to a ceremony where he receives an honorary degree because he cannot find anyone else to go with him. Allen doesn’t offer much of an answer, just a witty demonstration of the question.

Perhaps the answer is that there is no connection between character and excellence, and if that’s the case, maybe it’s okay. What better to protect the purity of virtue than that people pursue it only for what it is and not for how it can benefit them.

Put another way, Tiger Woods could climb back to the top of the golfing world, set more golfing records and take a prostitute to his Golf Hall of Fame induction ceremony. And even if that happens, the value of virtue will be secure. GS