WASHINGTON, D.C., USA — Winning is the great deodorant, isn’t it?
For coming back to take his fifth Masters at the age of 43, Tiger Woods won nearly $2 million dollars, the eyeballs and hearts of most of America and professional redemption after physical and psychological injuries – the latter, self-inflicted – nearly ended his career.
Oh, for and winning his first major golf tournament in 11 years, we also learned on Monday Tiger will be a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by his longtime friend and golfing partner, President Trump. Both were there for the ribbon-cutting on the “Tiger Woods Villa” at Trump’s National Doral Miami resort in 2014.
"Well, he's the president of the United States,” Woods said last summer, defending his relationship with Trump, which predates Trump's presidency. “You have to respect the office. No matter who is in the office, you may like, dislike personality or the politics, but we all must respect the office.”
Woods and Trump’s relationship shouldn’t be over-analyzed; after all, Tiger has also played golf with Barack Obama, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
But the Presidential Medal of Freedom is kind of a massive thing. It’s the highest award any civilian can be given. It recognizes those who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
Among others who kind of did something good for society, Tiger will join Rosa Parks, Mother Teresa, Thurgood Marshall, Neil Armstrong, Edward R. Murrow, and two doctors -- Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jonas Salk, who, okay, cured polio but has no historical record of ever shooting better than 75 on the back nine.
POTUS hooking Tiger up with the award is not a travesty by any means; it’s a nice way for Trump to use him as a political pawn while acknowledging one of sport’s greatest individual comeback stories. Between President Obama doling out medals to Joe Biden, Bruce Springsteen and Barbra Streisand (who all go to their left harder than MSNBC), and George W. Bush putting one around the neck of Dick Cheney and former uber-conservative Australian prime minister John Howard, this is a bipartisan tradition, a good photo op.
And when you find out Bill Cosby, now imprisoned on a sexual assault conviction, and Robert McNamara, LBJ’s Secretary of Defense who sadly escalated America’s involvement in Vietnam, each got one, well, it’s not like Tiger will lower the Presidential Medal of Honor bar.
But what's troubling is Tiger Woods will almost certainly receive a medal before Wendi Winters, the Capital Gazette reporter and editor whom witnesses said charged the gunman and saved many of her colleagues' lives by creating a diversion before being shot and killed last June. A Maryland congressional delegation last summer asked the White House to nominate Winters posthumously for the award to no avail.
What's also troubling was Trump’s comments in anointing Tiger as worthy. “Because of his incredible Success & Comeback in Sports (Golf) and, more importantly, LIFE,” was the president’s reasoning in a Monday Tweet.
Look, I hope Tiger has come back in life. In fact, I root for him harder now because of his public downfall and the dissolution of his marriage and family almost a decade ago. The scene of his mother and his children and girlfriend embracing him after his final putt on the 18th hole Sunday was as genuine as it gets for scripted sports TV.
But one genuinely has nothing to do with the other. See, too often “bad guys” morph into “good guys” for us merely because they win. We find more reasons to like them because of how they do at work, just as we find reasons to not like someone when they lose. And these assumptions are especially dangerous when it comes to Tiger. Remember, during his utter dominance on the golf course from about 1996 to 2008, Tiger’s private life gradually spun out of control, his paramours eventually outnumbering the majors he had won – until his personal crash into the abyss was documented by the tabloids, his homogenized veneer gone in a blink.
And yet, screen upon screen came up on the laptop Monday morning, from some of the nation's most reputable journalism institutions, making Tiger out to be not just a golfer of resilience and resolve but suddenly a man of incredible personal fortitude.
See, we keep playing this character-analysis game, attaching “life comeback” to those who inspire us through a professional comeback.
When an elite athlete like Tiger triumphs on the course like he did in Augusta this past weekend, society quickly subscribes labels to the man, as if it knows who he is and what he stands for off the course. And while we hope is all is better in his private life – and for a guy whose identity is tied to his sport, winning the Masters can’t hurt -- we still don’t know who Tiger truly is away from golf. And we don’t have to. But what we should do, at the least, is separate the athlete from the person.
Winning really does cover up so much of the smell from everything else, no. It makes us wrongly conflate personal and professional success.
It’s not that Tiger doesn’t deserve the honor above others who have been recipients; Lord knows how many people and especially children he has inspired and charitably helped over the years. It’s that it’s dangerous to assume a transcendent moment in someone’s job can make someone a better person than they were before they won.
The truth: if Tiger Woods didn’t win another tournament the rest of his life and he was the best father he could be, he’d be even more worthy of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.