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Original Issue

The Shrinking Of Tiger Woods

The mea culpa heard round the world was a sad performance

The TV cameras are supposed to add 10 pounds, but they have long made Tiger Woods larger than life. In person his dimensions can seem almost boyish—he has a wasp waist and delicate wrists. But throughout Woods's already legendary playing career, the oversized flat screens that fill up America's living rooms could scarcely contain his overwhelming physical presence. On the golf course he strutted in the cocksure manner of a toreador. Opponents shrank in Woods's presence, and golf courses often were reduced to pitch-and-putts.

That's what made Woods's public apology last Friday so jarring—it wasn't so much what he said, it was how diminished he looked, obscured by a podium and swallowed up by a too-big blazer that recalled a coat borrowed by a teenager who had been forced to put on a jacket at a fancy restaurant. The infantilizing of Woods had begun during the long and mysterious absence that preceded these first live remarks, with his agent Mark Steinberg's instantly infamous plea (in this instance concerning performance-enhancing drugs) to The New York Times: "Let's please give the kid a break." Woods is 34 years old.

But what this scandal has belatedly taught us is that despite all the trappings of an adult life, Tiger had never really grown up. His wife, Elin, is a proud and independent woman who refused to be a prop in his stage-managed apology. So it was left to Woods's mother, Tida, to be the star of Friday's telecast. She was seated prominently in the front row, her face twisted into a mask of pain and worry. Forget the millions of viewers at home—is there anything more mortifying for a grown man than having to talk about your sex life in front of your mom? No wonder Woods seemed so awkward reading his prepared remarks.

During his 13½-minute address Woods repeatedly apologized for his myriad mistakes, but he didn't exactly take ownership of them. "I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me," he said. "I felt I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame, I didn't have to go far to find them." Here he sounded exactly like all those messed-up child actors on episodes of E! True Hollywood Story: Don't blame me, blame the fame.

In the run-up to Woods's first public appearance in nearly three months, his management company, IMG, was criticized for the heavy-handed control it exerted on the proceedings. It's clear now that Woods needed the coddling; he seemed so shaky emotionally it's doubtful he could have withstood any exposure to an inquisitive press corps. The instinct to shelter and protect runs deep in his inner circle. After Woods's remarks, his caddie, Steve Williams, told Australia's Sun-Herald newspaper, "Nothing changes."

Actually, everything has changed. Woods said he doesn't know when he will return to golf, and judging by his fragility, it won't be any time soon. At some point he will reclaim his destiny as a golfer, but it is now an open question whether he will be the same player he was. Part of what made Woods such a relentless achiever was his selfishness. He gave nothing beyond his performance. He played the gentleman's game in a controlled rage, hocking loogies, chucking clubs and dropping f bombs. If you didn't like it, too bad. All his recent soul-searching, though, has convinced Woods that he is not exempt from golf's code of conduct. "When I do return, I need to make my behavior more respectful of the game," he said on Friday. Easier said than done, perhaps: Tiger is not Arnie, who could play with controlled fury, then throttle back once the final putt had dropped.

When Woods does return, it will be to his new tabloid reality. Woods practically snarled one line in addressing the media: "Whatever my wrongdoings, for the sake of my family, please leave my wife and kids alone." He does not seem to grasp that his misadventurous lifestyle invited the paparazzi's lens. Before his crack-up on Black Friday, he was considered so dull that the tabloids and much of the mainstream media had no use for him. (Publicly, anyway; Woods cooperated on a story with Men's Fitness magazine after its parent publishing company allegedly agreed not to reveal personal details.) Going forward, Woods and his family will face an unrelenting glare.

During his career Woods has let the public into his heart only twice: the hug with his father, Earl, that punctuated Tiger's 12-stroke victory at the 1997 Masters; and the teary embrace with Elin behind the final green at the 2006 British Open, Tiger's first win following Earl's death. At the conclusion of his prepared remarks last week, Woods haltingly walked to his mother for a long, sorrowful embrace. These three hugs neatly encapsulate his wrenching journey from young master to grown man to little boy lost.

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Is there anything more mortifying for a grown man than having to talk about your sex life in front of YOUR MOM?