A couple of weeks ago, Tiger Woods shot his worst round of golf as a professional, failing to make the cut at the Phoenix Open — officially (awkwardly) called the Waste Management Phoenix Open. This was supposed to be the start of a comeback, after a bad back had kept him off the tour for much of last year. But last week, Woods withdrew from the Farmers Insurance Open with back stiffness. From the outside, the low hum of negativity around him persists. Some of that feels cosmic — or karmic.
Not long before the tournament in Phoenix, Woods was in the south Italian Alps, where his girlfriend, the skier Lindsey Vonn, extended her record of World Cup victories. Vonn’s historic success was momentarily upstaged after photos of a toothless Woods surfaced. The story around his missing left front tooth involved its being accidentally knocked out by a cameraman in the crush to photograph Vonn on the winner’s podium. The story is in dispute — but the strangeness of the resulting image is not.
It isn’t just that Woods was missing a tooth or that he had the misfortune of being near a photographer with his mouth open and his face uncovered. It’s that after it happened, he put on one of those neoprene half-face ski/snow/cycle masks with a skull print, something an X Games contestant might wear on his way to rob a bank. The cap on his head was warped and pilling. Vonn’s kiss and big embrace of Woods should have lent him an air of romance. But in all, he had been captured in a disturbing new light: He resembled what members of certain conservative chattering classes might, in contemptible euphemistic language, label a thug.
It has been more than five years since the public’s perception of him changed. When Woods was the best golfer in the world, there were few occasions to notice more than green jackets and red, final-Sunday shirts. In Italy, the combination of the missing tooth, the sad knit hat, and that mask — whether it was purchased to hide a dental crisis or to mess with our perception of Woods — seemed the opposite of a hall of fame golfer. It was a “look” that seemed to double as an X-ray. Since the news broke of his marital infidelities and resulting divorce, he has seemed mortal as an athlete, with no major wins and few tournament victories. On one hand, he does seem cursed. On the other, he sometimes dresses like he’s embracing the role of villain.
Douglas Gorenstein/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank
One Monday night last August, he went on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show looking a touch older than 38. His hair is thinning and graying — a fact that, to his credit, he doesn’t appear to be hiding. Standing opposite Rory McIlroy, his younger rival for championship rubbernecking, Woods filled a tight black T-shirt tucked and belted into black pants. Fallon had invited Woods and McIlroy to play an amusing golf game called Facebreakers (hit balls into panes of glass painted with McIlroy and Fallon’s likenesses). But Woods wasn’t dressed for fun. He was dressed for protection — not his, yours. He looked like a body man.
McIlroy, meanwhile, was casually dressed. The sleeves of his green dress shirt, which he wore over black pants, were rolled up to his elbows. It, too, was snug, but there was nothing intimidating in its tightness. It was Woods who seemed dressed to send a message: Jimmy, does this game require me to power-lift a casket? Does it let me throw myself in front of the president as he golfs? Fallon reminded Woods that, because of that bad back, Woods wouldn’t be taking any swings during this game or for the rest of the season, which won a wistful look from Woods. Tiger replied that, as an athlete, he needed to get more explosive, in part because of “this little guy right here,” he said, looking at McIlroy.
It’s unclear how many times a week someone calls Rory McIlroy “this little guy,” but I imagine it’s not infrequent. It must really burn him up. He’s 5-foot-10! And there are no frills with those 160 or so pounds. Still, he’s 25, and looks it. If you’re older, more flamboyantly jacked, and currently winning a lot less, then, sure: “this little guy.” These two appeared to be pals, at least for the commercials. They were on Tonight promoting new Rory-and-Tiger-approved Nike golf clubs. The next day a video appeared of them drenching each other as part of the Ice Bucket Challenge to raise money to fight Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Fallon rolled tape of an old Late Night clip in which he beat Woods at Woods’s own video game, which Woods pretended to find annoying. But Fallon loosened him up. There was a flash of actual charming self-deprecation when Fallon praised McIlroy for winning the PGA Championship in the dark, and Woods said that the light was fine from his sofa.
What Fallon couldn’t change were Woods’s clothes. I looked at that T-shirt and wondered whether it had been worn under a dress shirt. It was just the kind of black number that some men find dressy when it’s poking out from the front of a collared shirt. It was probably athletic, but it came off as goony at an occasion for which, sadly, the man wearing it was a bystander. In that clip of Fallon beating Woods, Woods was dressed in his Sunday best (red shirt, black pants, baseball cap). That would have felt like a costume on this night. But it would have been more endearing than whatever he was going for as the man in black.
At his press conference in 2010, his first major public appearance since he confessed to be serially unfaithful to his wife, Elin, after she forcefully evicted him from their home, Woods wore a seemingly basic black jacket and blue button-down. (Although, really, what does one wear to tell the universe you’re sorry?) He read a statement without the presence of a tie or of his wife, both of which grew conspicuous by their absences. Woods looked contrite. He looked tired. He looked about 20 pounds heavier. It’s not that Woods had made us think he was a stoic family man, but he had made us believe in the chic of his mystique. Now, the “breaking news” tag NBC stamped on the screen quoted Woods’s statement as he read it: “Everyone has good reasons to be critical of me.”
The shirt collar was jarring. It seemed to move along with his neck in a most unusual way, refusing to lie flat. Woods was doing the talking, but the collar was saying a lot, too. It protruded like the fangs of a snaggletoothed vampire. Those fangs were clearly meant to bite a tie. Woods presumably could have worn a shirt with a collar one quarter the size. The blazer looked out of place, too. He’s accustomed to wearing an altogether different blazer over an altogether different shirt. For him, green and red have been, as they say, a winning combination. At the press conference, he looked uncomfortable in his body and in these clothes.
There is the distinctly strange possibility that nothing Tiger Woods wears actually belongs to Tiger Woods. I just don’t buy him in that skull-print neoprene facewear. What if the clothes he wore on the day of that press conference weren’t his, either? After all, the jacket didn’t seem to fit. It looked too big; the shoulders were too wide. Even though that event was utterly premeditated, it’s not unreasonable that someone — a cruel stylist? A lawyer? — brought him those clothes at the last minute. If they belonged to someone else, it’s probable that Woods wished that person could have also loaned him his life. Maybe he still does.