On Tiger Woods and the End of Tragedy

I listen to sports talk on the radio. I’m not much of a sports fan (except of my beloved Vikings), but I find listening to middle-aged men of average intelligence talk sports with tongue in cheek far more relaxing than the ponderous debates of public radio or the happy talk of morning deejays.

One thing I’ve learned this summer is that no one cares about golf unless Tiger Woods is playing. One guy completely changes the TV ratings, and without him, the game is uninteresting as a spectator sport to the majority of American men.

I, on the other hand, don’t like Tiger Woods, and I haven’t rooted for him since the 1997 Master’s. I don’t care if he plays another round. I’ll still tune in for a half hour on Sunday afternoon, just like I’ve always done, to see who’s up and who’s down and how green the lawn is. I love seeing a great player win the ultimate title (Jordan in 1991, for example), but after that, I want to see someone else (Barkley, Drexler, Malone, Stockton) bring down the champ. 

So I’m asking myself why I’m in the minority on this issue, why everyone else is cheering for the overdog these days, and I’m wondering if it might be that I recognized in Woods’ downfall the poetic justice men deserve and often receive for their deeds. I’m no prude, but I do like to see hubris answered with humiliation, selfishness with shame. When I was coming of age, I read Shakespeare and the Greeks, and I saw them as the solid food of adulthood. 

Most of today’s males were not raised on tragedy but on the redemption myth of the American western and its imitators, from Dirty Harry and Death Wish to Star Wars and Die Hard. In these stories, the hero kills, but rarely dies. There is no payback for vaulting ambition and playing God, just a ride into the sunset and a sequel in 18 months. 

As much as I loved the blockbusters, I reserved my respect for the great tragedies of the ages.

Not so for most modern men — including my 50-something peers — who don’t know Macbeth from McGruff the Crime Dog. Today’s men identify with superheroes, not tragic ones, and Tiger Woods was the closest thing golf ever had to a superhero. His downfall could not be permanent, because Hollywood would never let that happen.

For a tragic hero, as Tiger is, there is no redemption. Hamlet, Oedipus, and Julius Caesar didn’t magically recover from the near-fatal blow and win back the crown, the girl, and the love of the people. For them it was infamy and an early death, or at the very least, self-inflicted blindness.

Tiger won’t find redemption either. There are several, if not many, golfers on the tour who are as good as Tiger was in his prime, and better than he is in his decline. He may win a few more tournaments, but he won’t match Nicklaus’ record of major wins. 

Tiger is a tragic figure, and that’s a good thing. We need more of them in our society. Tragedy is a genre for men and women — the dramatic equivalent of golf. The blockbuster, like Trix, is for kids.

Hollywood has failed in the sacred duty of the arts: turning children into strong and sensible grownups by teaching them that life is not a sport, and it ends in death for all. Our aversion to tragedy may explain a lot about where we’ve come from as a culture, and where we’re going.

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