Golf commentator Rick Reilly recently upbraided you in an ESPN.com column for your behavior during golf tournaments. When I first read the words, "Woods needs to clean up his act," I was surprised that a writer whose livelihood depends on access to golfers like you would jeopardize his career by potentially alienating the game's most important player.
After a little thought, though, I realized how I had overlooked and even indulged your bad manners. After rooting for you so long and so intensely, I had grown used to your grimaces, cursing, and club slamming. The TV coverage has indulged you, too. The camera has stopped following the flight of your ball, staying focused on your face and waiting for a reaction. Your reaction to the shot, unfortunately, has become part of the story and the coverage.
Reilly has done golf, and you, a great service. All true golfers know the game is more important than any single player; I have no doubt you believe this. And, as I argued some years ago, golf is "the last outpost of American manners" in a sports culture where individual brashness and bravura have been valued over the grace of an unselfconscious devotion to playing the game well. (Thanks to your friend Roger Federer, tennis is making a comeback in this direction.)
Wondering if my judgment was too harsh, I sent Reilly's column to 20 fellow golfers, all of them big fans of yours, asking for their reactions. The responses were nearly uniform: "Somebody had to say it." They spoke of your lack of "decorum" and "etiquette," your "visible display of temper" and use of profanity, none of which should be excused by your much-vaunted competitiveness, because "you still have to behave."
Millions watch your every move, and, most importantly, it's from you that our children copy their golf swings and golf manners. You are one of the few public figures my twelve-year old son recognizes by name. As one friend put it, "I'd slightly modify the New Testament text and say to Tiger, 'To whom many admire, much is expected."' However, you already know that -- through the work of the Tiger Woods Foundation, you have already given much of your wealth to children. But they also need to see that blazing smile of yours in the face of pushed drives, pulled irons, and missed putts.
You might wonder why a Catholic journalist would devote a column to golf on a Catholic Web site. Did you know the shepherds of St. Andrews who invented the game of "gowf" in the 12th century were Catholic? So were the Dutch who, others now claim, invented the game in the Middle Ages. But Catholics have a vested interest in any promotion of human excellence where a tradition of rules and manners is an integral part of attaining that excellence. To put it another way, we Catholics know that the virtues are not made up by each individual but are handed from generation to generation as part of a tradition. We learn them from the past, as it were.
The Scottish Presbyterians, like Old Tom Morris, who developed the modern game, were stubborn in preserving golf's traditions. You may already know the story of Morris redesigning the course at St. Andrews, named after a Catholic saint, in the 1860s. Since Morris was having putting woes, some of the caddies suggested Morris should make the holes larger. But Old Tom, with a laugh, declined. Morris's biographer aptly notes, "As a stiff-backed Presbyterian he intended to earn his way into heaven, and as golfer he would earn his way into the hole."
You have done so much that is right for the game and for society. I agree with Reilly when he pointed out, "In every other case, I think Tiger Woods has been an A-plus role model; never shows up in the back of a squad car with a black eye." But now your fans are asking for something more.
It will take courage to admit to yourself that your manners need improving. Anyone who watched your U.S. Open victory at Torrey Pines last year on a badly damaged left knee knows you have courage in abundance. You don't need to make a speech about it, or respond publicly to Reilly, just resolve to do it. We know you can.