The vote was for athlete of the decade, not husband of the year. His greatness on the golf course over the last 10 years was more than enough to convince US members of The Associated Press that Tiger Woods deserved the award on Wednesday. His body of work was simply too large to be erased by the human failings that have been exposed during the last three weeks.
Role model no longer, he remains one of the great athletes of our time. Not without some reservations, of course. There had to be some, because the revelations of the last few weeks bring everything Woods has done into question except what he did with a set of clubs and a little white ball. It used to be so easy. He used to look so perfect. That's all changed, and so has the conversation. It can no longer stop at the end of 72 holes when Woods is holding yet another trophy over his head.
We once counted the majors and wondered when he'd be declared the greatest ever. Now we count his mistresses, and wonder if it will ever end. Imagine a world that doesn't include an early-morning crash into a tree or a wife smashing car windows with a golf club. If Woods would have only locked himself in his trophy room or gone to bed early that night, we might not be having this conversation. Instead, he would be releasing a statement saying how happy he was that people recognized his extraordinary talents and that he hoped to continue to provide entertainment on the course for years to come.
Now Woods is in seclusion, day 20 of the Tiger-held-hostage saga that seems to enthrall even people who don't know the difference between a 7-iron and a pitching wedge. He won't surface from his bunker to even acknowledge the award and he's on an indefinite hiatus from golf while he tries to somehow repair his image and his marriage. We know now that he's not what he pretended to be. The carefully crafted persona was just that, but we fell for the charade because he seemed so different, so larger than life.
But what he did on the golf course was very real. He took a niche sport and elevated it to a new status by dominating it so completely that people couldn't help but tune in to see what he might do next. Woods won major championships by stunning margins, hit shots that left his fellow competitors in awe, and intimidated anyone who dared get in his way. He became the first athlete to earn a billion dollars, and made a lot of the guys who played against him rich, too.
His putt on the final hole to force a playoff in the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines while playing basically on one leg was one of the great sporting moments, and a lot of Americans paused at work the next day just to see him finish off the job. Being Tiger Woods, of course, he did, and the celebration he touched off was muted only by the sadness the next day when he announced that knee surgery would keep him out for the rest of the year.
There are a million different numbers that can help explain his greatness. Fifty-six wins, including 12 major championships, in the decade compared to 50 wins and five majors for Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh combined would be one place to start. But numbers can't fully tell this story. To get that you would have to be listening to the roars on the back nine at Augusta National or watch the faces of fans lined up 10 deep just to get a glimpse of him. Better yet, go to any driving range where parents are trying to teach their kids to be the next Tiger. Lance Armstrong had a great decade, too, enough to finish second in the voting. But no one is buying their kids racing bikes for Christmas so that one day they go out and win the Tour de France. Yes, Roger Federer is just as dominant in tennis. Same goes for Michael Phelps, whom no one pays any attention to unless he's swimming for gold in the Olympics or holding a bong at a party. In a perfect world we would like our athletes to have no flaws. But we live in a world where even those who masquerade as role models are very imperfect.
We may never believe anything Woods says again. He may never be the same player again.