Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 25, 2021

There Where Things Are Hollow

In January 1975 David Bowie, with assistance from John Lennon, wrote and recorded “Fame,” which became his first number one single in both the United States and Canada. Bowie had achieved stardom with his “Ziggy Stardust” album three years earlier, and the former Beatle Lennon was more than passingly familiar with both the pressures and perquisites of being famous. The song, which Bowie would later describe as “nasty, angry” and written “with a degree of malice,” was an acerbic take on the demands and challenges imposed on any person who achieves the level of renown embodied in its title. Bowie had just gone through a bitter split with his manager, and he readily acknowledged that some of the tune’s venom was a product of that relationship’s unhappy ending. But more broadly, for the then 28-year-old who was still adjusting to acclaim, and certainly for Lennon, “Fame” was a funk rock lament on the mindless hero worship, unwanted hangers-on, and regimented lifestyle that too often accompanies celebrity.

Bowie’s old tune came to mind repeatedly over the past two days, as golf writers, fans of the sport, and uncounted numbers of people who don’t know the difference between a 5-wood and a lob wedge reacted to Tuesday’s awful news of the one-car accident involving Tiger Woods. The initial reaction of most of us – horror, followed by hope that Woods will recover from his injuries – was genuine, and its breadth was a powerful reminder that Woods is one of those rare athletes who transcends his sport. But as the first uncertain hours stretched into a day, then two, and as it became clear that while this story would not end in unimaginable tragedy, Woods’s future physical condition will remain impossible to forecast for a considerable time, much of the ongoing response has started to look cloying, vacuous and excessive; in short, like something the two rock legends would recognize if they were still alive.

It is important to note the environment in which this coverage exists. Late Tuesday night, after Woods had made it through the lengthy surgery needed to stabilize his leg injuries, a statement was posted on his Twitter feed which expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support, included a description by the Chief Medical Officer of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center of Woods’s injuries and the surgical procedures that were carried out, and thanked both the hospital’s medical staff and the emergency personnel who responded to the scene of the accident. The statement did not promise any regular updates on his condition, and none have been issued.

Plenism is hardly new, having first been postulated by Aristotle. But despite the antiquity of the concept, when it comes to abhorring vacuums, nature has nothing on the internet. The lack of any news to report has not deterred the appearance of an incredible volume of material related to Woods. By Thursday afternoon, the front page of ESPN’s website had links to six stories and two videos. On the official site of the PGA Tour, he was the subject of half of the six featured stories. At GolfChannel.com, each of the first half dozen links in the “Top Stories” box on the right-hand side of the home page took a visitor to a piece about Woods. The results for those last two websites are especially significant since Thursday was also the opening round of one of the four annual World Golf Championship events.

Nor is it just the web that has been fixated on Woods. Thursday’s “Sports of the Times” column in the paper of record, and virtually the entirety of PGA Tour Radio’s morning drivetime program were devoted to the greatest golfer of his generation. Many of the stories were fawning, and while it is understandable that criticism is not called for while Woods lies in a hospital bed with a long and uncertain road ahead, unblinking hero worship ignores both the complexity of his career on and off the course, and the important part that America’s longstanding role as the land of second chances has played in the enduring arc of his fame.

But of far greater concern are two other types of stories that can be found in abundance. One is reporting – if it can be called that – intended to directly fill the void created by the purposeful silence from Woods’s team. Various physicians identified as medical consultants to this or that website have been more than willing to opine on his injuries, the surgeries that were performed, and the timeframe for and likely results of Woods’s rehab. Those opinions have in turn been analyzed and discussed by assorted pundits, all despite the glaring absence of personal knowledge of the case by any of the doctors. Their assessments, some of which have been quite detailed, have all been based on the three-sentence statement from Dr. Anish Mahajan, the CMO at Harbor-UCLA.

Yet as bad as what borders on ethical malpractice has been, it pales next to the mindless speculation about whether and when Woods will return to competitive golf. For no matter how much it is prefaced by statements of concern for his health and family, these stories are really all about the person doing the speculating. Woods has given the golf world more than two decades of singular accomplishment, singlehandedly raised the earning capacity of every touring pro and made at least casual golf fans of millions who would otherwise turn up their nose at the game. He owes the sport and its adherents nothing, and if either by necessity or choice he never again picks up a club, anyone lamenting the loss is far more concerned about their need for entertainment than they are about Tiger Woods.

At times like these it is easy to see why Bowie, with a little help from his friend Lennon, penned such a bitter song. We place our heroes on pedestals, then quietly chortle when they fall off, whether through their own failings or fate. Though we don’t really know them at all, we tell ourselves the fall makes them more human, at least until they win a fifteenth major tournament or seventh Super Bowl, when we are instantly ready to put them back atop the pedestal that we, not they, built in the first place. They are, of course, human and fallible and very much mortal all along. It is our conceit, not theirs, that makes them into something else.

The last sentence of Tuesday night’s statement from Woods’s team asked that we respect his privacy. It is the least we should do for Tiger, after all he has done for us. But we won’t.


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