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Downhill lie
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Downhill lie

I’m not a golfer, but I don’t think that explains why I couldn’t bring myself to care one way or another about the Tiger Woods scandal — until this week.

That’s not to say I’m not golfer-friendly. My father and middle brother are avid golfers. In the annals of lost manuscripts, it’s not exactly Lord Byron’s Memoirs, but I still wish I could find a copy of my famous sermon on “Golf and Jewish Law.” In that triumph of the darshan’s art, I demonstrated the ways in which golfers and observant Jews found similar meaning in the scrupulous codes by which they live. I even quoted from Tom Watson’s The New Rules of Golf, which seemed to borrow its format, and some of its incomprehensibility, from the Shulhan Aruch, the code of Jewish law.

And apparently you didn’t need to be a golfer or know one to find the Tiger story irresistible. Cable news proved this around the clock.

But from the beginning of the scandal last November, when Woods wrapped his SUV around a fire hydrant, through the X-rated revelations, through his tearful redemption period, I refused to see how any of this had any impact on my life. I didn’t feel “betrayed” to learn that his carefully crafted public image was an illusion — the guy is a professional athlete, not a member of Congress. I’d probably be annoyed to find out that a player I rooted for wasn’t giving his very best, but apparently Woods’ liaisons barely affected his performance (on the course, anyway).

Did he shatter my children’s trust in role models? In the post-steroid era, I don’t think my kids have any illusions about celebrity athletes. At some point, I probably tried to inspire them with stories about how much time Tiger has devoted to his craft since the age of three — although if my kids are anything like me, their only reaction was, “Wow, that’s a lot of time wasted on golf.”

From the start, I thought there were only three groups of people who could claim anything but a voyeuristic interest in the Tiger story: his family, his sponsors, and anyone with a financial interest in the fate of professional golf. If your last name isn’t Woods and if you don’t work for Accenture or CBS, this is not your problem (although, considering the ratings for the Masters, it doesn’t seem to be a CBS problem either). We’re told daily that Tiger “needs” to regain the trust of the fans. But he only “needs” us to sustain his marketability.

Again, the comparison with a politician is instructive. I need to know that a politician can represent me effectively and with integrity; he needs my vote. If he fails at the former, he risks the latter; if he gets the latter, he owes me the former.

Tiger doesn’t “owe” me an apology any more than I am owed a share of his endorsement contracts.

So I came to treat the Tiger story the way I treat 24 and Glenn Beck’s show: media phenomena I can live without. I’m sure they’d be compelling entertainment, but who has the time? Not when I have Mad Men episodes to watch.

But something about the Masters made me rethink the Tiger story. I was reading the moving accounts about how the winner, Phil Mickelson, dedicated his victory to his wife, Amy, who has breast cancer. The media reported their family drama as a Hollywood-scripted antidote to Tiger’s extramarital shenanigans.

But you could also detect a note of reticence in some of the coverage. Here’s Filip Bondy writing about Phil and Amy in the New York Daily News: “While we may never know and can never write the whole story with these athletes, this was a conclusion Sunday that seemed very correct, somehow, under the circumstances.”

Did you catch the caveat? Thanks to Tiger, Bondy — like the rest of us — can’t take the Mickelson story completely at face value. Sure, theirs seems like a fairy tale romance, but weren’t we saying the same thing about Tiger and Elin Woods?

And that’s how scandal really affects the rest of us. It turns us into a nation of cynics. Sure, that famous couple looks happy, but what’s really going on? And that politician — she sounds honest, but we’ve been down that road before. Real-life scandal leads to rumor, rumor to skepticism.

And that leads to another sermon. This week’s Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora, has the famously icky bits about leprosy and the ritual lengths the Israelites most go to to purge their camp of impurities. Commentators have long treated the discussion as a metaphor for the insidious effects of rumor and gossip. Like a plague or house-rot, gossip infects everything it touches — in this case, with cynicism.

The treatment, which Tiger anticipated, is for the carriers to separate themselves from the community for a time, in order, as Rabbi Shefa Gold has put it, “to pay close attention to those inner changes which are the causes of the outer confusion.”

If Tiger found a cure for his outer confusion, good for him. As for me, I feel like I need a shower.

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