Tiger Woods and the Halo Effect

The melodrama has a silver lining.

Posted Dec 16, 2009

When Dorothy unmasked the Wizard of Oz there was good reason to feel disillusioned, let down, betrayed, and really sad. But this is different.

The Tiger Woods melodrama has a silver lining. It's an opportunity to get free of the halo effect and to stop looking for knights in shining armor on the PGA tour or under some corporate logo. In other words it is an opportunity to get real. In this instance, disenchantment can be liberating.

The halo effect is the expectation that GREATNESS - let's call it the "g factor" - generalizes; for example, from the golf course to family life. In general, however, greatness does not generalize, which is one of the things that makes greatness human. It is also one of the reasons that, after scaling back their expectations, devoted fans of Tiger Woods, the athlete, might be well advised to just let him do his thing, which is to excel at golf.

The halo effect is the illusion of generalized grandeur. We are all tempted by its siren call: knowing that we wish for a world of heroes we are beckoned to imagine that our heroes are heroic over all horizons. There is no simple antidote to the seductive appeal of the halo effect. It's both easy and pleasurable to succumb to its illusions. Yet it is also painful when reality strikes, breaking the spell. Sharing that pain has become a national pastime in the month of December, induced by the specter of an undisciplined and ethically unmoored Tiger Woods, living his secret life away from the golf course, apart from the choreographed celebrity event and the scripted promotional interview.

Many of Tiger's former devotees are now emotionally stunned and very disappointed in him. The enchantment and heroic lure of the halo effect was sufficiently powerful in this case that questions posed to his fans that might seem hyperbolic can be asked in earnest: Within which pantheon of gods did you actually have Tiger Woods located, rendering you distraught by the mere recognition that he is in some ways human? Upon what type of pedestal has Tiger Woods been standing in your mind's eye all these years, so that you now think he has taken a great fall? Within what type of Eden has he been roaming in the fantasia of your imagination, such that you now feel paradise has been lost? The halo effect does that to the human mind; it sets you up for the crash. His admirers loved him as a global personality; now they are not even sure he is a nice guy.

Nevertheless, the ongoing and relentless spectacle of the public uncloaking of the salacious, paltry, reckless, and apparently deceitful private life of Tiger Woods is disturbing in more ways than one. No doubt the spectacle is disturbing, in some measure, because behavior that is deceitful, reckless, paltry and salacious is disturbing. But there is more to it than just that.

For the spectacle itself - the public disrobing and implied dethroning of Tiger Woods - feels like a mockery of our collective intelligence, even a stain on our collective conscience. In some ways it feels obscene: A media intrusion into someone's sexual life to satisfy the appetite of a prurient readership. In some ways it feels hypocritical: Reading some of the self-righteous disclosures in the public square and self-serving sanctimony by those in his business world whose main concern has been to trade on his image, one is reminded of the Prefect of Police, Captain Louis Renault (played by Claude Rains) in that famous scene in the movie Casablanca when he orders "Rick's Café" shut without further notice. Asked by Rick (Humphrey Bogart) to justify himself Captain Renault declares, "Rick, I am shocked, shocked to find out that gambling is going on in here." He then pockets his casino winnings for the night.

In other ways the narrative feels like a story written for boy scouts. Perhaps it is news that there is libido on the PGA tour. Or that creativity and sexual energy sometimes mix. Or that even celebrities can be vacant, crude and uncouth. Or that highly successful people (men and women), especially those who travel a lot, sometimes have illicit extra-marital sexual encounters. Perhaps it is news that when he wasn't feeling inspired and wasn't totally focused on composing great music, a genius and prodigy such as Mozart could behave like a churlish and silly jerk. And other geniuses can too. Perhaps that is all news, but I doubt it.

I believe the revelations about Tiger Woods seem stunning, in substantial measure, because we have allowed ourselves to be sucker punched by the halo effect. Most tellingly, this is an opportunity to see through the illusion of generalized grandeur. Why in the world should we ever expect a Mozart or a Magic Johnson or a Tiger Woods - all of whom are genuine wizards of a sort - to also be supermen, or to be standard bearers for family values or civic virtues? Instead of feeling indignant about their real limitations as human beings why not just be awestruck by their special "god-gifts" and their work ethic. It is their fate to be geniuses of their restricted trades, graced with the ability to translate a specialized miraculous talent into some divine, out-of-this-world accomplishment. When we bear witness to their destiny it is that fate that ought to matter most to us, not their good or bad fortunes in family life, on Wall Street or on Madison Avenue.

Will we all stop gazing at the spin machines? Will the current melodrama ultimately precipitate an act of popular resistance to the media, the public relations agents and the corporate sponsors? Probably not! The media, public relations agents and corporate sponsors know how to profit from puffing up celebrities and by manufacturing heroes. But they also know how to benefit from laying them bare and low and then choreographing their "indefinite leave" (banishment), their contrition and their ultimate resurrection. Who really doubts that the script for Tiger's contrition and rebirth has already been written?

Perhaps my reaction to the Tiger Woods spectacle is idiosyncratic. Reflecting on his muse I mainly think of Tiger as the Pavarotti of golf; swinging a driver in slow motion to classical music; performing like a prodigy at a very young age, and doing all those remarkable things he does on the golf course - the fairway wood hit out of the sand trap; the putt hit up the slope away from the hole that returns to the hole, hesitates, and drops in for a birdie; the blind controlled slice through the trees that ends up on the green. I don't really think I ever thought of him as an iconic family man, or as a political guru, or as a religious leader, or as a moral exemplar, or even as a role model in the world of identity politics. I am told that until the unmasking he was the most admired person in the world, which I take to be a measure of human folly and the capacity of our commercial culture to exploit the halo effect.

Perhaps Tiger Woods once actually thought of himself in all those ways; or perhaps he just cynically cashed in on his success in golf while allowing others to financially benefit from his image. He is not the most admirable person in the world; he is far from it. Perhaps he is a nice guy; perhaps not. But surely that is not where his greatness - his genuine "g factor" - lies. It resides in having the talent and perseverance to break Jack Nicklaus's record and win nineteen major golf tournaments. Are we or are we not going to let him do that? For he is a wonder of golf; and we, the public and the press, out of respect for the rarity of such genius and with no illusions about what it implies, should not weaken his strengths or stand in the way of his special talent; nor should we assume that the man who has those god-gifts is, or ever will be, a god.