Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright
I recently attended the Masters tournament in Augusta, Georgia, to see how golfing aficionados would greet Tiger Woods’s new look: repentance. I packed sun screen, self-righteousness, and a bulky copy of Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. The gold standard of fictional millennialism, my selection seemed apposite, an end-times tale to match a career and marital apocalypse.
But this was more than juxtaposition. Pre-scandal, Tiger Woods’ unique status in golf meant he was often viewed with religious awe. His father Earl described Tiger in messianic terms even before his son had remade a middle-aged, white game in his own image of youth and mixed ethnicity. “He is the Chosen One,” said Earl Woods. “He’ll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations. The world is just getting a taste of his power.” GQ magazine called him “sports’ next messiah.” Half-satirically, conservative pundit and occasional talk radio host John Ziegler started The First Church of Tiger Woods in 1997: www.tigerwoodsisgod.com. With recent events, the site has become The Former First Church of Tiger Woods, and—Ziegler says—will not be renewed when the domain name expires. This news was reported as “Church of Tiger Woods burns to ground.”
As Tiger plunged from grace, interpretations of his behavior grew more Evangelical: the sinfulness of the flesh, pride, the numerous calls for an authentic public confession of wrongdoing. In January, Fox News anchor Brit Hume advised him to eschew the Buddhism of his youth, turn to Christ, and be born again. Meanwhile, the world number one’s business model was dead. Two Californian academics estimated that Tiger’s proclivities had erased around $12 billion from the value of the companies he had once represented. Sponsors were jumping like fleas. It is both cliché and perfectly accurate to say Tiger’s personal world had ended, but an earthly empire was also collapsing, which is another definition of apocalypse.
Chiliastic visions have always incited the popular imagination; lately they have invaded the news cycle. Groups called “preppers” are amassing food and guns in preparation for what they say is certain and imminent anarchy. In February federal authorities raided the Hutaree, a militia cell which, insistent that these are the Last Days, was allegedly conspiring to kill law enforcement officials. The Dow plunges a thousand points in an hour; rioters battle cops in Greece, and Bangkok. A majority of Americans believe in the Rapture as fervently as they believe the sun will rise tomorrow. Though the Left Behind series has sold more than 65 million copies, it’s done so without quite entering the mainstream. Read the book in the lobby of the Augusta Quality Inn and you’ll be complimented; do so on New York City’s 6 train, and your reward will be scowls. But if 65 million readers and ESPN’s record viewer numbers for the U.S. Masters are right, what does that suggest?
LaHaye and Jenkins don’t just want eyeballs, they want souls. Far from being a novel about losing the known world, Left Behind describes finding certainty at a spiritual crossroads. Two days before the Masters began, Tiger told a press conference, “I was winning before, but I was lying to myself. I was living a lie.” Left Behind’s protagonist, the airline pilot Rayford Steele, reaches a similar conclusion after learning his wife and son have been raised to glory. He sets aside his vanity and finds God. Later, he prepares to battle the Antichrist (who, somewhat anti-climactically, is not called Barack Obama).
For such an explicitly religious book Left Behind is scant in its depictions of sacred experiences as understood by most Christians. There’s little church-going, only a bit of praying, and no hymn-singing at all—though to be fair, plenty of soul-searching takes place. The internal struggle it portrays is more suggestive of Tiger’s path to the Pine Grove Behavioral Health and Addiction Services facility, where he reportedly underwent sex addiction rehab. In the face of certain self-evident facts, a rational decision is arrived at; life changes.
Yet I’m not convinced everyone finds spiritual relief in such a calculated, or even clear-cut fashion. As the eldest child of a Presbyterian minister, I spent the first 18 years of my life observing Evangelical belief and practice. A shorthand existed for my kind within church circles, preacher’s kids, or “PKs.” PKs see the marriage, rather than the honeymoon, of belief: the church heaters that must be activated on cold mornings, the church lawns to be mowed, family dinners skipped for one pastoral crisis or another. Having learned a true appreciation of wrongdoing, PKs tend to make rather enthusiastic and successful sinners; I refer you to no lesser authority on the matter than Ms. Dusty Springfield.
Standing in lukewarm church halls, sipping weak tea with gentle spinsters and husbands in dutiful attendance, I encountered grey, weary faiths. Belief was a function of domestic harmony, youthful hormones, loneliness, or old age. Would Christ turn his back on such people? LaHaye and Jenkins do. Left Behind unfolds as a sort of eschatological tournament: win, or lose; Christ, or Satan. Genuine believers are heaven-bound, though what constitutes “genuine” isn’t investigated too deeply. Here is Rayford Steele contemplating his Christian wife Irene: “What a sweet sweet woman,” he thought. “I never deserved her. Never loved her enough!” That non-believers might be condemned to remain on earth is understandable, but even half-pie believers are punished. Another character, Pastor Bruce Barnes, tells Steele, “I just feel awful that it took the most cataclysmic event in history to reach me.”
As befits a professional athlete, the old Tiger Woods showed little patience for shades of gray. Victory supervened even money. “If money titles mean anything, I’d play more tournaments,” he once said, “The only thing that means a lot to me is winning.” And another time: “I want to be what I’ve always wanted to be: dominant.” Such unilateralism is a millennialist hallmark. “The God whom the theocracy was supposed to serve was God the Father—that jealous and exacting Father of overwhelming power who had dominated the imagination of so many earlier chiliasts,” writes Norman Cohn in The Pursuit of The Millennium, which links outbreaks of millennial revolutionary fervor during the Middle Ages to totalitarian movements of the 20th century. Cohn is describing John of Leyden’s rule of besieged Münster in 1534, but the same qualities could be ascribed to the God in Left Behind. His orchestrates is suitably punitive. Uplift the virtuous; leave the evil doers, the misguided and wafflers; it’s your last chance, earthlings.
The U.S. Masters was Tiger’s opportunity for on-course redemption, but it also threatened that other post-apocalypse scenario, tribulation, a period of intense persecution. How would the galleries treat him? Would one of the scarlet women materialize? Measures were taken. Announcing his participation in the tournament a month after media credentialing had closed, Woods neatly relegated the baying hyenas of the non-golfing press to outside of the verdant gates of Augusta National. From a media management position, this made sense. The Masters has been described as the most controlled sporting event in the world; you would have more luck breaking out John of Leyden’s Münster.
Why go then? Because the story wasn’t about golf, it was about transformation. Again and again I asked the fans, the true believers, “Is he returning too soon?” Bewilderment usually greeted this inquiry, and the counter-question: “What does his bedroom regime have to do with how he plays?” Yet judgment and God were represented outside Augusta National. A hungry-looking family waved placards proclaiming Christ’s return and distributed Biblical tracts. A Chevy van rode by, adorned with messages imploring us to forsake sin. Nike ran a television advertisement of a perplexed-looking Tiger and an old voice-over from the now dead Earl Woods. “I want to find out what your thinking was?” his father asked. “I want to find out what your feelings are. Did you learn anything?” One fan told me, “I believe what Brit Hume of Fox News said, and not many people have picked up this, though I’m not surprised… I hope [Tiger] finds Jesus, and gives his life to Christ, and repents of his sin, you know. Tiger Woods is a sinner, just like we are all sinners, man.”
I know what the end of the world might look like. The night before Hurricane Katrina arrived, mine was the solitary Oldsmobile burrowing into the darkness of I-10’s southbound lane while fleeing headlamps extended northbound. Days later I stood on Biloxi’s ravaged foreshore. Everything smelled of salt, dirt, and the rotting chicken quarters that had burst from a flattened refrigerated container. Further up the beach, escaped seals from an aquarium had been shot by cops; twisted casino barges lay dumped before us, gashed open; they looked the way I felt.
Yet in the wake of actual catastrophe, normalcy returns. The federal government may mess around, but after a while the army shows up, and looters recede. You manage to buy drinking water, then food. You find somewhere to sleep.
Drama eventually quits, but Left Behind doesn’t. The Rapture isn’t enough. A newcomer appears in global politics. He gets appointed to head the UN. He suggests world powers destroy 90 percent of their arsenals, and turn the remaining weapons over to the UN which, by the way, will now be headquartered in… Babylon. No one says, “Hang on. This is nuts.”
Having written a novel on the Rapture—Their Faces Were Shining, to be published by Victoria University Press in October of this year—I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how Christ’s return might look. The Dalai Lama hovers above a duplex on Fifth Avenue, laughing uproariously. A Russian billionaire buys Chartres with the intention of turning it into a day spa; the hot new reality show starts production; it’s called, Are YOU the Antichrist? And then things go back to almost normal.
In some circles, admitting you’ve written seriously about the End Times is tantamount to suggesting that Tiger Woods might, in fact, have good taste in mistresses. As Frank Shaeffer suggested here last year, certain Evangelical and right-wing extremists have made the Rapture into a magic wand that, when waved, obscures venal politics and craven faith. Their tone evinces much of the frigid triumph of Tiger Woods’s quest for dominance—and extramarital sex. But perhaps we shouldn’t judge a prophecy by the company it keeps. Historically, interest in apocalypse has peaked during periods of societal flux. Here’s Norman Cohn again: “The areas in which the age old prophecies about the Last Days took on a new revolutionary meaning, and new explosive force were the areas of rapid social change—and not simply change but expansion: areas where trade and industry were developing and where the population was rapidly increasing.” In short, the end of the world can be good news.
I have a confession about Augusta. Like every other member of the non-sporting press, I went to see Tiger fail. Instead, he had his best opening round at the Masters ever. He didn’t win, but nor did he implode. People lounged around watching TV in their RVs, digesting the very cheap ($1.50 for ham and cheese) sandwiches sold at Augusta National. A fellow journalist told me, sotto voce, of Tiger’s almost industrial sex-fest, “Truth is, the fans envy him.” What had been suggested might be the End of an Era bore a very strong resemblance to business as usual. The decline came later, and by installments. Two weeks after the Masters, he failed to make the cut at Quail Hollow. Then he walked off the course at the Players Tournament with nine holes remaining, blaming a neck injury. His swing coach quit. Even the normally-supine golfing press is allowing itself to sniff blood. Headlines like “Why Golf No Longer Needs Tiger Woods”—if not common—are more prevalent.
T.S. Eliot finished his poem The Hollow Men, “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.” In fact both apply; the end will go as life goes, and faith sometimes goes, with a bang and a whimper. Had LaHaye and Jenkins written this year’s Masters, Tiger would have converted on the 15th hole, surrounded by tearful mistresses and his wife; he would have taken the green jacket that went to Phil Mickelson. It would have been more interesting, and more dull.
Tim Wilson is the U.S. Correspondent for Television New Zealand, based in New York. He has reported for the IFC Media Project, and written for Newsweek.com and The Guardian. His first novel, Their Faces Were Shining, will be published this year by Victoria University Press (NZ); he welcomes any U.S. interest in the work.