Tiger Woods on Monday joined a club that included Mother Teresa, Neil Armstrong, Jonas Salk, Omar Bradley and Henry Aaron.
It is a diverse group, for it also includes reformers (Cesar Chavez) and performers (Bruce Springsteen); activists (Gloria Steinem) and actresses (Meryl Streep); giants (Martin Luther King Jr.) and gyrators (Elvis).
Woods stirs powerful reactions when it comes to his public persona, being both wildly popular and widely unforgiven for the revelations of his serial philandering, now nearly a decade old.
And what now that he is by association among this country’s leading lights, having been awarded its highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom? The fellow who in late 2009 was a punchline after his wife went after him with a golf club, the one whose bad back led him down a rathole of painkiller abuse and to one of the top five embarrassing mug shots ever taken is in the company of real heroes – and as of Monday he has the medal to prove it.
He hardly has lived a Norman Rockwell-like life, but Woods now is in the same collection of Medal of Freedom winners as Rockwell himself.
The medal ceremony did not happen without criticism and some amount of eye-rolling. Ethicists pointed out that Woods has business ties with the man at whose discretion the medal is awarded – such as a course-design deal in Dubai overseen by Donald Trump’s organization. Purists can’t get past Woods’ past. And the politically minded believed he should have skipped the event altogether (as tweeted by writer Rick Reilly, author of the Trump golf book, “Commander in Cheat”).
No minds will be changed after one White House medal ceremony. Those who believe Woods unworthy of any admiration will remain stuck in that rut. And those capable of separating the golfer from the man will at least recognize that he is a towering cultural figure every bit as deserving of that medal as the other three golfers who have worn it – Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Charlie Sifford.
Personally, I choose the course of sheer amazement.
Just nine years ago, Woods’ image was in ruins. Now he’s getting a medal from the President? That, even more than his Masters victory last month, is the real crowning achievement of his comeback story. For that hints at a redeemed man, not just a healed golfer.
The pedestal is a greased pole. Once those few who make it there fall off, they seldom return. And, yet, Woods has completed that task.
His fall from grace was epic. His return has been no less grand (although we’ll resist using the word “heroic”).
Woods surely ain’t no Mother Teresa. He didn’t walk on the moon. He didn’t cure polio. He inhabits no moral high ground.
But what he has done and where he has been is important, and it touches people and maybe it even contains a message in there, somewhere, that enlightens and uplifts. For a golfer to manage all that just might merit a medal.