Tiger Woods and the forgiveness factor

When he was golden and the sport was enjoying runaway popularity, the golf world accepted the unknown in the Tiger Woods dynamic: Was he the reason the PGA Tour in general was connecting with the mainstream public, or was the mainstream public more interested in watching him than the golf?

In the 15 years Woods has been a professional, that dynamic has always served golf and served it lucratively well -- until this weekend. Saturday's third round through the last shot on Sunday contained more breathtaking gasps from the crowds than a circus tent. Fred Couples turned back time with verve; Lee Westwood, up against the big boys, nearly shocked the world; and the eventual winner, Phil Mickelson, heavy-hearted and determined, made the shot of his life out of the wood chips on No. 13 in the final round.

But overshadowing the golf spectacle, providing touchstones for the sport both on the course and (for the larger questions) off it, was Woods. Maybe in years to come, this Masters will be remembered for Mickelson's charge more than for Woods' dramas, but the past 10 days were not about the Masters. They were about concepts of redemption and forgiveness, a conversation created by and referring to Tiger Woods.

With Tiger, so much was in play beyond his troubled putter and his uneven weekend of eagles and bogeys. As the tournament progressed, the game within the game took greater shape, from the early rousing ovation he received to the once-inspiring-but-now-unsettling image of his face when a television camera zoomed in close on him.

It's a given that Woods will never be the same after the past 4½ months of sexual-escapade revelations, even if by the most easily measurable terms -- ratings, applause, merchandising -- he and his handlers can feel, post-Masters, that the public has moved past them, that he can claim a victory of sorts in the knowledge that he is not, and apparently will not be, a social pariah.

But the question of whether Woods would be forgiven simply by producing a command performance at Augusta can't be answered in four rounds of golf. That question, actually, is far less about him than it is about the public that watches him.

Woods entered new space at the Masters. He was a top-level superstar of previously unimpeachable character in his playing prime, returning to the limelight after his entire public persona had been discredited. Kobe Bryant might have come close to that space in 2004, nearly standing trial (jury selection had begun) for rape in a case that eventually was dismissed but was never quite untangled. Bryant, though, isn't the outsized crossover name Woods is; nor did he carry the self-constructed burden of being more than an athlete, as Woods does. Tiger hits a white ball with a metal stick, but does it as a global messiah.

O.J. Simpson, always more celebrity than world figure, was a superstar, but he'd been retired more than a decade and a half when he was tried on and acquitted of charges of double murder. Mike Tyson was jailed for rape at the height of his powers, but Tyson was never considered to be socially transformative.

Woods, on the other hand, was always positioned to be more than a golfer. His father once said that "Tiger will move mountains," an attitude fueled by family, by his corporate partners, by Woods himself and, to a lesser extent, by the public.

In his news conference before the Masters, he avoided the words "woman" and "sex." Throughout the weekend, as he soared and fell, Woods was fortified by "The Insider Club," the domain of peers and press and television commentators on the grounds at Augusta who seemed as eager to forget his transgressions as Woods is. The announcers acknowledged his "difficulties," but on air never said the words. You'd never know, just by listening, exactly what those difficulties were.

Still, the public way in which Woods' infidelities were exposed leading up to the Masters makes even the hardiest person flinch. The familiar scenes of his once-indomitable walk down the fairway were accompanied last week by an array of different emotions and an uncomfortable knowledge about him.

And the rivalry with Mickelson, once hammer-and-nail, has turned even, with an extra layer added after Sunday as Mickelson -- whose wife is fighting breast cancer -- now is the winner-as-family-man. Pictures of Phil and Amy Mickelson in a victorious embrace provided both a soothing counter to Woods, the decadent omnivore, and an obvious red flag. We, the public, know as much about Mickelson's private life as we did about Tiger's. When the chance for an obvious storyline appears -- the family man versus the philanderer -- the industry falls for it. Maybe Mickelson has never been anything but a great, honest husband. Maybe not. That's not the point. The point is, the sports industry just can't help itself.

"Forgiveness" is perhaps the wrong word here. It is too broad, too lacking in complexity and nuance to describe the emotions Woods elicits from the public. Many golf fans, tired or uninterested in Woods' family betrayals and seamy sex life, likely did not need to forgive him, perhaps because they weren't so offended by the breach in the first place.

Woods is a star, easily the most recognizable active sports name in the world. Even five back of Mickelson and still wearing his famous Sunday red, he is a star. He lost credibility, yes; but as of yet, not that intangible star power that separates him from the rest.

And the star -- the captivating figure who, whether he wins or loses, keeps all eyes on him (why else wear red on championship day?) -- is what they want, what they've always wanted. For them, there is nothing to forgive. Their hero is back. The fun and games can resume. As long as he makes a third-round charge at St. Andrews, it means little to that demographic that Woods was telling porn stars and baby sitters alike that he loved them while his wife and two kids were at home.

But there is a segment of the population that Woods has not heard from yet. He does not yet know about them, the people less interested in his tee shots and more interested in what he represents, in what his manipulations say about him and about us.

These are the most important conversations, the ones you hear in line at the supermarket or coming from an adjacent table at a restaurant. They're being held by people who know Woods has been sculpted and controlled for virtually his entire life, and so suspect that his disturbing recklessness was a sign that he wanted to be caught, to be able to discard the lie, to finally be unburdened of having to live up to a life that in some ways was always a lie. They're being held by black men who are deeply disappointed that yet another one of their own has perpetuated the stereotype of unrestrained black male promiscuity. They're being held by women who, though they know nothing about the details of Woods' relationship with his wife, find confirmation in Woods' revelations of their own distrust in men, furthering the war between the genders. (She should take everything he has!)

In that segment, there is resignation that this era of money and cynicism does not recognize forgiveness because it only recognizes accountability. To them, Woods is just another wrongdoer who was forced to say he was sorry but who kept the money.

These opinions should be the ones Woods, or at least his handlers, want to hear the most. They come from the minds he and his Nike machine attempted to sway in last week's desperate and contrived commercial invoking his late father's voice. The commercial itself was a fraud; the Earl Woods sound clip was lifted from a documentary. He wasn't even speaking to his son. According to ABC News, the video was a composite of various interviews Earl Woods had conducted. In the now famous, "What have you learned?" portion of the commercial, Earl Woods was actually talking to his wife, Kultida, and not his son.

The commercial served Nike, not its client. It was, after all, a commercial, and not a public service announcement promoting fidelity or safe sex or the institution of marriage. If the ad was meant to humanize Woods, it did the opposite, just another page taken from an oily slick public relations playbook. When you've hit rock bottom, you play on personal tragedy -- for money, produced by the super-corporation whose financial fortunes are still wrapped up with you. If it was meant to be a request for forgiveness, it came off instead as just another attempt to sell the great golfer as a talking product -- which, we've now discovered (or confirmed), is all he is.

Forgiveness requires authenticity, both from Woods and from the public. Whether he has achieved it might be answered by the anonymous public, but can only be more accurately answered by his wife when she looks him in the eye and by his kids, who one day must go to school and be part of a world that now will include ridicule not of their making. Above all, it requires a level of personal responsibility, a determination that only the mirror Woods stares into can make, and that has nothing to do with being on the leaderboard.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," to be published in May. He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.