November 30, 2009

Conspicuously Absent

Tiger Woods is a popular, but delicate, topic at his own Chevron World Challenge

With Tiger Woods' own tournament set to go on without him, members of the media continue to camp out near Woods' Florida home.

With Tiger Woods' own tournament set to go on without him, members of the media continue to camp out near Woods' Florida home.

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- The contrast is a snapshot of the carefully controlled world of Tiger Woods. Sherwood Country Club, site of this week's Chevron World Challenge, which benefits the Tiger Woods Foundation, sits behind iron and brick gates in the hills north of Los Angeles. Gazing down upon the course are a scattering of high-priced homes clinging to the mountainside, all comfortably isolated from each other.

Outside those gates, TV trucks topped by massive satellite dishes sit as a symbol of a prying public trying to peer into the life of a man who, for a decade and a half, has brilliantly protected his privacy despite being one of the world's most recognizable individuals. Celebrity and privacy has always been a juggling act Woods performed perfectly.

Now he tries to keep those balls in the air under the most intense scrutiny. The man who expanded the fan base of golf beyond the hard-core lovers of the game and, in fact, even beyond sports fans to the public at large now is trapped by that success.

People who don't care about golf care about Tiger Woods. They want to know things that are none of their business. When is the last time you saw a televised news conference announcing that careless driving charges resulting in a $164 fine had been filed against someone? Such is the burden of celebrity.

Tiger is not here this week, staying put instead in another gated community a continent away; healing from the injuries incurred in the early-Friday morning auto accident that resulted in his traffic ticket. But while Woods is absent, his aura, his impact, and the work he does privately are in full evidence.

Eavesdropping on most any conversation at Sherwood, whether it involves players, staff, pro-am participants or media, need only last a few minutes before the hushed word "Tiger" is spoken. And the overwhelming, though for the most part unspoken, opinion is that Woods is entirely within his rights in not discussing what he says is a personally embarrassing matter.

The Chevron World Challenge has an elite field of 18 players, all of whom are in the top 50 in the World Rankings, 13 of whom are in the top 20. And it is virtually impossible to find any among that elite 18 who are willing to talk about what everyone else is talking about. They respect the parameters of Tiger's life in a way most of the public does not understand.

These are guys all too familiar with the difficulties of living a private life while being a celebrity. These are guys all too appreciative of the impact Woods has had on their sport. And these are guys who truly marvel at how successfully Wood handles his celebrity and still maintains his competitive edge.

If anyone has learned to respect the invisible walls of the personal gated community Woods resides behind, it is his peers. They respect Woods for his talent, his competitive passion and, last and certainly not least, for the fact he has driven the PGA Tour and, in truth, professional golf worldwide, to remarkable financial success.

Back in 1997, when Woods played his first full season on the PGA Tour, it was difficult not to notice that here was a 21-year-old wealthy, talented, good-looking, charming guy who could not go out to a bar and flirt with a woman. He had to be suspicious of the motives of everyone. He had fun with his friends, but he did it in private.

Have you ever seen a photo of Woods at a party or a nightspot, even now? Whatever private life he lived back then he lived in extreme privacy. That is the way he has always lived his non-professional life and there is no reason to think that will change now. Remember, his yacht is named "Privacy."

In some ways, the manner in which Woods shuns the limelight off the golf course may be hurting him now. The focus this week by many outside golf, and some inside it, is on the fact that Woods is not at the Chevron World Challenge. Lost is what the Chevron event is all about.

Since its creation in 1996, the Tiger Woods Foundation has raised tens of million of dollars and helped an estimated 10 million children through a variety of programs, including the Tiger Woods Learning Center. The foundation is not about golf, it is about helping young people develop character and explore future careers.

When an inner-city literacy program in New York, for example, reached out to the Tiger Woods Foundation for help, it got a nice check. There was no news conference celebrating the role Woods played, there was no attempt to make that grant -- or any of the grants -- about Tiger. It was always about the children.

Those who are surprised by the private manner in which Woods is handling a family matter simply do not know Tiger. This is the way Woods lives his life. Without ever saying it, a man who has danced on the world stage since he was a teenager has always communicated this message: "I will give you all I have when I am on the golf course, but when I am off it my life is mine."

There will be lots of talk about winners and losers this week as the Chevron World Challenge is played without Tiger Woods. On Sunday, someone will hoist a trophy and take home a check for $1.35 million with the last place guy getting $150,000.

But the most important winners here this week will be the children benefited by the Tiger Woods Foundation. For those who say Tiger Woods owes the world an explanation about anything, it might be worth noting that everything he has done off the golf course -- including his extensive charitable work -- has been done privately, without explanation. And there is no reason to think that will change now.