10:04 P.M. February 18.

It’s around 10 o’clock on Thursday night, about twelve hours before Tiger Woods is scheduled to give a highly controlled statement to the press about “transgressions” against his family, and I’m wondering how to feel. Some of you may remember I wrote about Tiger’s minor “traffic accident” on this site a few days after it happened. This evening I read that post, two-and-half months old now, and one paragraph in particular caught my eye:

“Let’s say for a moment the worst rumors are true: He angered his wife, she attacked him in some way, and even chased the SUV with a golf club as he tried to flee the scene. All he’s done since then is blame the accident on himself and ask for privacy.”

Hmm… “worst rumors,” eh? Undershot that one a bit. And “ask for privacy?” While I believe Tiger—like anyone having problems that do not involve the law—deserves privacy, in the real world that’s not a reasonable expectation. Even the average person falls victim to local gossip when he’s caught cheating on his spouse, and this is Tiger Woods, the world’s most elusive billionaire athlete. No way the public is going to leave him alone.

You’d be hard pressed to find a bigger fan of Tiger the golfer than me. Not only are his nerves made of steel, not only is he arguably the most dominant athlete in any field of sport ever, but he has also modeled his swing after my favorite player of all time, Ben Hogan. Mr. Hogan, “The Hawk,” is the author of modern golf swing theory, was a fierce competitor, and eventually became a dignified ambassador of the game of golf. Tiger has taken Hogan’s swing to another level, and by the end of his career, will likely have won twice as many major championships.

And yet…

We all know what the “and yet” is. Sordid stories of multiple mistresses. Fantastic errors in judgment. An angry wife, a stunned PGA tour, millions of disillusioned fans. The man has clearly screwed up, and he’ll spend his life regretting the choices that led him to this place.

But I wonder how much of this is Tiger’s story and how much it is really a tale of modern communication. Put John Kennedy under the 2010 media microscope, expose him to Twitter and the blogosphere and the worthless trash that is TMZ.com, and how would he have fared? Men with the power or charm to do so have been committing infractions of this sort since the beginning of time. In some parts of the world, taking a mistress isn’t even considered unusual. Are we angry with Tiger because of the egregious nature of his crimes? Is it the number of women that matters most? Is it the former squeaky clean image? Or is he simply the first high profile person in this unfavorable position to be taken apart by a world where anyone with an Internet connection can be a media outlet?

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10:21 A.M. February 19.

Tiger finished his prepared statement only a few minutes ago, and it went pretty much how one might have expected. He apologized to his family, his friends, to his corporate partners, and his fans. Even in a controlled, friendly environment—no questions allowed—he seemed overwhelmed by the occasion. Tiger is talented in many ways, but he is no actor. I think his words, while carefully selected and choreographed, were sincere. He appeared vulnerable, a side of him unknown to most of us.

And isn’t that what we want? To know he’s human? As much as we respect and admire the talent and determination of champions, we have a need to know they aren’t that far removed from us. We don’t want to root for robots. We want to root for humans.

Ben Hogan, though one of the top players of his time, was not a fan favorite for much of his career. He was seen as too disciplined and competitive and cold…which is part of what made him a champion. At the age of 36, a car accident left him with a double-fracture of the pelvis, a fractured collar bone, a left ankle fracture, a chipped rib, and near-fatal blood clots. He suffered lifelong circulation problems, and doctors were worried he might never walk again. Instead, he returned only a year later to win the U.S. Open in an eighteen hole playoff, and went on to win six of his nine major championships after the accident.* He might have won even more, become the greatest golfer of all time, had he not dealt with such severe injuries. But would he be remembered any more fondly than he is now? His return from disaster turned him a hero, universally loved by fans. Why? Because somehow he seemed more knowable to them. More human.

Tiger’s self-inflicted injuries are not physical, but the damage is nonetheless severe to both his psyche and his public image. These problems will follow him around, literally and figuratively, for years to come. But the public will eventually forgive him, and hopefully his wife and family will, as well. Whatever else happens, he’s already considered by most to be golf’s best-ever player. And if he’s truly sorry for his actions and learns something from them, perhaps he will emerge from this fall from grace as an even better human.

In the end, what is most important? To him and to us?

* Courtesy of Wikipedia