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Woods, Williams public debacle illustrates media lessons learned from golfer’s great fall

This may be one of the toughest weeks Tiger Woods has seen in awhile. And for a guy whose rampant infidelities led to one of the most spectacularly public meltdowns in the history of sports, that is saying quite a lot.

The week started with a landmark drubbing from one of the guys who stuck by Woods when the rest of the world was cracking the kind of jokes best suited to an Andrew “Dice” Clay routine, former caddy Steve Williams.

By schoolyard standards, Williams’ words weren’t particularly distinctive, delivered Sunday after he carried Aussie champion Andy Scott’s clubs to victory in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

Asked how he felt – itself a singular event for a caddy who drew cheers on the course – Williams was blunt and effusive:

“I’ve been a caddy for 33 years and that’s the best week of my life. And I’m not joking. I’m never, ever, ever gonna forget that week. The people here this week have been absolutely unbelievable and all the support from the people back in New Zealand, including my family, that’s the greatest week of my life,” he said.  “It’s the greatest week of my life caddying and I sincerely mean that.”

Golf purists swooned over the obvious diss to Woods and bewilderingly criticized CBS for making the moment possible. More criticism came as Woods’ handlers and Williams disputed whether the caddy was fired over the telephone or in person.

That makes me fear the worst as Woods faces the once-unimaginable possibility Friday of failing to make the cut at the PGA Tour after his worst performance ever at the championship – the other shoe dropping in a calamitous week.

I fear we’re learning the wrong media lessons from Woods’ fall.

Frankly, the kind of opportunistic questioning that made Williams’ words possible is the kind of hustle that sports journalism, especially the too-genteel world of golf coverage, could use a little more of.

Yes, it felt like the expected denouement of a juicy soap opera storyline. But Williams and Woods put that dynamic in play themselves, as the superstar golfer let go his playing partner of 12 years; an unceremonious breakup that seemed to symbolize the toll his scandal has taken on both personal and professional fronts.

It also felt like the last card media partners such as CBS have left to play. Stuck with disappointing performances by an athlete who once supercharged mainstream interest in golf, broadcasters and journalists are left to pick at the once-inscrutable Woods PR machine to document his slow-motion decline.

The truth is, Woods’ trip through personal and professional purgatory is going to take much longer than today’s instant media culture can tolerate. And his reflexive, natural tendency to hide emotion – perhaps the last bit of pre-scandal habit he has stuck to stubbornly – makes documenting that process difficult as ever.

Which is why it is such an irresistible story, one that journalists should be scratching to reach, using any ethical means necessary.

This is, of course, the kind of coverage he should have gotten from the beginning of his amazing run as golf’s biggest superstar. Take it from a critic who had the temerity to be skeptical about Oprah Winfrey back when she was saving the world through her “Live Your Best Life” tour; the toughest task a journalist can undertake is to provide incisive coverage of a popular celebrity the world wants to believe in.

But this is why we get front-row seats to The Big Show. Not to drink the celebrity spin Kool-Aid – or figure out how to assemble massive TV specials exalting the importance of their career moves – but to bring an experienced, unsparing eye to the drama unfolding behind and in front of the cameras.

I, for one, hope for more moments like Williams’ bald-faced, um, “forget you” to the man who was once his superstar patron and confidant.

Because that land – in the soggy mess of hurt feelings, past betrayals and epic emotional drama – is where the real stuff of sports achievement and failure is often born.

And journalists too squeamish to pay heed to that side of things will constantly find themselves rushing to catch up, apologizing for missing the moments that tell us how a superstar really ticks.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.

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