Personal hardship and scandals? What hardship and scandals?
The scene in the Rose Garden Monday evening, when President Donald Trump lavished praise on Tiger Woods before placing the Presidential Medal of Freedom around his neck, focused only on the eagles and birdies on the golf legend’s scorecard. But the many bogeys from his personal life — to use a golf analogy only seems apt — hung over the event.
The president, who sometimes golfs with Woods and had the 15-time major tournament champion design one of his courses in Dubai, beamed as he spoke about Woods. He mentioned his 12-shot win at the 1997 Masters, when a 21-year-old Woods captured his first major title, saying Woods managed to “crush the field.”
Trump joked that Kultida Woods was tougher on her son that Woods’ late father, Earl Woods, a retired Army infantry officer. And the president mentioned it was Kultida Woods who informed her golf protege son that “red is your power color.”
“Wow, that was a good move,” Trump quipped, referring to the golfer’s habit of wearing red shirts on Sundays at tournaments. The fashion statement has become a key part of his marketing strategy and persona.
Trump spoke about Tiger’s “strategic” shot-making and “clutch” putting. He also teased his friend and business partner that, despite his injury history, he might be able to play 35 tournaments a year as Woods shook his head in disagreement.
“C’mon, Tiger, let’s give it a try,” Trump jokingly pleaded. “That back in is good shape.”
‘The highs and the lows’
Woods’ career certainly was hampered by back and knee injuries requiring major surgeries and lengthy rehabilitation periods. Trump mentioned Woods’ 2017 spinal fusion surgery.
But that’s not the whole story.
His golf game also was hampered by affairs with multiple women that ended his marriage, encapsulated by his furious spouse smashing his SUV with, of all things, a golf club.
There was a DUI arrest influenced by pain killers found in his system, occurring at the time he was dealing with major back problems and prompting him to wonder if his career was over.
The closest Trump came to mentioning those off-course problems was a comment that Tiger remembers all his big shots but not “the bad.”
Trump spoke of Tiger battling “physical adversity,” saying the golfer “fought through the incredible pain, and he fought back to the pinnacle of golf.”
Asked to say a few words, Tiger thanked his family and close associates for sticking by him through the “the highs and the lows.”
His voice cracked with emotion and he appeared to fight back tears as he thanked his mother and two children. Repeatedly, the man who can make fans roar on the final days of major tournaments seemed reflective, saying he has had to “battle” back to being an elite athlete.
“I tried to hang in there and play the great game of golf again,” he said standing behind the presidential podium wearing his medal.
Fans in chief
Many recent U.S. presidents have been sports fans, and Trump is no exception.
Then-President Barack Obama remarked during the official White House portraits-unveiling event for former President George W. Bush and wife Laura Bush that his predecessor had left him a “good” television sports package. Obama paused as the crowd in the East Room laughed. “And I use it,” he said, looking toward the 43rd president.
When the 45th commander in chief took the gold medal — adorned with a white star centered with gold stars in a blue circle — and placed it around Woods’ neck, the golfer joined an elite club.
Woods is just the fourth professional golfer to receive the high honor. He joins Charles Sifford, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
Other presidents have given the honor to athletes like track and field’s Jesse Owens; college football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant; baseball’s Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Babe Ruth; basketball coaches and players including John Wooden and Michael Jordan; boxing great Muhammad Ali and NASCAR racer Richard Petty.
Obama and George W. Bush awarded 20 such medals to athletes.
Obama gave the award to 12 athletes, including Jordan, tennis’ Billie Jean King, basketball’s Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and football quarterback Roger Staubach. Bush did so for eight, including: Aaron, Wooden, Palmer Nicklaus, Ali and baseball’s Frank Robinson and Roberto Clemente.
Former President Bill Clinton, known more as a policy wonk than a sports nut, gave the award to just one athlete: posthumously to tennis’s Arthur Ashe, the only black man to win Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open.
Woods was emotional as he spoke about Sifford, the first black man to play on the PGA tour, saying he called him “grandpa” as the two became close. The famously private and guarded Woods even revealed a personal detail about Sifford, saying the elder golf pro was “the grandpa that I never had.”