I think it’s fair to say that most of America was shocked when news of Tiger Woods’ sex scandal broke in late 2009. I’m also pretty sure that anyone who had read “The Man. Amen.” by Charles P. Pierce, in Esquire, from 12 years earlier, just nodded and said, “Yup, sounds about right.”

Pierce’s piece paints Woods, a burgeoning 21-year-old phenom at the time, as an immature cad. He doesn’t just profile Woods, he takes aim at how we—sports fans, sports media, marketers, buyers of Nike products, etc.—create sports gods and then confine them to our chosen narratives. Though he’s written about sports for years, Pierce has never felt like a conventional sportswriter. He’s not the type to write cliché-packed pieces that fit easy storylines or to manufacture phony arguments just for the sake of it. His skepticism and intellectual honesty, combined with a gift for insight, may have made him more qualified than anyone to take on the packaging of Tiger Woods. (Considering the creepy Stepford pics that Woods has been posting lately of him and his new girlfriend, Lindsey Vonn, you sort of wish Pierce would come back and cover the re-packaging of Tiger Woods.)

Pierce opens with a nearly 650-word golf joke about Jesus and Saint Peter, asking what constitutes blasphemy, not just in religion but also in the revered game of golf. It’s an entertaining enough riff, though I could see some being turned off by it. The first time I read the piece, I remember beginning to lose patience, but then, just as I’ve had about enough, Pierce seamlessly shifts to Woods:

In the limo, fresh from a terribly wearisome photo shoot that may only help get him laid about 296 times in the calendar year, if he so chooses, the Redeemer is pondering one of the many mysteries of professional sports.

“What I can’t figure out,” Tiger Woods asks Vincent, the limo driver, “is why so may good-looking women hang around baseball and basketball. Is it because, you know, people always say that, like, black guys have big dicks?”

Whoa! Athletes just aren’t quoted saying things like that, especially not ones as high-profile and tightly managed as Tiger Woods. It comes as an extra jolt, after Pierce has lulled you into a groove with that long intro. It’s like you’re walking down the street, just moseying along, and when you turn a corner, BOOM, someone jumps out and punches you in the face. That impact, combined with the quote fitting so perfectly with the riff on golf and messiahs and blasphemy, at least for me, forgives the lengthy lead-in. More importantly, in one single quotation, Pierce has totally submarined everything we thought we knew about Woods. And then he follows with more: Pierce quotes Woods swearing up a storm (“Hell fuck no,” is a favorite expression) and offers a scene where the golfer tells a series of really bad, racially tinged jokes to impress the young women prepping him for a photo shoot. At one point, Woods asks the room, “Why do two lesbians always get where they’re going faster than two gay guys?” Pierce writes:

It is an interesting question, one that was made sharper when Tiger looked at me and said, “Hey, you can’t write this.”

“Too late,” I told him, and I was dead serious, but everybody laughed because everybody knows there’s no place in the gospel of Tiger for these sorts of jokes.

You can just imagine being in the room when this happened—the deadpan in Pierce’s response and then the disbelieving laughter around him. I have no way of knowing this, but I think Pierce described the scene this way because he wanted to draw readers into the choice he was making. Essentially, he’s saying, there are many sportswriters who would nod obligingly and leave this out. After all, that’s partly why we had the sanitized picture of Saint Tiger that we had. But Pierce goes the other way, and in doing so is able to bust through the accepted Woods narrative to present the rare authentic look into his personality.

That being said, I think it would be wrong to look at this as a “gotcha moment.” Pierce is acutely aware that Woods is a 21-year-old and no more of a god than any of us. He’s just a guy (albeit an immature one) who happens to be amazing at golf but has been blown up into this huge thing. As Pierce writes a bit earlier in the piece,

He tells jokes that are going to become something else entirely when they appear in this magazine because he is not most 21-year-olds, and because he is not going to be a 45-year-old club pro with a nose spidered red and hands palsied with the gin yips in the morning, and because—through his own efforts, the efforts of his father, his management team and his shoe company, and through some of the most bizarre sporting prose ever concocted—he’s become the center of a secular cult, the tenets of which hold that something beyond golf is at work here, something that will help redeem golf from its racist past, something that will help redeem America from its racist past, something that will bring a new era of grace and civility upon the land, and something that will, along the way, produce in Tiger Woods the greatest golfer in the history of the planet. It has been stated—flatly, and by people who ought to know better—that the hand of God is working through Tiger Woods in order to make this world a better place for us all.

Pierce leans heavily on religious allusions to make his point, but unlike the many magazine stories that try to loop in religion to elevate their subject matter, he’s using its language to bring Woods back down to earth. Despite everything, though, Pierce is still pretty obviously enamored with Woods as a golfer, as just about any sane sports fan would be. He expertly captures Woods’ unique talent throughout and, at the end of the piece he perfectly weaves together the dueling notions of Woods as a gutter-minded, decidedly non-messianic kid as well as an amazing athlete. As a result, I left the story feeling like the standards that we’ve all set for Woods (and that he and his father and his handlers set for him) are so impossible that his eventual fall, at least to some degree, was inevitable. As Pierce writes: “I believe that Tiger will break the gospel before the gospel breaks him. It constricts and binds his entire life. It leaves him no room for ambiguity, no refuge in simple humanity.”

Finally, the following, viewed through the lens of today, is my favorite scene in the piece (and a big reason that, when I gave this to my dad to read post-scandal, he asked me three different times whether it was really written in 1997). Pierce is describing the scene at a tournament that Woods won:

I believe in what I saw at La Costa, a preternaturally mature young man coming into the full bloom of a staggering talent and enjoying very much nearly every damn minute of it. I watched the young women swoon behind the ropes, and I believe that Tiger noticed them, too. There was one woman dressed in a frilly lace top and wearing a pair of tiger-striped stretch pants that fit as though they were decals. I believe that Tiger noticed this preposterous woman, and I do not believe that she was Mary Magdalene come back to life.

For all the thousands of stories written about Tiger Woods over the years, I’m willing to bet that not one of them has a single observation as sharp and revealing.

Jason Schwartz is a senior editor at Boston magazine, where he has covered sports, politics, business and education since 2007. He has also written and edited for ESPN The Magazine, New York magazine, Slate, and the Boston Globe, among others.

You can read past installments of “Why’s this so good?” here.

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