Tiger Woods: The Ethics of Golf vs. the Golfer

Update December 4, 2011: Tiger Woods has won his first golf tournament since the scandal this column addressed two years ago.

Golfers adhere to a code of conduct unique in sports. From tee to green, they referee themselves. Expected to follow the rules, if they break any, they call penalties on themselves. It is the ultimate honor system. Cheating brings dishonor.

The No. 1-ranked golfer in the world found himself playing out a tragic irony in the past week. The ethics of the game with which he’s become so identified now contrast dramatically with the emerging portrayal of him as the cheating husband. “I have let my family down and I regret those transgressions with all my heart,” he wrote on his website. “I have not been true to my values and the behavior my family deserves.”

His infidelity isn’t our business, no matter how effective TMZ.com is grabbing our attention. Woods didn’t set himself up as a hero or a voice for morality; he didn’t become an icon because he hired a PR firm. He earned that status by winning over 90 professional tournaments around the world. He earned it by people loving his story – the kid who at two years old putted with Bob Hope on TV, who got his first hole-in-one at six; and who at 20 turned pro, won nearly $1 million, and gained tens of millions more in endorsements.

Interviewed before he won the Australian Masters tournament last month, he was asked what motivates him today. “Winning,” he replied. The interviewer asked how he handled the world’s expectations that he will always win. In light of the last week, the question seems prescient. While he didn’t acknowledge it was an issue, armchair psychologists (and real ones) have a field day analyzing what causes high profile winners (in sports, politics, and business) like Tiger Woods to act in ways so disconnected from what they say they stand for. What causes any of us to abandon values we say define us?

Acting out of alignment with our values is like a smoke alarm’s noise when a fire starts. It forces us to pay attention. Whether it is triggered by gaps in maturity or self awareness, or reflects the burden of enormous expectations or pressures, or signals developmental needs, one’s leadership is destroyed or eroded if the cause of the fire isn’t addressed.

Pundits say that Woods’ commercial value won’t be undermined by the scandal. Given his world standing in golf, Nike, American Express, Accenture, AT&T and many other companies invest in him. He has become this incredible brand that transcends the brands that back him. And the vulnerability is that it has all been based on winning.

In this time of upheaval, Woods would be well served by giving thought to the leadership path he embarked upon at 20 when he created the Tiger Woods Foundation. Its purpose is to inspire youth through character development programs, and to pass along the values Woods says he got from his parents and teachers. More than 10 million children have been reached so far.

As a golfer, he represents the highest standards of conduct on the green, but it is clear now those don’t apply to his personal life. Depending on the kind of leader he really wants to be and the impact he wants to have on the lives of children – both his own and others – he now gets to define what his values really are and how he will live them.

Gael O’Brien,  December 5, 2009

The Week in Ethics


2 thoughts on “Tiger Woods: The Ethics of Golf vs. the Golfer

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Tiger Woods: The Ethics of Golf vs. the Golfer « Gael O’Brien The Week in Ethics: Columns on Ethics, Leadership and Life -- Topsy.com

  2. Jerry Garrett

    As mentioned in an essay in today’s New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/06/sports/golf/06mcgrath.html?_r=1&ref=sports), not only is golf a game built on integrity and character, it can also reveal it – or the lack thereof – in the people who play it. In the past year, Tiger Woods’ arch rival Phil Mickelson has revealed his character on and off the golf course in ways that contrast sharply. Mickelson took time off from the game, out of respect for his wife when she was diagnosed with breast cancer (her mother was also stricken, in a double family tragedy). And Mickelson did not come back to the tour, regardless of the considerable winnings he might have missed out on in his absence, until he felt the crisis – and his wife’s condition – had improved. It has been observed many times that Mickelson might have ruled golf the past decade had not Tiger Woods been around to claim that honor. In my book, Woods may have proven himself to be somewhat the better golfer; Mickelson has proven himself to be the better man.


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