Thursday, December 17, 2009 Updated: December 21, 4:14 PM ET
After Tiger, in whom should we believe?
By Gene Wojciechowski ESPN.com
The Tiger Woods we knew, or thought we knew, no longer exists. And that's a good thing.
Woods was an image, a brand, a creation, but he wasn't an actual person. Instead, he was part fact, part fiction and then tossed into a margarita blender from which he was served to the public with a lime twist. We treated him as this super, one-dimensional golf hero when in fact he was this three-dimensional man with flaws as deep as the Principal's Nose at St. Andrews and with a row of demons perched on his shoulders.
The life of Tiger, as we knew it, was make-believe.
He never let us into his real life (fine by me), so we were presented with the make-believe life. There were even officially approved photographs of the smiling First Golf Family as it cradled its newborn and dodged dog kisses. Aren't they adorable?
We wanted to believe in his perfection, and Woods let us. He was a willing accomplice who perpetuated the myth, even though he knew the image didn't match the reality. It almost never does.
When we finally saw Woods as a real person, it was at his shocking worst: the Athlete of the Decade passed out, snoring on the ground in the aftermath of a wee-hour car accident or on a voice mail to one of his mistresses, calculatingly and yet naively trying to cover the spike marks of his deceit.
So now he is gone, both literally and figuratively. The world's most famous athlete has disappeared. He was once a prisoner of his success. Now he is a prisoner of his personal failures.
Nike co-founder Phil Knight, who has millions upon millions invested in Woods, dismissed the situation with the wave of a hand, calling it "a minor blip." But I guarantee you it doesn't feel that way to Woods and his family, especially if, as ABCNews.com reports, wife, Elin, has decided to divorce him. Or to us.
Depending on what pedestal you placed Woods, we have lost a sports icon, a role model, a bigger-than-life presence. So powerful was his reach that even something as trivial as his shirt selection for, say, the U.S. Open would be featured in the tournament merchandise tent.
Woods followed another creation, Michael Jordan. Be like Mike? That was Tiger doing what MJ did before him: turning himself into an entity, an international commodity. And like Jordan, Woods' human frailties and faults eventually emerged.
To whom is it safe to give our trust? Maybe Derek Jeter.
How many times will we get burned by corporate -- and, yes, media -- image inventions before we learn?
Mark McGwire fraud.
Sammy Sosa fraud.
Barry Bonds fraud.
Roger Clemens fraud.
Alex Rodriguez liar.
I could keep going. The list is as long as a Wrigley Field bathroom line.
Woods is the latest name on the disgraced sports hero time line. His descent is stunning because we never saw it coming. The Ice Man melteth.
I'm not sure Tiger was beloved. He was admired, respected, even feared. We saw his sharp edges but rarely saw the sanded-down parts of his personality. He was in total control -- or so we thought.
Someone will fill the void left by Woods' indefinite self-exile. His return to a tee box, perhaps sooner than expected, will be a mega-event, but never again will I look at him the same way. He was different, but now he isn't.
So who takes his place? LeBron James? Sure, but do we know The King better than we did Woods? Maybe. His on-the-court and commercial personality is more open and playful than Tiger's. Does that translate into character? Hope so. Think so.
Peyton Manning? Sure, he seems as genuine as anyone in sports today. Intense and demanding, but not afraid to mock himself on an SNL United Way parody. Approachable in ways that Woods never was.
Derek Jeter? Class personified.
Peyton Manning might have the right combination of intensity and approachability.
Tom Brady? George Clooney cool.
Drew Brees? Stand-up guy Velcro'd to the hip of his New Orleans community.
Donovan McNabb? Has withstood the blast furnace of Philly, Terrell Owens, etc., with mostly grace and dignity.
Tim Tebow? An athlete who understands and embraces every aspect of the baggage that comes with sports celebrity. He wants the responsibility of setting a standard.
There are others, of course. But this time we need to trust at our own risk. Maybe the real trick is not to invest so much of ourselves into someone just because he can dunk from the players' parking lot or land a 3-wood on a green the size of a pizza pan.
And it would be nice to know that Woods' public humiliation could serve an instruction manual for other athletes. Something like: If it could happen to him, it could happen to you.
How humbling it must be to go from planetwide golf god to cautionary tale in less than a month. Blip that, Phil Knight.
Meanwhile, Woods vows to learn from his mistakes. We should do the same.
Hero worship will never be the same. And shouldn't.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. MORE COMMENTARY »