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What the Tiger Woods comeback story teaches us about forgiveness and redemption

SALT LAKE CITY — He had said, “I’m done,” but as it turned out, he wasn't.

After Tiger Woods walked off the Masters course on Palm Sunday, hugged his children, and put on the winner's green jacket for the fifth time, Woods said, "It fits." He smiled, and the redemptive arc seemed complete.

A friend texted “Greatest comeback ever … except for Easter,” to L. Gregory Jones, dean of Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina.

"Do you believe in redemption? YES!" actor Rob Lowe enthused on Twitter.

The victory electrified not only golf fans but casual observers of the Woods saga, which began when he crashed his car the night of Thanksgiving in 2009, leading to revelations of serial infidelity, the breakup of his marriage and years of struggle to overcome sex addiction and debilitating back pain.

Coming as it did at the start of Holy Week, the win also inspired conversation about the nature of forgiveness and redemption, and why Americans were so happy to set aside Woods’ moral transgressions and celebrate with him.

“America loves a winner, and when it’s somebody of transcendent athletic ability, there’s going to be a lot of bandwagon fans who just want to see somebody like that win again,” said Jones, of Duke Divinity School.

But Jones believes there was “something deeper at work” in the way that people at the Masters stood and cheered and how the internet roared its approval, and so does Joseph L. Price, professor emeritus of religious studies at Whittier College in California.

Tiger Woods hugs his daughter Sam while son Charlie watches during the par 3 contest ahead of the Masters golf tournament Wednesday, April 8, 2015, in Augusta, Ga.
Tiger Woods hugs his daughter Sam while son Charlie watches during the par 3 contest ahead of the Masters golf tournament Wednesday, April 8, 2015, in Augusta, Ga.
David J. Phillip, Associated Press

“It’s not simply the achievement. It’s more the fact that hope is real,” Price said.

The nation’s elation, however, came at great cost to Woods and his children and former wife. And the passage of time doesn't ensure the forgiveness of God, or the public, after a moral transgression. Cyclist Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace occurred just two years after Woods’, but some people still won't return Armstrong's calls, he recently said.

Woods, however, reclaimed the mantle of hero in part because he suffered publicly for so long, psychologists and theologians say. His desire to redeem himself in the eyes of his children also helped, as did the loyalty of friends and a high-profile sponsor.

Some observers note that the redemption of Tiger Woods hangs on a victory that almost didn't happen. Woods won his fifth Masters by a single stroke, and had been behind for much of the tournament, unlike his other wins. But for two bad shots by Francesco Molinari, the Italian might have won. "It helps to be experienced," Woods later said.

For now, the Woods saga is a modern-day morality play with a hallelujah ending appropriate for Easter. These are its lessons.

Changing the lens

With the Masters win April 14, the seedier details of some of Woods' past have become become footnotes, no longer the headlines, making it seem that America's capacity to forgive is as expansive as her plains.

But is it really? Just a few months ago, Americans were demanding justice for bad things that baby boomers, like Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, were alleged to have done decades ago.

Robert Enright, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who studies forgiveness, describes those and similar cases as “using past errors as political weapons,” and said it is wrong to intentionally distort who people are now for political advantage. That’s different from what has transpired with Woods, Enright said, but the mechanics of forgiveness are the same.

“When we forgive, we broaden our view of the other, and see them with a wide-angle lens. We see them as far richer, far deeper, than their offenses or their failings or errors,” said Enright, co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute and author of “The Forgiving Life” and “Eight Keys to Forgiveness," among other books.

“In this case, we see (Woods) as a fighter, as a resilient person, as someone who has born the pain, if you will, and triumphed. That’s a much richer view of him than to define him (by his) actions in the past. That’s the beauty of forgiveness,” Enright said.

Price, who was in Chicago this week to deliver a lecture entitled “Sports as an American Civil Religion” at the Chicago Divinity School, said although there are similarities to Woods’ story and Easter’s promise of redemption, he believes Woods' experience has broader implications for all journeys of faith.

“His physical sufferings, compounding the abyss into which he sunk for years, made even the idea of hope and the restoration of even a competitive career unrealistic," Price said, calling to mind the Buddha's pronouncement that life is suffering.

“That’s basically the beginning of (Buddhism's) Four Noble Truths: Suffering exists. And he certainly embodied suffering because of the humiliation he experienced because of the actions he took at the time his marriage dissolved, and the physical suffering that compounded the emotional distress that he underwent.”

Jones, the author of “Embodying Forgiveness,” teaches a class on forgiveness in Christian practice and thought and speaks of “spinning sorrow” in the public square, which he describes as inauthentic or unsubstantial penitence.

“This is a phenomenon in American culture in which people make a mistake and then there’s a PR campaign, largely superficial, to say 'I’m sorry if anyone was offended,' and then they’re back pretty quickly, after just a month or two out of the limelight.”

That’s not what happened with Woods, Jones said. He apologized, and then suffered the loss of his marriage, was treated for sex addiction, saw his sins and misdeeds detailed in multiple exposés, was arrested for DUI, and had four back surgeries.

“In this case, Tiger’s been struggling for more than a decade, and one component of this win was when, two years ago at the Masters dinner for champions, he said, ‘I'm done.’ That notion — that he bottomed out, and it was a timeful process — lends a greater degree of credibility to the comeback," Jones said.

In other cases, suffering doesn't seem to be a criteria for forgiveness. Supporters of President Donald Trump, for example, have been quick to forgive what he has called "locker-room language" and alleged infidelity. Support for Kavanaugh and Northam has largely been influenced by party lines.

“I think we as a society tend to be pretty arbitrary about what sins we focus on at various points,” said Jesse Couenhoven, associate professor of moral theology at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

“It would be better if we thought more carefully about the relation of old sins to current character and the ways in which focusing on past wrongs does and does not help us as a society to deal with our current problems.”

'More than athletics'

For all the adulation, there are some who believe that Woods' story lacks an important component of the Christian understanding of redemption.

The Rev. Shane Isner, senior minister of the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Montgomery, Alabama, said he is conflicted about the win, as a sports fan and as a Christian.

Although the Rev. Isner is Protestant, he’s been thinking about the four components of forgiveness as practiced by Roman Catholics. The Catholic Church teaches that priests can forgive sins on behalf of God, and the process involves confessing sin, repenting, performing some sort of penance given by the priest, and then absolution, or forgiveness.

The Rev. Isner, while celebrating Woods’ win, said he’s not sure that there has been an adequate reckoning of the golfer’s transgressions, either privately or publicly. He also notes that while much of Woods’ downfall had to do with what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called “industrial-scale marital cheating,” the redemption part of the story has mostly been about athletics.

“His redemption has to be about more than athletics, too,” Rev. Isner said.

Sports celebrities often seem to be given the equivalent of an amusement park's fast pass on moral transgressions if they are still at the top of their game, said Couenhoven, at Villanova.

"I remember some of my students in Philly a number of years ago, when Michael Vick returned after being on disgrace for his support of dog fighting, not necessarily caring very much about whether he had really tried to atone for his misdeeds," Couenhoven said.

"But surely excelling in sport is not enough to redeem one's moral standing, regardless of how much fans naturally want their heroes on the field to be personally attractive as well." Like many people, Rev. Isner was touched by the photographs of Woods hugging his children and his mother after the win, images that have been compared to the photographs of Woods hugging his father after his first Masters win.

The Rev. Isner, who has a son he and his wife adopted after taking the child in through foster care, said Woods' son, like his own, was getting the second-best ending to the story, not the best.

“When I saw the images of (Woods) hugging his kid, I really responded to that viscerally, but then as a foster/adoptive dad, I thought, ‘This is not his kid’s happy ending," Rev. Isner said. "Somewhere deep down, he must have been thinking, ‘Why isn’t Mom here?’”

Much of what Woods said after the win was about his physical suffering in the past few years; the Rev. Isner said he wished he’d heard more about the suffering that Woods caused his former wife, Elin Nordegren, and their children. He said he’d feel better about cheering for Woods if he believed she had forgiven him and was happy for him. (Although she has said that he is a great father, she has said nothing publicly after the most recent win.)

“Ultimately, it’s not our place to forgive him. It’s his kids, his (former) wife. They get to define that redemption story more than my desire to cheer on an historically good athlete,” Rev. Isner said.

Two-way street?

Enright, at the University of Wisconsin, says that the public can have a role in forgiveness, and this could have been important in Woods’ recent triumph. Psychologists speak of primary and secondary forgiveness — primary, if you are directly hurt by someone; secondary, if you suffer because someone else is hurt.

“Does that kind of forgiveness affect Tiger Woods directly? We don’t know,” he said. “It’s really about what he wants to see in seeking or receiving forgiveness.” But he said that Woods may have had to do some forgiving of his own in order to escape his dark night of the soul.

“If I put myself in his shoes, if I have a deeply personal family issue that everyone’s shining a light on, and it’s really not their business, I would be resentful,” Enright said. “And if that’s the case, that could hurt my play, it could distract me, and I would need to do some forgiving of those who think they need to forgive me.”

Although we may never learn exactly what changed, "Something had to have happened, and it’s not just hand-eye coordination, to give him that strength to not just focus, but to execute," Enright said. "I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s receiving forgiveness, or even the practice of forgiveness, that’s given him an advantage.

He noted that in research on forgiveness, even elderly people who are actively dying have been found to improve emotionally after forgiving loved ones, even as their bodies deteriorated.

Forgiveness, however, isn’t simply a gift, but a challenge, Jones, at Duke University, said.

“Forgiveness isn’t just about the moment. It’s also about the way you live going forward. And people are going to be eager to see if this really is a new Tiger. The challenge going forward is can he lean into that goodness and inspire people, not only on the golf course, but with the way he lives his life going forward?”

After suffering and being forgiven, people should be noticably different, much like Christ was after his resurrection, Rev. Isner wrote for Patheos. "In Christ’s resurrection stories, he’s always somehow different. The same, but changed. His closest pals don’t recognize him immediately."

And Couenhoven, at Villanova, notes that Woods' story, no matter how compelling, is a tale of sin and redemption that many of us experience, with much less fanfare but equivalent elation.

"It seems like a potentially genuine kind of redemption story. But a lot of people overcome addiction, or mend aspects of their family lives," Couenhoven said.

"How much greater or less Woods' triumph is (compared to) folks with less athletic talent, I have no idea. Maybe it's best to tell his story as one that's in certain ways not as unique as it might appear."

And Jichan Kim, an assistant professor of psychology at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, who studies the psychology of forgiveness, noted the most important distinction between Woods' redemption and the redemption that Christians will celebrate on Easter.

“Tiger Woods’ redemption story is about what he has done to redeem himself. During Holy Week and Easter, our focus should be about what Jesus has done to redeem us,” Kim said.