It’s no surprise that President Trump decided to award the Medal of Freedom after Woods won the Masters as the crowning achievement of a remarkable comeback from multiple back surgeries.
It’s no surprise that Woods would accept the honor. After all, he and Trump have had business dealings together and are occasional partners at the President’s golf properties.
The criteria for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor, are as follows: It is awarded “for especially meritorious contribution to (1) the security or national interests of the United States, or (2) world peace, or (3) cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
There’s no doubt that Woods’ contributions to golf have been more than significant. As a teenager, he had already captivated the sporting public by winning three straight U.S. Amateur Championships. His victory in the 1997 Masters was a shot heard ‘round the world.
No one has ever played golf at the level maintained by Woods in 1999 and 2000, a two-year period in which he won the U.S. Open by 15 shots and collected major championships with seeming ease. That 200 U.S. Open victory at Pebble Beach was the start of the “Tiger Slam,” and with his victory in the 2001 Masters, Woods held all four major championship trophies at the same time.
It is indisputable that Woods has elevated and continues to elevate the stature of the game itself. When he plays a tournament, television viewership rises roughly 40 percent on average. When he chose to enter the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, N.C., in 2015, the tournament printed 49,000 additional tickets to accommodate the demand.
The bottom line? No one moves the needle the way Woods does—in any sport.
It’s also indisputable that Woods has used his platform for the common good. The TGR Foundation promotes education through the Earl Woods Scholars program and other educational initiatives. The foundation deservedly boasts that 150,000 students have been served through the TGR Learning Lab, and that 85,000 girls have been introduced to STEM careers.
Woods’ return to the highest level of golf after multiple back surgeries is a feat many pundits considered impossible—until it happened. His comeback certainly rivals that of Ben Hogan from the car wreck that nearly took his life.
What many seem to forget—or ignore—when extolling Tiger’s recent rebirth is that physical ills weren’t the only cause of his downfall. Woods’ very public breakup from wife Elin Nordegren exposed serial philandering with a long list of porn stars and party girls.
To many—after the story of his extramarital affairs broke—Woods’ apology seemed forced, his contrition suspect.
Nearly a decade has passed since then, and Woods has rehabilitated not only his golf game but also his image—enough to get past a May 29, 2017 DUI arrest for a cocktail of painkillers in his system that produced the accompanying mug shot.
Three other golfers have received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, all icons: Arnold Palmer, who is credited with the exponential growth of the game; Jack Nicklaus, the only player with more major titles than Woods, and whose golf course designs populate the world; and Charlie Sifford, an African-American pioneer instrumental in breaking the color barrier in a traditionally all-white PGA Tour.
It is significant that Woods, who scrupulous avoids the expression of political opinions, named his son Charlie after Dr. Sifford.
The list of sports figures who have received the Medal of Freedom is likewise short, and many have been recognized as much for their impact on society as for their accomplishments on the various playing fields. That list includes Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, Roberto Clemente, Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King and Pat Summit.
Does Tiger Woods belong in that company?
Certainly, it is not a requirement that an athlete lead an exemplary life to receive the Medal of Freedom. Trump previously awarded the Medal posthumously to Babe Ruth, who certainly wasn’t a model of tea-totaling restraint.
The President has complete discretion over the awarding of the Medal, but what constitutes a “meritorious contribution?” Do Tiger’s accomplishments meet the criteria? Is there a line beyond which serious character flaws, even those in the past, should be disqualifying?
That’s up to each individual to decide for himself or herself.
You make the call.