Opinion

You think you know Tiger Woods?

Tiger Woods's plea for privacy underscores the price of fame – and also our dangerous obsession with it.

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Do you know Tiger Woods? Of course you don't. But you think that you do.

That's why you care so very much about Mr. Woods' apparent extramarital affairs, which have swirled around the golf star ever since his November 27 car crash near his Florida home.

And that's also why Woods' plea for privacy – posted on his website yesterday – sounds so poignant, and also so preposterous. Modern celebrities are defined by their public personas, which give us an imagined entryway into their private lives. Once we're inside, they can't expect us to leave.

Nobody knows that better than Woods, whose very request for privacy revealed just how public he has become. If this is really just a private matter between Woods and his family, why did he even release a statement about it?

And why, most of all, does the statement start with Woods' confessions about – you guessed it – his private indiscretions? "I have let my family down and I regret those transgressions with all of my heart," the statement begins. Privacy, indeed!

Remember, too, that our generation didn't invent celebrity. It dates to the early 20th century, when the first mass-marketed Hollywood blockbusters made us believe that we really "knew" Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Rudolph Valentino. Not just as images, mind you; as real people, just like you and me. Only better.

And sexier. Tabloids and gossip columnists chronicled – or simply invented – the love lives of movie stars, with a glee and intensity that rivals any modern-day celebrity website. Like Greek gods, the film stars coupled with each other and then exploded in rashes of rage and jealousy. But they were beautiful, and literally larger than life, so we relished every new detail about them.

The difference today is that almost anybody can be a star, thanks to the magic of the Net and 24-hour cable television. Just three days before Woods' car crash, let's recall, a Virginia couple became instant celebrities by "crashing" the White House state dinner – with the apparent goal of scoring parts on a reality TV show.

And was anyone surprised to read that one of Woods' alleged mistresses, Jaimee Grubbs, has also appeared on a reality show? Now they're all famous for being infamous. Unlike Woods, who earned his fame with a unique talent, the whole new cast that now surrounds him hasn't done anything remarkable – except get on TV. We'll watch them for a while, and then they'll fade into obscurity.

But Tiger Woods never will. He's Tiger, after all! You thought you already knew him well, but now you're going to get to know him even better – and for the worse.

And there's nothing Woods can do about it, his plaintive Web post notwithstanding. Back in 2004, Woods and his wife, Elin, purchased a 155-foot yacht for a reported $20 million. And they called it, yes, Privacy.

"As its name implies, 'Privacy' was intended to be a private respite for our family to relax and escape the rigors of my husband's celebrity," Elin said.

No such luck. Her statement was directed at the builders of the yacht, who violated a confidentiality agreement by revealing its owner.

The Woodses sued, and the builder agreed to pay them $1.6 million in damages – and to issue an apology.

A public apology. And that's the whole point here. Sadly, for Woods and his family, there is no private respite from the public rigors of celebrity. It raises mere mortals into demigods, who tower above us in their all-too-human frailty. And that gives them more room to fall.

If you feel sorry for Woods, as I do, here's a modest suggestion: Try to ignore him. Turn off the TV when it starts to blare about Woods, and navigate away from all the Web hype around him. Remember, you only think that you know him. But you don't.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University.

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