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The god of the greens

Tiger Woods’s resurrection is a classic American

On 11 April, a soberly dressed Tiger Woods will walk the gently undulating 18th fairway towards the 72nd and final green at the US
Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Georgia. He'll tip his cap to the baying crowd. "You're the man!" they'll scream. The roar will be heady, exultant. "Well, well, well," Peter Alliss will intone.

For all the obvious sporting and commercial reasons, the return of golf's one true prodigy to the greens will be a relief. Without Woods, golf in America has been a dull affair - a throwback to the monochrome, pre-Tiger days of less-than-trim white men complacently whacking balls around and sharing the prizes among themselves. Woods changed all that by being black and winning everything.

But America's personal investment in Woods is less about Mammon than it is about a heartfelt conviction in the rightness of his return.
To Christian America, it will be evidence that Tiger has been spiritually reborn. Spiritual rebirth - the transformation of the soul by the spirit of God - was Protestantism's fundamental idea, and has been around since America was colonised. It arrived with the Puritans and has shaped the country ever since.

It is apt that Woods has chosen to re-enter the sport in a state where evangelical Christianity took off over 200 years ago. America's hinterland was a lonely place, and the religious revivals that burned through the south were wild affairs that attracted huge numbers of rootless Americans looking for a spiritual anchor to their lives. Men and women, slaves and their masters, listened to preachers who warned that salvation meant atoning for their sins and being reborn in the eyes of God. Only then could they perfect the nation in readiness for Jesus's return.

Woods has been on a similar path to redemption ever since he failed to make a left turn at his Florida home last November. First came his self-imposed "exile" to a sex clinic to cure his "affliction". There then followed his public atonement - delivered not to a clutch of anonymous reporters, but to his mother, friends, family and business partners sitting opposite him in judgement. Now, the last step towards rebirth is under way - a resumption of his golfing career and his quest for perfection.

Compare Woods's past few months with the experience of the former England captain John Terry. A brief statement released to the press suggests that there is little expectation in this country that England's skipper will change the way he is. After all, he's just like the rest of us, isn't he? But in America, there is an assumption that public figures must be virtuous if creating a more perfect union is to remain an expectation rather than a distant hope.

And what of Woods's Buddhism? A Fox News anchor, Brit Hume, expressed doubts over whether this provided "the kind of . . . redemption that is offered by the Christian faith". But Hume was not looking at what is happening to his country. Recent surveys suggest that Christianity is in steep decline.

Modern America is dabbling with other faiths - a quarter of all Americans say they believe in some aspects of eastern religion. But
as if to reassure any doubters, Woods pointed out in an interview on 21 March that his errors were evidence that he had fallen away from
his religious beliefs. He may be a Buddhist, but his self-analysis is rooted firmly in the Christian tradition.

It was a revealing five minutes of television. Most of the questions focused on Woods's personal life. Had he thought hard about his errors? Had he learned much about his addiction? What was he going to tell his children? The reporter's furrowed brow betrayed her conflicted feelings: she wanted to damn him, but her questions suggested she felt entitled to participate in Woods's spiritual redemption.

His story plays on America's anxiety about creating a perfect nation. A decade of golfing brilliance followed by a spectacular fall from grace illustrates the gap between America's idea of perfection and the mundane truth that perfection is a long way off - that failure happens and spouses sometimes fool around but, in the end, the world continues to spin on its axis. The screams and shouts that will greet Woods on the fairway suggest that America has yet to reconcile itself to that fact. The country needs Tiger to win the Masters. It will be his spiritual apotheosis. It will also be a sign to Americans that it can happen to them, too.

This article first appeared in the 05 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, GOD