Normally, the Presidential Medal of Freedom comes with no downside. It is the nation’s highest civilian award, recognizing people who have made extraordinary contributions to American life and culture. For most recipients, it is the honor of a lifetime.
Tiger Woods received the medal from President Donald Trump Monday evening during a picturesque Rose Garden ceremony. The weather was warm, the skies were sunny, and Woods’s mother, children, girlfriend and caddie, were joined by members of Congress and other top officials to witness the ceremony.
It was a tribute to a phenomenal athlete who won his 15th major tournament championship last month at the Masters. The victory at Augusta capped a stunning comeback after more than a decade marked by personal scandal and injury that cost Woods his marriage, and for a long time, his dominance on the golf course.
Woods pressed back tears as he thanked his family and others who stuck by him through the ups and downs. He is a man who has fought through the horror of having his sex addiction dissected before the world, the pain of knee surgery and four back surgeries, rehabilitation to break the grip of prescription pain killers, and the embarrassment of being arrested on a DUI charge.
Now he was being honored by the president of the United States, a change of fortune that would normally trigger unabashed joy.
But Trump is no normal president. While most of his predecessors watched their words in public, Trump frequently taunts his opponents on Twitter. While most presidents strive to the tell the truth, or at least are contrite when they are caught lying, news organizations have documented more than 10,000 false or misleading claims Trump has made since taking office in 2017. And while most presidents have tried to use the magic and widespread love of sports to at least momentarily bridge our nation’s many divides, Trump has sometimes used sports as a wedge to separate his supporters from his opponents.
Trump has lashed out at NFL players protesting racial injustice. In turn, prominent African-American athletes, including NBA stars LeBron James and Steph Curry, have criticized the president. Last month, the NCAA champion University of Virginia men’s basketball team turned down an invitation to be feted by Trump at the White House. The move was particularly pointed because of Trump’s response blaming “both sides” for the violent 2017 white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, where the university is located.
This week, Alex Cora the manager of the world champion Boston Red Sox, became the latest sports figure to say he would skip a visit to the Trump White House. Cora said he is boycotting the ceremony honoring the World Series champions, scheduled for Thursday, because of what he calls the federal government’s poor response to Hurricane Maria, which devastated his home island of Puerto Rico in 2017.
Given all that, many people were skeptical of Trump’s intentions in honoring the 43-year-old Woods. Did the president see a political play or prop? Or was he simply honoring one of the greatest athletes of his generation?
Certainly, Trump wasted no time before inviting Woods to the White House after the golfer’s thrilling Masters victory. The next day, Trump tweeted that he would honor the Woods with the Medal of Freedom.
Spoke to @TigerWoods to congratulate him on the great victory he had in yesterday’s @TheMasters, & to inform him that because of his incredible Success & Comeback in Sports (Golf) and, more importantly, LIFE, I will be presenting him with the PRESIDENTIAL MEDAL OF FREEDOM!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 15, 2019
Trump is an avid golfer who has been friendly with Woods since he won his first Masters in 1997. After that, Trump has stood by Woods through the golfer’s highs and lows. And he seemed particularly celebratory when Woods won the Masters last month.
“Love people who are great under pressure,” Trump tweeted. “What a fantastic life comeback for a really great guy!”
The two have played golf together at least three times since Trump’s 2016 election victory, and Woods is designing a golf course in Dubai that will be managed by Trump’s company.
Woods has mostly sidestepped questions about his relationship with Trump, other than to acknowledge their friendship. “Well, I’ve known Donald for number of years. We’ve played golf together. We’ve had dinner together,” Woods told reporters last year. “I’ve known him pre-presidency and obviously during his presidency.”
When pressed about Trump’s policies and pugilistic leadership style, Woods said then: “Well, he’s the president of the United States. You have to respect the office. No matter who is in the office, you may like, dislike personality or the politics, but we all must respect the office.”
That was pretty much the stance adopted by former Minnesota Vikings great Alan Page, before he was honored by Trump with the Medal of Freedom last year. Page was the first defensive player to be named MVP of the NFL and went on to become the first African-American justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court and to start an education foundation with his since-deceased wife, Diane. He said he had no reservations about accepting the medal from Trump, even though he did not agree with the president’s politics.
“I figured out early on in this process that this wasn’t about me,” Page told Fox 9 in Minneapolis after receiving the medal. “It’s not about President Trump. It is about the things that I believe in, the values that Diane and I shared and worked to see fulfilled.”
For his part, Woods did not directly address Trump other than to thank him after receiving the medal. Instead, he just reveled in the moment. “This has been an unbelievable experience,” adding to his family, “You’ve seen the good and the bad, the highs and the lows. And I would not be in this position without all of your help.”