OPINION: Trump’s Tiger

The changing meaning of presidential honors in the age of Trump


Brad Barr | USA Today Sports

March 10, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Tiger Woods is congratulated by Donald Trump for his victory at the WGC Cadillac Championship at Trump Doral Golf Club.

The intersection of sports and politics is an American tradition. The issues we debate in the halls of government often find their way onto the playing field and mark significant steps in our march toward social equality. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in professional baseball before Jim Crow lost its grip on the south; Michael Sam taught us football players could be gay before gay people could marry. Whether it sparks riots or brings tears to your eye, the relationship between these two pillars of American life has always played a role in pushing us forward.       

But not all moments in sports are political — in fact, most aren’t. When Tiger Woods won The Masters Tournament on Sunday, April 14 to complete one of the greatest comeback stories in the history of professional sports, it had nothing to do with politics. In an era of particularly bitter national discourse, it was a welcome distraction.

But then the 45th President of the United States of America decided to do something about that. He took out his phone, opened Twitter and smudged his grubby, little fingers all over yet another American tradition.

“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!” Mr. Trump tweeted with his signature unpredictable use of capital letters.

It took Trump less than 24 hours to make this decision, and there was little evidence of rigor in his selection process — or the existence of any selection process for that matter. Which, perhaps for the first time in his presidency, is perfectly fine. The Presidential Medal of Freedom — the president’s formal recognition of someone’s meritorious contribution to society — is one of the few duties the president can execute alone, leaving them with full autonomy over this small slice of their legacy.

“[The Medal of Freedom] really says a lot about what each president values,” Associate Professor of political science Ben Epstein said. “It’s a way for them to suggest what or who is important and who should be recognized and why people should be recognized. It’s a way to leave a legacy in terms of, not only in who they select, but what type of person and what type of values the president emphasizes when they are in office.”

So why, according to Trump, should Woods be recognized? And what does that say about what Trump values?

In his tweet, Trump says it is for his “success” and “comeback in sports and, more importantly, life.” Only the biggest Tiger haters in the world would deny the wonder of Woods at his peak, let alone when he conquered Augusta National for a fifth time earlier this month.

Ed Sherman, a Chicago Tribune sports writer who covered golf during Woods’s reign of terror in the late ’90s through the early 2000s, didn’t hesitate to sum up Woods’s place in golf as one of the great spectacles in sports.

“He’s right up there with the greats of every sport—like [Michael] Jordan or Babe Ruth or Wayne Gretzky. He’s one of those guys that everybody knows even if you don’t like golf,” Sherman said. “The greatest player we’ve ever seen.”

Golf fans often argue over who is the “greatest of all time.” Jack Nicklaus has more major championships victories (18 to Tiger’s 15), the gold standard of golf tournaments. Woods has more wins, recently pulling one win shy of the tying Sam Sneed’s all time record of 82, and a raw talent unlike anything we’ve ever seen in sport.

“I’m not the biggest Tiger fan,” said 2017 DePaul graduate and golf fan Nick Petrakos. “But what Tiger has done for the game — you can’t compare it.”

“For the game,” he says. But you have to wonder whether athletic greatness is really a meritorious contribution to society.

“The idea is to give the award to people who have a large political or social impact and that’s really interpreted widely,” Epstein said.

Nicklaus was awarded the medal of freedom in 2005 by then-president George W. Bush. At that time Nicklaus had been retired from the PGA Tour for almost 20 years, and more than 30 years removed from his prime. At that point in his life, philanthropy consumed most of his time—and still does. That commitment to philanthropy is why he received the honor.

Woods will be just the fourth golfer accept the honor, after Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and the first black PGA tour player Charlie Sifford. At the age of 43, he will also be one of the youngest people to ever receive the award and will become the first to accept it as an active athlete.

It’s not hard to find Trump’s other motivations either. Trump and Woods play golf together and have even built golf resorts together. Woods is the epitome of a winner, and Trump likes to think of himself the same way.

I’d make a joke about their shared history of extramarital affairs and pornstars. But that just feels too obvious.

Of Trump’s eight medals of freedom, four have gone to athletes. The others to prominent conservatives. But his most recent medal of freedom ceremony may just be the most Trumpian of all.