In Tiger Woods’ forgivable mistake, there’s still a telling message

tiger woods justin thomas tampon

Tiger Woods' prank with Justin Thomas played out in front of millions of people, whether he meant it or not.

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PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — Completely unintentionally, the Genesis Invitational has become an annual exercise in messaging. Last year, we listened as top players defended the PGA Tour as the best place to play pro golf. This year: Netflix is bringing golf to a new audience. Also recently: Men in golf making gendered jokes. The last two are bound to intersect.

Plenty of milk has already been spilled over the tampon prank Tiger Woods played on Justin Thomas on Thursday afternoon. Plenty of observers will try to clean it up by shouting It’s just a joke! That’s well within their rights. In general, though, it’s not fair (or kind!) to tell people why they shouldn’t be offended by something. If they feel that way, there’s something within the original messaging that made them feel that way. And the truth is, no one knows messaging like Tiger Woods.

There’s intentional meaning in some of his actions (i.e., speaking out against LIV Golf) and unspoken truths in others (i.e., declaring St. Andrews his favorite course in the world; Woods likes the firm turf of Scotland more than the perfect green grass fairways of Augusta National.) He sends us a silent message when he tears up during his Hall of Fame induction, or when he gives Thomas that cheeky grin after making three birdies in a row. Intentional or not, Woods also sent a message via the prank he made during his first competitive PGA Tour round in seven months. He didn’t mean for everyone to see it, but he had to know we were all watching. 

tiger woods apology
Tiger Woods apologizes for tampon joke he made mid-round with Justin Thomas
By: Sean Zak

As the host of the tournament and most famous golfer who ever lived, Woods knows every step he takes on Tour will be seen, especially considering how fragile his every step has looked. Every smile will be captured. Every grimace will be parsed. This is a standard different than any other golfer has faced, and it might not be unfair, but Woods also knows it’s his reality. And knowing all that, Woods still went through with it. We don’t need to re-watch the video frame-by-frame to figure out what it tells us: These are the kinds of jokes Woods likely makes off camera, too. But in this case the setting matters, here in his first competitive event in seven months. The first tweet with high-resolution photos has been viewed more than 24 million times. 

“It was supposed to be all fun and games, and obviously it hasn’t turned out that way,” Woods said Friday after his second round. “If I offended anybody, it was not the case. It was just friends having fun. 

“As I said, if I offended anybody in any way, shape or form, I’m sorry. It was not intended to be that way. It was just, we play pranks on one another all the time, and virally I think this did not come across that way, but between us it was — it’s different.”

Woods apologized, but didn’t explain the intention of his prank. Most everyone can understand the person we are behind closed doors often differs from the person we are in public. But akin to when Thomas used a gay slur during a PGA Tour round, Woods making an off-color quip like this during competition — which most Tour players take as seriously as a funeral — shows that silly, crass jokes are part of his lexicon. That isn’t surprising, and it doesn’t make Woods unique, but it’s still important. Woods is the most impactful influencer golf has ever known. His jokes are just jokes — and, no, comedy isn’t dead — but how and when he delivers them matters.

On Friday, Woods made the cut on the number and earned himself two more rounds at Riviera, an important step for his golf season. More birdies are likely this weekend. More pranks, not so much.

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Sean Zak Editor

Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine and just finished a book about the summer he spent in St. Andrews.