Ever since Tiger Woods arrived on the public stage as a golf phenom at the age of 21, Donald Trump has been cultivating him as a celebrity who could add a sheen to his properties around the globe.
After Woods won his first Masters title in 1997, he celebrated in Atlantic City at the Taj Mahal casino, eating pork chops and being photographed with the owner, Trump.
Since then, Trump has named a villa after Woods at the Trump National Doral Miami. He has also gone into business abroad with Woods, announcing in 2014 that the golfer would design a course in Dubai as part of a luxury residential megaproject that would be managed by the Trump Organisation.
On Monday, Trump is set to once again seize Woods' moment. At the White House, he will present Woods with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in honour of his Masters victory last month, a stunning personal comeback that put him back on top of the sports world at age 43, after a decade long major championship drought.
The medal, which is considered the nation's highest civilian honour, is typically given near the end of the recipient's career to honour a lifetime of achievement. But Trump waited only a few weeks after the Masters to celebrate Woods. His rush to become part of the comeback story appeared to be a mix of hero worship and opportunism: Trump has cheered on Woods throughout his career, and his long relationship with the golfer helps bring one of the most prominent African American athletes to a White House that has been boycotted by many others.
But by honouring him, the president leaves the appearance of using his office to reward a business partner.
"Tiger Woods is obviously a very talented golfer," said Aaron Scherb, the director of legislative affairs for Common Cause, a watchdog group. But Trump awarding him the Medal of Freedom "shows he's willing to use any tool of government to benefit his business and political allies."
The White House defended Woods' selection. "The president thinks Tiger is not only a tremendous athlete but also has a great comeback story," said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary. "He is undisputed as one of the great golfers in history and has broken barriers in the game."
Established in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy, the award is a unilateral exercise of presidential power. There are no guidelines for how or why someone should be selected. Kyle C. Kopko, a professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania who helped write a study on the Medal of Freedom, said presidents often bestowed the award on political allies or celebrity friends. President Barack Obama, for example, gave the award to Oprah Winfrey, who campaigned aggressively for him, and to his own vice president, Joe Biden.
"But I can't recall a business partner," Kopko said. "I can't think of something like this, where Tiger is designing a golf course for Trump. I can't think of another parallel."
Trump's fandom for the golf superstar has been constant for years. He prides himself on having stuck with Woods through a serial philandering scandal that derailed his professional and personal life. At a somber news conference in 2010, Woods acknowledged having led a secret life, which burst into public view after he crashed his SUV outside his gated community near Orlando, Florida.
"I was unfaithful," Woods said at the time. "I had affairs. I cheated." He said that his success and celebrity led him to feel entitled "to enjoy all the temptations around me." But, he said, "I was foolish. I don't get to play by different rules."
Coming clean was not the beginning of a comeback, though. After his subsequent divorce, Woods underwent repeated back operations, which led to an addiction to painkillers. In 2017, the year he was charged with driving under the influence, he questioned whether he would ever be able to play golf again. (He entered a treatment program and the charges were dropped.)
For Woods, it has been a long road back. And Trump has shown that he sees the relationship as mutually beneficial, never judging Woods for his personal transgressions and hoping to reap the rewards of sticking with him.
"I remained strong for @TigerWoods during his difficult period," Trump wrote on Twitter in 2013. "He rewarded me (and himself) by winning at Trump National Doral."
Last month, Trump made it clear that Woods' rocky personal journey was part of his appeal. "Love people who are great under pressure," Trump tweeted after the Masters. "What a fantastic life comeback for a really great guy!"
Woods has appeared happy to return the support. The day before the 2014 World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship, Woods appeared with Trump and three of his children to inaugurate the Tiger Woods Villa at Doral.
"What Donald has done with this place is phenomenal, and he does nothing halfway," Woods said at the ribbon-cutting. One month later, Woods announced the Tiger Woods Charity Playoffs, a series of nine charity golf tournaments for amateurs. One of the eight regional qualifiers was held at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey.
That year, Trump also announced that Woods would design a course for his Dubai property. While Woods' team has tried to downplay the business connection, arguing that the golfer's contract was with the developer, DAMAC Properties, Trump has been eager to advertise Woods as his business partner. On Twitter, he has shared links that mention that the two men are "teaming up" and that Woods is "working for" Trump.
The course, which was expected to be completed by the end of 2017, has yet to open, however. Glenn Greenspan, the longtime spokesman for Woods, did not respond to a request to discuss their business ties.
Nonetheless, Trump has made it known over the years that he sees Woods as a great investment. "I want to sponsor those children," he told Extra TV in 2013, when he was asked to weigh in on the romantic relationship between Woods and Lindsey Vonn, the champion World Cup ski racer. The two are no longer a couple.
And when Woods won a tournament at the Trump National Doral by two strokes that year, Trump used the moment to plug his course as one of the greatest in the world, promoting the victory — and himself — on Twitter and in an interview on "Fox & Friends."
Woods has played golf with Trump at least three times since the pairing became a political statement: twice since Trump became president and once when he was the president-elect. Woods, who has taken some blowback for engaging with Trump, has argued that he is not a political person and simply respects the office of the president.
"Our discussion topics were wide-ranging," Woods said in 2017 of playing golf with Trump. "We both enjoyed the bantering, bickering and needling," he said, adding, "We didn't have a match and played for fun."
Woods stands in contrast to African American athletes like LeBron James and Stephen Curry who have staked out public stances against Trump, speaking out against policies like the immigration ban from several predominantly Muslim countries or protesting his administration by refusing to visit the White House.
The announcement that Woods will be awarded the Medal of Freedom — which only three other golfers have received, at the very end of their careers — has raised eyebrows in the golf world.
"It sullies everybody," said Rick Reilly, the author of "Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump." Reilly said that because of their financial ties, accepting an award that Woods could easily win later in his life "puts a big stain on Tiger."
Only about 4 per cent of the award's recipients have been sports figures, according to Kopko's study. In the golf world, President George W. Bush honoured Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus with the medal, and Obama recognised pioneering African American player Charlie Sifford.
Trump has chosen only eight honourees since he entered office — the lowest of any president at that point in their presidency since Richard M. Nixon — and of his batch, half have been athletes.
To be sure, Woods, who is considered in a class of his own as a golfer, is seen as a natural recipient of the award. But it has not been the norm for someone his age to receive it.
"It seems like Tiger Woods' whole body of work is at halftime right now," said Jeff Babineau, an editor at Golfweek. "It's a lifetime achievement award. It seems like giving Justin Bieber the lifetime Grammy."
Written by: Annie Karni and Kevin Draper
Photographs by: Doug Mills
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES