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What Woods' public shaming says about us

Two things we know about the Masters golf tournament:

First, Tiger Woods remains the king of his sport. If you like watching the best show their skill, you love watching the greatest golfer's return to Augusta.

Although I'm traditionalist by nature and like seeing athletic records stand for a long time, I want to see Woods beat Jack Nicklaus' 18 major championships. Woods needs only four to tie Nicklaus, and there's no reason he shouldn't keep shooting for the mark. Short of a physical impairment, it would be a tragedy to see the most complete golfer of all time end up short of the Nicklaus record.

But here's the second thing: This Masters is one weird event.

Woods tried to take some of the weirdness out with his news conference Monday. But watching him reappear after his well-chronicled dalliances is like watching Gary Hart attempt to capture the Democratic presidential nomination after he was caught cheating on his wife as the 1988 campaign began.

I don't see how golf fans can feel anything but uncomfortable watching Woods walk the Amen Corner and march up the 18th hole.

As we watch and fidget, however, we can find solace in the fact that the concept of shame still matters. Yes, shame.

There's no doubt that our culture has been coarsened through "defining deviancy down," as the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it. Violent flicks. Kids having kids. Drunken fans bellowing curses at sporting events. They're all part of it.

But it's remarkable, if not refreshing, to think that something as simple as shame drove the world's greatest athlete into hiding. It didn't take a legal action. He simply was embarrassed off the golf course and into counseling by the revelation of his actions.

Shame has claimed some other big names lately, too. John Edwards, once a Democratic vice presidential nominee with a chance to capture his party's 2008 nomination, was run out of politics by cheating on his wife. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford took his own fall after his affair was exposed, crossing himself off the short list of 2012 GOP presidential candidates.

And there's former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Idaho Sen. Larry Craig. Each was shamed out of office or into oblivion. Add them all up, and maybe American society hasn't lost its way. Maybe we still have a healthy sense of right and wrong.

Some cultural critics believe America is a modern Rome stumbling into moral rot. Not so fast, perhaps. These examples may tell us that public shame still can be a correcting force.

If this sounds like I'm only for public scolding, I'm not. Shame for shame's sake is not the answer. We need it to lead to redemption.

Call me a sucker, but there's something morally uplifting in watching a person experience a reformation of his soul, habits and behavior after a terrible tumble.

And that brings us back to Tiger Woods.

None of us, beyond his family and inner circle, can know whether the past few months of self-imposed exile have truly redirected him. We can only judge him by how well he plays golf, and I'm all for him whipping courses into submission.

But I also want to see him rise from the ashes of his destroyed life. What a story that would be. Man falls. Man rises.

And it all would have started because of the shame hanging over his once-hidden deeds.