As scandals go, it was the proverbial storm in a tea cup. Or it should have been. Tiger Woods, the greatest golfer in the world, gets into a single-car accident while allegedly driving drunk near his home in Florida.

Celebrity magazines were quickly on the trail, which led to the revelation of a long list of "mistresses" that the married Woods had been consorting with. Before long, the world's best known athlete, once seen as a role model and the ideal pitchman for corporations wanting to promote their brands, found his reputation sullied and his career ruined.

Late last week, Woods announced that he would take an "indefinite" leave of absence from professional golf in order to "focus my attention on being a better husband, father and person".

Tiger, who had always displayed nerves of steel on the course, was unnerved by the publicity in a way that he never had been by a 10-foot putt. He chose to opt out.

With his image damaged, corporate sponsors dropped him, and the general public turned away from him in nauseated disbelief. How could that be, you ask? Since when do we come down like a ton of bricks on a famous athlete for the sin of extra-marital shenanigans?

Celebrities have always scandalised us by their excesses. The culture is programmed, as it were, to accept it all, even relish it. Or so we thought. A well-known golfer cheating on his wife? Where is the story here?

From Jack Johnson, the heavyweight boxer in the first decade of the 20th century — who flouted conventions regarding the social place of blacks in American society when he broke a powerful taboo by consorting with white women — to Mike Tyson, that other heavyweight champ in the century's last decade, athletics and notoriety have long gone hand-in-hand.

From Oscar Wilde to Monica Lewinsky, from priests abusing children to politicians abusing power, from John Profumo's amorous transgressions with Christine Keeler in 1963 to Silvio Berlusconi's peccadillos with escorts parading naked at his private villa recently, scandals about lust and power, drugs and alcohol have long kept headline writers busy.

Scandals tease and tantalise, but sociologists tell us that they also serve a function, transforming social values, presumably because they jolt us into reassessing, through public debate, what is morally acceptable.

Maybe so, but as of late debate suggests that Tiger got what he deserved.

So does this mean that golf fans will be watching the masters sans Tiger because the man was linked to busty cocktail waitresses (all of whom happened to be white) and because he crashed into a fire hydrant while drunk late on Thanksgiving night?

Nebulous indiscretion

It would be an outrage if Tiger's fall from grace is the result of such a nebulous indiscretion. For the past 10 years, Tiger had been a towering athlete and the dominant figure in his sport.

While Arnold Palmer gave golf a popular appeal in the 1950s, Woods elevated it to an art form in the 1990s, a black man who dominated a sport hitherto considered the domain of whites, an athlete who, according to Forbes magazine, accumulated a hefty bank balance of more than $1 billion (Dh3.6 billion) in career earnings.

No doubt Tiger had a lot of detractors who saw him as too aloof, arrogant and full of himself — lacking, say, the fizzy charisma of a Mohammad Ali or the earthy ease of a Michael Jordan — not to mention his detractors among black women, who felt that he surely must have thought he was too good for them.

But what ultimately undid Tiger were the core values of American culture, a culture that remains, despite the demographic changes that have taken place over the last half century, Anglo-Saxon and puritan.

And puritanism sees hedonism in an individual's pursuit of forbidden joys. Consider, for example, how the puritans banned bear-baiting in Britain in the 1570s; not because it caused bears pain but because it gave men pleasure.

Yes, we love to be titillated by reading about celebrities' sexual dalliances, their messy divorces, their drunken escapades, and the rest of it. The Germans may have coined the term schadenfreude, or delight at the misfortune of others, but the sentiment is more quintessentially American.

Americans love to see their stars rise, then fall. It's a pity, though, when the price we pay for that cheap thrill is to see a golfer like Tiger, who had taken golf to unimaginable heights, and who had given his fans many a wondrous moment of grace on the golf course, taken away from us.

It is best here to recall how Jack Nicklaus, another golfing great, when asked by reporters for a comment on Tiger's troubles, huffed dismissively: "The whole affair is none of my business". It should have been none of ours, either.

Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.