For years, we watched him fight. Tiger Woods was the guy with the icy stare and pumping fists; the guy with a broken leg who beat Rocco Mediate. The most astounding aspect of the Tiger Woods scandal, besides the sheer number of alleged infidelities and the swift shattering of the man's manufactured character, is how he has taken it all sitting down. Amazingly, each and every day has gotten worse: humiliating text messages, allegations of bedding porn stars and prostitutes. And amazingly, Woods never punched back, leaving reasonable people to wonder whether it's all true. Now, employing the media spinmeister's trick of dumping news late on Friday afternoon, Woods has admitted on Dec. 12 to "infidelity" (ah, that's what he meant by his original confession of "transgressions") and announced on his website that he's going to stop playing golf for a while. Tiger is in retreat. The fight will come another day if at all.
When will Woods play again? If he's true to his word and is indeed taking this indefinite leave to save his family, he might not tee up for a very long time. He clearly has a lot of work ahead of him. Tiger's absence is a horrendous development for golf. In a down economy, the sport is already hurting for sponsors. Without Woods, they won't come rushing through the ropes. But Tiger's decision is not the death knell many might suspect. Yes, golf ratings often get sliced in half when Woods doesn't play in a tournament. But don't be surprised if curious audiences choose to sample golf next year in higher numbers than expected.
First off, viewers might tune in to see how the networks handle Tiger's absence. Will an announcer like NBC's Johnny Miller, not known for pulling punches, be candid about Tiger's off-course woes? What will other players have to say? Or will the networks just choose to ignore the scandal? That would be a silly strategy, because 1) golf audiences are not stupid, and 2) the golf media really have no reason to fear Tiger's wrath. In the past, the networks needed Woods way more than he needed them. Now Tiger can use all the help he can get. He's in no position to throw media fits upon returning to the tee.
A second reason ratings might not totally tank: fans will want to know what a tour without Tiger feels like. When Woods was hurt, people wouldn't watch, because they knew he'd be back eventually. What was the point? Now, what if he never comes back? That's the longest of long shots, of course. But at this point, would anything in this story surprise you?
Under the much safer assumption that Woods does return, there's a more realistic question: What if he's not as good? It shouldn't be a shock if this whole ordeal saps Tiger's focus and mental acuity. What if he starts losing and our interest fades because, well, we now also know he's wholly unlikable. Bad player, bad person: not exactly a television programmer's or viewer's dream.
So golf fans need to find a backup plan. Woods attracted many fans to the sport. Will they be content to totally abandon the game just because he's not on the fairway? Is it beyond the realm of possibility that these same Tiger fans, who have grown to appreciate the sport as well as the superstar, will seek out other players to pull for? A Phil Mickelson? A talented young American like Anthony Kim? Of course, no other player has the charisma or talent of Tiger. But while Woods is away, fans may rehearse a golf life without him.
The same goes for Tiger's sponsors. We've already seen cracks in the corporate armor. No Woods ads have run since shortly after the scandal broke. Pepsi dropped Tiger's Gatorade drink. Even though the company insists those plans were long in the works, the move doesn't reflect well on Tiger's post-transgression brand. Swiss watchmaker Tag Heuer has ordered its stores in Australia to remove advertising posters featuring Woods. The company also insists the move has nothing to do with the scandal. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice ...
According to a survey from the Argyle Executive Forum made public Friday, Dec. 12, 76% of marketers are saying they would cancel, reduce or suspend their business relationship with Woods if he were currently their celebrity endorser. After news of Tiger's intentions broke, AT&T, the golfer's bag sponsor, said, "We are presently evaluating our ongoing relationship." Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Nike, which built its entire golf business around Woods and thus has the most to lose from his failings, is still sticking by him. "He and his family have Nike's full support," the company said.
Still, Tiger's camp seems prepared for the worst. "Suffice to say, we have had thoughtful conversations and his sponsors have been open to a solution-orientated dialogue," said Mark Steinberg, Woods' agent, in an e-mail. "Of course, each sponsor has unique considerations and ultimately the decisions they make we would fully understand and accept."
Understanding? Acceptance? Is that really Tiger talking? Wow, it's official: Tiger's fight is all gone. The claws are clipped. And now we can honestly wonder: Will they ever come back?