Woods needs to regain control of his story

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Until Tiger Woods cancelled his Tuesday news conference and participation later in the week in one of his signature golf tournaments in California, what story do you think would have received more attention on radio, television and your local newspaper Wednesday -- more details on Tiger's mysterious Thanksgiving night car crash or President Obama's widely anticipated final decision on troop increases in Afghanistan scheduled for prime time Tuesday night?

Judging from the media frenzy surrounding Woods' auto accident adventure, the odds would have been on Tiger. It's a moot point now, though, after Woods announced Monday on his Web site that he will not be playing this week at the Chevron World Challenge and won't be in action again until the PGA Tour starts up again in January.

We can now expect more silence from the No. 1 golfer in the world over the next six weeks, a strategy his advisers clearly have been advocating over the past five days, apart from the occasional carefully worded cryptic message on his Web site.

This is how Woods almost always has handled all media members ever since an episode near the beginning of his career, when a writer for GQ Magazine, Charles Pierce, relayed several off-color homophobic and racially-tinged jokes Woods cracked while riding in a limousine. Woods told Pierce after the fact those comments were meant to be off the record, to which he was told that phrase needed to be uttered up front, not after the fact.

A few weeks later, Woods's words were in the magazine for all to see, and Woods has since severely limited his one-on-one media accessibility, and when he does, his handlers often hover to make sure a tight 10- or 15-minute limit is not exceeded. Woods has almost always shown up for pre-tournament news conferences and post-round sessions in the media room or out behind the 18th green. And he has that routine down to science, often deflecting bothersome questions with short non-answers and hardly ever truly baring his soul.

But this time, Woods is making a huge mistake in not being more forthcoming about what really happened outside his home last week. By doing so, he essentially has lost control of the story, and in this new age of 24/7 information, that can be very dangerous, particularly to a man with a virtually spotless public reputation. Various gossip Web sites are publishing all manner of salacious rumors about Woods and the status of his marriage and whether that had any relationship to the events of Thanksgiving night.

A communications professor friend of mine pointed out Monday that Woods needs to share his version of the events, if for no other reason than to provide something to compete with the stories the tabloids are spinning.

"If they've got a better story than Tiger has, he'd better get his own story out there and not go into hiding," he said. "If you lose control of the story, you lose the story to anyone who has a better story. Right now Tiger has lost the story, and it's hard to get it back, especially with what's out there on some of these gossip sites. And if Tiger Woods can't control his own story, who can?"

Everywhere I go these days, people who know that I've retired from this newspaper after covering golf for most of the last two decades keep asking me, "what do you think is going on with Tiger?" I tell them I have no earthly idea, but would hope Woods would just come out and tell us exactly what happened, even if it might not be particularly flattering.

If it was a heated argument with his wife that led to his leaving the house at 2:30 in the morning, just say so. If he got woozy behind the wheel and a tad disoriented after taking the wrong pain medication, we surely could buy that explanation, as well. We know for a fact that Woods has always been something of a night owl, a man who says he needs just four hours of sleep and frequently works out well before dawn. It just might not be that unusual for him to be in a car at that odd hour.

If it's worse than either of the above scenarios, coming clean might still be the best alternative. After all, the American public has almost always been forgiving when its most gifted athletes mess up, especially if they come back and atone with rousing performances in their respective sports. Ask Kobe Bryant, A-Rod or Andy Pettitte, among many others. Another major win or three, and the memory of that flattened fire hydrant fades fast.

N.Y. Times columnist George Vecsey may well have said it best.

"Tiger Woods, after all, is not some politician who was caught straying off the fairway of life," he wrote Monday. "Politicians merely sell themselves; they don't sell an entire lucrative sport, the way Woods does. He can get back some of his lost image by putting out a plausible story. But at this moment, Tiger Woods has lost his touch."

Not to mention lost control of the story, whatever it might be.

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