The game Woods couldn't control
With his bunker mentality, golfer whiffed on scandal's P.R.

By Paul Farhi
Friday, December 4, 2009

Throughout his brilliant golf career, Tiger Woods has made control his hallmark, with an almost robotic style of play that enabled him to ignore enormous competitive pressures and demolish opponents.

Woods called the shots in his private life, too. He granted few interviews, and doled out most of his public utterances via his own Web site. He even named his yacht Privacy. What the public knows of him has mostly been learned by watching him on a golf course or in a TV commercial. Woods's sense of personal caution is such that he may be one of the world's most recognizable athletes who is also the least known.

But that air of inviolable mystery has been shattered since the superstar athlete drove his Cadillac Escalade into a fire hydrant outside his Florida estate last week and then refused to talk about it.

The vacuum has been filled in recent days by allegations of affairs with at least two women. One of them, a cocktail waitress named Jaimee Grubbs, has produced a voice-mail recording of Woods that seemed to confirm a relationship. On Thursday, another of the women -- Rachel Uchitel, a party planner with whom the golfer has been linked -- scheduled a news conference in Los Angeles. She then canceled it without explanation, fueling even more questions and speculation.

Although few might have guessed at such tawdry headlines a few weeks ago, Woods might have brought the media whirlwind on himself, not just because of his alleged illicit behavior but also because of his mishandling of the immediate aftermath. Some observers think Woods's history of guarding himself from the public might have been his undoing: By waiting two days to issue his first comments (via his Web site, naturally), Woods opened himself to the kind of innuendo and scrutiny that has followed him for the past week.

"If he had gotten a statement out immediately, he wouldn't have averted the media frenzy, but he might have controlled it better," says Paul Levinson, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University. "The media is like a barking dog that wants meat thrown to it. If it doesn't get enough meat, the dog breaks into the house to get it."

Philandering among the famous is always news, but it's typically the absence of information, rather than the act itself, that creates the circus around such episodes. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford turned his extramarital affair with a former Argentine TV reporter into a worldwide sensation by disappearing for several days as questions began to surface. Stonewalling also inflamed the coverage of the sexual dalliances of former senator John Edwards, former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, Sen. John Ensign, former congressman Gary Condit and former president Bill Clinton.

Conversely, David Letterman admitted that he'd had affairs with staffers on his TV show before anyone was even aware of such allegations. Letterman arguably gained sympathy by being the target of an alleged extortion plot resulting from one of the affairs, but his public image seems to have suffered little.

Woods hasn't been seen leaving his house since his accident on Nov. 27. He made no statements other than those posted on his Web site, including a demand to be left alone. "The virtue of privacy is one that must be protected in matters that are intimate and within one's own family," his last statement read. "Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn't have to mean public confessions."

People will forget Woods's indiscretions if his play on the golf course makes them forget it, says Bob Dorfman, a San Francisco advertising executive who assesses the marketability of sports stars.

"I assume he'll play golf as well as he ever did," Dorfman says. "That's why sponsors are attracted to him in the first place. It's never been about family values. The fact is, there's no other player like him in terms of his talent and ability. He pretty much supports an entire industry. It will be tough for a sponsor to say, 'I will not use that guy because he had an affair.' "

Dorfman points out that basketball player Kobe Bryant rehabilitated his image following a sexual-assault charge by leading the Los Angeles Lakers to an NBA championship.

And so far, Woods's most prominent sponsors -- Gatorade, Nike, EA Sports, Gillette -- have given no indications that they plan to abandon him.

"Tiger always gets out the rough pretty easily," Dorfman says. "I don't see it affecting him."

Woods's mistaken judgment -- both as an ethical matter and in his handling of the media -- may have been an outgrowth of the rarefied air that mega-celebrities breathe, says Eric Dezenhall, a crisis-management expert in Washington who represents celebrities and others in the media crosshairs.

"People always say, 'Celebrities think they can get away with things.' The fact is, they can and do," he says. "What I have found with people like this is that they absolutely do get away with it, until they can't.

"It's a world without red lights. Only green lights. But you can't sit there and say they're overconfident and arrogant. That overconfidence and arrogance helped them get them where they are. It just ceases to be helpful in a mess like this."

Dezenhall doesn't think Woods should try to do damage control now. "You can't rebuild a house in the middle of a hurricane," he says. "Sometimes you have to wait for it to pass to start rebuilding. . . . We're no longer in an age where you can feed the [media] beast. You can't do it when the beast is infinite. No matter what he does now, people will say it's too little, too late. At this stage, less is more."

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