By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 13, 2009
On Friday night, when Tiger Woods announced he would take an "indefinite" leave from professional golf, he attempted to begin the reconstruction of a personal life that seemingly sits in disarray after his infidelity became part of the greater public discourse. What will come under closer scrutiny in the weeks or months of that self-imposed exile? Will Woods return to the form that made him the world's -- and perhaps history's -- best golfer, and will the marketing juggernaut created around him ever recover?
The unknowns at this point in the Woods saga -- How long will he be away? Could he focus if he comes back? Will companies continue to use him to sell merchandise? -- far outweigh what he has addressed, which amounted to an admission of unfaithfulness and a plea for public and private forgiveness in the wake of tabloid documentation of various extramarital affairs.
Any significant time away from tournament golf, though, could impact the pursuit that, to this point, had defined Woods's career -- Jack Nicklaus's record 18 major championships. Any further damage to his reputation could affect his ability to generate more endorsements. Earlier this year, Forbes reported that Woods became the first athlete worth $1 billion. Saturday, though, Gillette said it would "support his desire for privacy by limiting his role in our marketing programs."
Thus, there are the three levels of fallout: Woods the person, Woods the player and Woods the corporation. The list of people affected by the length of his absence and the sordid details of the revelations includes television executives, advertisers, tournament organizers, fellow PGA Tour players -- not to mention those interested in or involved in the history of golf.
"What's really problematic about it is that, coming out of a recession, golf is trying to rebound like so many other sports," said David Carter, the executive director of the University of Southern California's Sports Business Institute. "They're trying to retain or attract new business partners . . . and your longest marketing coattails are now no longer to be found, and you're not sure when they might return. . . . . Everybody is left to wonder what the impact is going to be on themselves."
Indeed, those professional golfers who spoke on the subject Friday and Saturday seemed to understand the potential trickle-down of any sustained absence by Woods.
"Indefinite is a scary word," former U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy said at the Australian PGA Championship, according to the Associated Press. "If Tiger Woods indefinitely doesn't play golf, that's not good for us."
The impact on Woods, the golfer, might not be significant if he returns before the Masters in April, a scenario which would allow him to play in all four major championships. Last year, when he was coming off an eight-month layoff because of knee and leg surgery, Woods played three times leading up to the Masters, requiring him only to miss January and February.
Still, 2009 became the first season in which Woods failed to win a major since 2004, when he was completing an overhaul of his swing that contributed to a run of 10 consecutive majors without a win -- the longest stretch of his pro career. He won six majors from 2005 to '08, and his victory in the 2008 U.S. Open brought his career total to 14. Just 32 at the time, catching and surpassing Nicklaus -- despite the injuries that would cost him the second half of 2008 -- seemed inevitable.
Now, there is some doubt. On Dec. 30, Woods will turn 34. When Nicklaus turned 34, he had 13 major championships. He won five between the ages of 35 and 40, and one outlier, the 1986 Masters, when he was 46. But he never missed time. Skipping another major to deal with his personal issues -- and neither Woods nor his representatives have given any indication of how long his leave will be -- could lessen Woods's chances of catching and surpassing Nicklaus.
"That word 'indefinite,' that gives him all the leeway in the world," said Frank Hannigan, a former executive director of the U.S. Golf Association. "If 'indefinite' means February, then maybe there won't be much impact on history. If it means the week after the Masters, then that's different."
There have been other elite golfers who interrupted their careers, intentionally and not. Bobby Jones stopped playing competitively at age 28. Ben Hogan suffered what appeared to be career-threatening injuries in a collision with a bus in 1949, but won six of his nine majors thereafter.
Those, though, were almost inconceivably different times, when there was no financial empire at stake. Though Nike, perhaps Woods's flagship corporate relationship, and EA Sports, which makes a video game using Woods, said their relationships were unchanged, others haven't been as definitive.
AT&T, which serves as the title sponsor of Woods's AT&T National tournament that has been held the past three years in Bethesda, said it was evaluating its relationship with Woods. Greg McLaughlin, chief executive of the Tiger Woods Foundation -- which benefits from the event -- said through a spokesperson Saturday he had spoken with representatives of AT&T, and the company will serve as the title sponsor of next July's tournament.
"Each sponsor has unique considerations and ultimately the decisions they make we would fully understand and accept," Woods's agent, Mark Steinberg, said in an e-mail statement.
Gillette spokesman Damon Jones said the company would be "discontinuing him in television and print advertisements," though it is not formally ending its relationship.
"The way I think about it is, Tiger said he wants to take a timeout," Jones said by phone. "And we're going to be consistent with that and take a timeout as well."