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Tiger Woods, PGA Tour both find themselves in the rough

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Accenture PLC became the first major sponsor to cut ties with Tiger Woods. Swiss watch maker Tag Heuer has said they will continue to work with him. PR consultant Peter Himler takes a look at what may be ahead for the world's top golfer. (Dec. 14)

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By John Feinstein
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, December 14, 2009

It is now Day 18 of the Tiger Woods Hostage Crisis.

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Okay, maybe that sounds overblown, but in a very real sense it isn't. Woods is a hostage, even though he is his own captor.

What's more, there is no doubting that both Woods and the sport of golf are in crisis. The PGA Tour needs Woods almost as much as mammals need oxygen. Woods needs golf more now than ever because playing the game he has dominated for almost 13 years may be the only way for him to him to temporarily escape the humiliation that has rained down him since the morning of Nov. 27. That day now feels as if it were closer to 18 years ago than 18 days ago given all that has happened.

The question that is being asked and re-asked right now in the wake of his announcement Friday that he is taking an "indefinite" leave of absence from the PGA Tour is this: How will this affect Tiger?

Here's the absolute, definitive answer to that question: No one, including Tiger, has any idea.

There has never been an athlete in history who has experienced anything like this in the prime of his career. The only possible analogy -- and it is a stretch -- is Kobe Bryant. There are major differences, though, in the two situations: Bryant is a great player but has never been thought of as, without any doubt, the best player of all time. Bryant was accused in one ugly incident but not convicted. He never had to post anything on his Web site referring to his "infidelities," the way Woods did on Friday.

Bryant definitely took a hard fall after the rape allegations he faced, but that was nothing -- nothing -- like what Woods is going through. Bryant's reputation fell from a second-story window; Woods's fell from the penthouse.

While there's no way to predict what Woods's future will be on or off the golf course, it is pretty easy to see where this mess is headed over the next few months. After his announcement Friday, sponsors began looking for the exit.

Gillette took the silly route, claiming that since Woods was taking a "timeout" from golf, it would take a "timeout" from promoting him as a sponsor of its products. One wonders if Tiger has to go to his room with the door shut to shave while his timeout continues.

Accenture was more direct, announcing on Sunday that it was dropping Woods. One suspects others will do the same in the coming weeks and months now that the door has been cracked open. The only sponsor that is certain not to drop Woods is Nike, because Phil Knight will no doubt see a marketing opportunity in all this. Woods's next signature irons will probably be called "redeemers." Think about that first TV ad: Woods standing over a shot while we hear his voice saying, "If you're looking for redemption on the golf course [pause while he hits a perfect shot onto the green] these are the clubs for you."

What's more important in the grand scheme of things than sponsors dropping or not dropping Woods is what this does to PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem in his search for new tournament sponsors in this economy. It is worth noting that when Buick was forced last summer to drop its sponsorship in San Diego, no one rushed into the breach -- even when it was generally assumed that Woods would be playing in that tournament for the next 10 or 12 years. Finchem already had a problem because a lot of sponsors were less than eager to re-up or sign on for the tournaments Woods had traditionally skipped.

Now Finchem has to go out and negotiate in a climate where his bread-and-butter superstar has been tainted -- perhaps forever. Woods may very well dominate golf again whenever he returns to the game, but he is never going to be the same sort of beloved hero he has been to so many golf fans up until now. Finchem is fond of telling people (and sponsors), "We have the world's most famous athlete on our tour." That's still true, but it's a pretty good bet Finchem isn't going to trot the line out again any time in the near future.

It is a given that TV ratings, ticket sales and corporate sales double when Woods plays in a tournament, and that TV ratings sometimes go even higher than that when he contends. The tour took a hit when he was gone for eight months after his knee surgery 18 months ago, but it was a bearable absence because everyone knew he was coming back, as good as ever -- which is exactly what he did, winning six times in 2009. He didn't win a major, but that had nothing to do with the knee. He also failed to win a major in 1998, 2003 and 2004. It happens, even to Woods.

But this is different, because Woods is now in a place neither he nor anyone in golf ever dreamed he would be. He has been publicly disgraced and has become a nonstop source of Internet and late-night jokes. The tour is going to have to deal with a whole new set of security issues when he returns, not to mention media issues. (What happens when TMZ requests a credential for his first tournament back? How do you deal with reporters who ignore the inevitable "golf questions only" edict during his news conferences? How much security does Woods take into the locker room with him? In the past, security personnel have not been allowed in the locker room because they get in the way of the other players.)

So many questions, so few answers. While Woods remains in hiding, the debates will continue to rage. Some will say he should be left alone to try to repair his broken marriage. Others will take the "every famous athlete has done it" road. Many will blame the media because that's how these things work: The media is an easy target, whether the issue is Watergate, Monica Lewinsky or Tiger Woods.

In the end, though, it comes down to this: Woods is one of the 10 or 12 most important athletes in history. You can sit around and argue about the list for days and Woods is going to be on it somewhere. And no matter who are the other names on your list, none ever went through anything close to this. Some died very young, others suffered injuries and a few were involved in personal scandals or embarrassments.

But none fell off a cliff like this one -- pushed only by themselves. Whether you sympathize with Woods for putting himself in this position, whether you blame the media, whether you think he's a horrible person who deserves all the schadenfreude one can muster, there is no arguing with this: Tiger Woods is falling right now from one of the highest pedestals ever created. No one can possibly know where he will land and how he will land. And it may be a good long while before we even have any clues.

For more from the author, visit his blog at http://www.feinsteinonthebrink.com


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