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Golf media had little inkling about Woods's off-course behavior

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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 Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, December 14, 2009

Thirteen years after Tiger Woods's first PGA Tour victory, we're getting a peek behind the curtain of secrecy Woods and his handlers so meticulously weaved over the years, and the view is very different from the family-man, good-guy image he parlayed into a billion in the bank and global fame. At the moment, it is not a pretty sight, with a new revelation seemingly every day and his longtime sponsors rethinking their investment in an athlete who had seemed beyond reproach.

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We're also in the midst of a media feeding frenzy not seen since the height of O.J. mania. Woods further churned the waters with last Friday's announcement on his Web site that he was taking an indefinite hiatus from the game. And Accenture, one of his main sponsors, added to those woes Sunday, cutting its ties to him because, the company said, he is "no longer the right representative" for the global management consulting firm he has been associated with since 2003.

As a sportswriter for 40 years who covered professional golf for this newspaper for most of the past two decades, I've seen and occasionally written about badly behaving athletes in sports across the board, including the PGA Tour, so very little surprises me anymore. But I can't say that about this sadly sordid story.

I'm stunned, and maybe that's why I've also been feeling somewhat uneasy ever since Woods's run-in with a fire hydrant on Nov. 27 became public. Plainly put, I'm also a little embarrassed that I did not have a clue about Woods's bizarre double life in what has become one of the most shocking free-falls from grace in the history of sports.

Everywhere I go these days, people who know what I do for a living keep asking the same question: Did you have any idea this was going on?

I smile and sheepishly shake my head: No, I did not, never even a whiff.

And yet, even if I had known about his off-the-course "transgressions," I'm also not certain what sort of information would have been suitable for publication outside of the trashy tabloids and gossip Web sites. Woods surely violated his marriage vows and projected a public image that was inconsistent with the private life he led, but he was hardly the first athlete to betray a spouse or disappoint a fan base.

Out of simple curiosity, I e-mailed some of my fellow golf writers last week, wondering if any of them knew anything about Woods's extracurricular activities. A half-dozen colleagues who have covered the PGA Tour on a regular basis for most of the Woods era said they, too, had been similarly clueless about Woods's self-described "infidelities."

"I never saw or heard a thing," one respondent said. "I had the occasion to be with Tiger away from the course, away from golf in very private settings, and never saw anything suggestive, never saw him looking at an attractive woman in a suggestive way. I guess I always thought he was smarter, so maybe I wasn't looking for anything suspicious."

Another veteran golf writer said, "the million-dollar question I've been asked is, 'Did I know anything about this or ever see it coming?' At first I was a bit embarrassed to say no, thinking I had not been much of a reporter. But in talking to players, I'm finding out I wasn't alone. None of them had a sense of it either. 'Ninety-eight percent of us are shocked' is what one player just told me."

And one more e-mail response to my query: "Rarely, if ever, did you see him off the golf course when he was playing, let alone when he was off [the tour]. Remember, these dalliances took place during his private time, such as Vegas or LA. I don't think any of us thought about his private life until this came out, and we realized he did actually have one."

Since Woods joined the Tour in 1996, I can think of just four one-on-one interviews I've ever been granted with him, despite numerous requests. All were in connection with promoting his signature tournament in Washington over the past three years and were always monitored by one of his minions with instructions to end the session after 10 minutes.

For Woods, it's mostly been a career of news conference exposure for the print media, brief post-round sound bite comments for TV and radio, and the very occasional extended broadcast interview, almost always with friendly inquisitors. For most news about Tiger, we all knew it was always wise to check out his Web site on a daily basis.

Save for three carefully crafted statements on http://www.TigerWoods.com, Woods has predictably gone incommunicado the last two weeks. In one, he pleaded for his right to privacy, saying "no matter how intense curiosity about public figures can be, there is an important and deep principle at stake which is the right to some simple human measure of privacy . . . Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn't have to mean public confessions."

How ironic. After consistently deciding to avoid taking a stand on so many issues of the day, Woods has finally found a cause worth fighting for: his own right to privacy. Fair enough. At this point, news of one more affair won't matter much to a formerly adoring public that should now know to never again put any athlete on a role model pedestal.

As for the golf media that helped hoist him up there in the first place, we're probably all guilty of perpetuating that image of the squeaky clean champion, generous philanthropist, adoring son, exemplary father and loving husband. But to those who say we gave Woods a free pass to protect that facade, I would strongly disagree.

Many of us, for example, never hesitated to report at length on the self-destructing behavior of John Daly over the years, from his trashing of hotel rooms, drunken binges, barroom brawls and other bizarre occurrences on and off the golf course.

Woods's self-destruction did not take place on such public stages. He got busted only after his car wreck became public knowledge and spurned girlfriends started coming out of the shadows, telling all to anyone who would listen, tabloids or network television.

Over the past three weeks, I've read and heard countless colleagues suggest how Woods might be able to regain some measure of spousal, corporate and public trust: Confess on Oprah, ditch your enabling management company (IMG) and your often surly caddie (Steve Williams). Consult a shrink, seek marriage counseling, find religion, stop cursing on the golf course, sign more autographs, grant more interviews, make nice to Phil, begin funding shelters for battered women, speak out in favor of female membership at Augusta National, and on and on.

Woods needs little advice from anyone in the media at this point. We all know he has lots of explaining to do, mostly to his wife and his family. That's his business, not ours, though it would be nice to see him man up, come out of hiding and at least answer some questions in a public forum.

And yet, no matter what he does, will anyone ever again be able look at Tiger Woods in quite the same way, no matter how many major championships he wins from now on? Why not just say he's a gifted golfer in the prime of his career with a chance to break all the records in his sport of choice, and simply leave it at that. No pedestal necessary.

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.


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