Woods swaps sponsors' cheques for reality check
Dermot Gilleece suggests Tiger may pay dearly for failing to hold his hand up sooner
Having idolised Jack Nicklaus from his earliest years, Tiger Woods must now be hoping that the great man is as solid in judging the mood of the American public as he was in accumulating major championships.
"Our public is pretty forgiving at times," said the Bear last week when asked about the dramatic fall from grace of golf's number one player. "Time usually heals all wounds."
While there are no absolutes in the Nicklaus quotes, the same should apply to Woods' announcement about quitting, pro tem, a game in which he has achieved astonishing dominance since his first Masters triumph in 1997.
"Indefinitely," as used in the statement, may have a chilling ring to it, but the likelihood is that he will be back in action within a few months.
Happily, this would mean fulfilling a commitment to play for a third successive time in next year's JP McManus International Pro-Am, which is scheduled for Adare Manor on Monday and Tuesday, July 4 and 5. Within sight of Nicklaus's record, it seems unthinkable that he would miss the major championships, starting with the Masters on April 8 to 11, though we may not see him at the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor next October.
The fear of a media scrum when he does return is unfounded, in my view, given the controls that are exercised over accreditation. Only regular scribes at tournaments in the US are given season-passes by the PGA Tour.
One thing is clear: his management team, headed by Mark Steinberg, seriously misread the public mood from the time they told the Windermere police that their client would not be talking about a motoring mishap in the early hours of Friday, November 27. Since then, they continued to miscalculate the intensity of a media onslaught, largely from outlets who happily pay for their news.
In the event, Friday's statement would suggest that Woods has finally taken matters into his own hands. Significantly, the term transgressions has been replaced by infidelity. He has also apparently accepted that his best chance of keeping his family together lies away from the golf course.
Nicklaus spoke for most fairminded observers when he added: "I think the hardest thing is obviously his family. That's a private matter for him and his family."
A survey conducted last week in the US by Argyle Executive Forum showed that 37 percent of marketing people would "suspend" a relationship with Woods and 25 percent would "cancel" it. Only 22 percent voted for maintaining a relationship. This is a situation totally alien to a management team who grafted very successfully to mould a public image of a sportsman invincible in battle and highly disciplined away from the competitive arena.
Elements of his ensorsement portfolio, which delivers close to $100 million a year, could be up for grabs if his absence becomes protracted.
For instance, an image of Woods among cactuses, rotating on the main page along with photographs of a skier and skaters, is no longer on display on the Accenture website. Though it may be just a cyber-glitch, any fallout of this nature could mean a lucrative opening for someone like Rory McIlroy, who embarks in the New Year on his first season as a US Tour player.
Regarding such matters, Jim McCabe of the American magazine Golfweek has quoted a source within America's PGA Tour as saying of Woods: "He'll never be looked at or thought about in the same way. But if he comes back humbled and a better person, well, that's what you hope happens. He's hurt a lot of people." McCabe also quoted a US sports agent who was roundly critical of the Woods' back-room team. "It's a classic example of not understanding today's reality," he said. "They thought things would blow over. They misjudged the tabloid ferocity. Obviously it backfired, so they're doing the only thing they can do right now."
Another agent said: "I'm guessing what Woods' people are thinking right now is, 'How long can we let him sit out so that when he comes back he still preserves the relationships?' His endorsements are all based on playing, but sponsors might not be so quick to exercise that clause. They know the man we're talking about, how he's done unthinkable things. They won't be so quick to quit on him. My bet is, he comes back to play great golf and he'll honor more than ever the people who stuck by him."
Meanwhile, having got the first part of their challenge wrong, Steinerg and his team will be extremely anxious to get the next part right. In this context, his experts include Glenn Greenspan, who was signed last year having previously handled PR for no less a body than Augusta National GC.
Often described as discreet, unassuming and with a distaste for the spotlight, Steinberg has never made any attempt, in my experience, to ingratiate himself with the golfing media. In fact, his primary objective has always appeared to be the protection of his prized client.
He was handpicked 12 years ago by Woods at the International Management Group (IMG) to be the de facto chief executive of his golf and endorsement empire. Now aged 42 and widely considered to be among the most powerful three or four people in the world of golf, Steinberg made his name as an agent after recruiting Annika Sorenstam to IMG in 1994.
In the process, he helped shape her image and turn her into the type of moneymaker not generally associated with the women's game. American writer Reed Albergotti quoted Sorenstam as saying that she and Steinberg "both kind of blossomed together." Apparently, after she won the US Women's Open in 1995, she called Steinberg to ask him what to do next. With remarkable candour, he responded that he had no idea. "We laugh about it now," the Swede later remarked.
The Woods saga reminds me of a typically pithy comment from Lee Trevino in the 1970s. Referring to Nicklaus's supposed weakness with wedges and his own low ball-flight which effectively put the Masters out of his reach, Trevino said: "When handing out talent, God never gives you everything. He always holds something back."
All this time, we had imagined Woods as a great exception to this rule. Now, dammit, we discover the man's human, after all.