Thursday 22 March 2018

Of Tiger's 1,527 words, only 29 were on his likely comeback to golf

Dermot Gilleece reports from America on the response there to Friday's apology and press conference

B efore he had uttered a contrite word in his grandly-flagged address to the American nation last Friday, Tiger Woods was damned as the vindictive destroyer of the Accenture World Match Play here in Tucson. Yet the sponsors had no problem with the arrangement; they were even grateful for a "gracious" mention in his 14-minute delivery.

Though the timing of the Woods announcement still appears fundamentally wrong, Accenture's reaction serves to highlight the complexities of a story which has dominated sports headlines since the fateful night of November 27 last. And it continues to cause deep divisions between those who believe Woods deserves the chance to redeem himself and those who still view him as a ruthlessly-managed hypocrite.

I believe it's reasonable to conclude that a man who has already undergone 45 days of rehabilitation is sick and deserves the consideration which illness effectively warrants. In the wake of Friday's decidedly curious press conference, however, it is clear that many here hold the contrary view.

Meanwhile, the question remains as to when we may expect the world number one to return to action. Of the 1,527 words he uttered in Ponte Vedra, only 29 concerned that crucial subject. They were: "I do plan to return to golf one day. I just don't know when that day will be." And later: "I look forward to seeing my fellow players on the course."

Last Thursday morning, when the Match Play might have been expected to dominate the non-Winter Olympics sports coverage of USA Today, it led with the announcement of Woods' return to the public eye, while the actual golf report was at the bottom of page six. Yet it didn't seem to bother Fred Hawrysh, head of corporate communications with Accenture.

From his New York office, he told me: "Tiger's people had already made us aware of their plans; about the timing etc. And we had no problem. In terms of publicity, I think our tournament and his announcement co-existed just fine. And it was gracious of him to mention us in his statement." Indeed he described them as "friends", despite the fact that they were the first sponsor to ditch him when the media became dominated by lurid details of extra-marital affairs.

Nor could Pádraig Harrington see a problem with the timing. "It was always going to disrupt a tournament, whatever week he chose," said the Dubliner. "As I've already indicated, Tiger is very comfortable on the golf course which gives a good balance to his life. So the sooner he comes back, the better. You could see him in Doral (March 11-14) or Bay Hill. We'll wait and see."

Americans revere their sporting heroes, a fact which was captured poignantly by Greg Hansen in yesterday's Arizona Daily Star. Reflecting on the Woods soul-baring, he wrote: "In the summer of 1995, medical personnel at a Texas hospital wheeled 63-year-old Mickey Mantle into an auditorium for what was essentially a public repentance. The sight of the once indomitable Yankee, so frail and so sick, about a month from his death, made you want to turn away from the TV screen. 'You talk about a role model -- this is a role model,' he said. 'Don't be like me'. Mantle's final public appearance was neither staged nor rehearsed. He no longer had anything to hide so he just let it flow. Toward the end of his life, he spoke candidly about betraying his wife, his family, an adoring public and especially himself.

"It was the last time I believed a disgraced athlete's contrition. The rest of them, Kobe Bryant and Mark McGwire, Michael Vick and Tiger Woods are just moving their lips, the substance of which is not much more than grey noise. They are contrite because they got caught.

"Tiger said all the right things Friday, which is a credit to his thinkers and to those who prepared his speech. But his slate will never be clean, and his image never separated from the hypocrisy and the attempted cover-up of his scandalous past. The scars are much too deep. I hoped Tiger, like Mickey, would say, 'don't be like me', but the closest he came was 'I was wrong, I was foolish'. We will never know if those were his words or those of his enablers."

Woods has other, equally forthright critics here, but it is significant that in a poll of over 100,000 viewers taken by the American sports channel ESPN, 65 per cent believed the player was sorry for his actions. Meanwhile, he was the sole subject of the one-hour programme Larry King Live on CNN on Friday night which the host introduced as dealing with "sex, scandal and sports."

Excerpts from the player's one-way gathering were transmitted, followed by comments from invited guests. Among these was the journalist, Stephen A Smith of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who suggested: "If you're a public figure in the public eye, you've got to be prepared to take questions from journalists. You had the Golf Writers' of America having to boycott this event (Woods' press conference) because this man actually tried to hand-pick a few journalists that he wanted in attendance while he was surrounded by family and loved ones. And he didn't want to answer any questions. Who does he think he is?"

Which reminded me, in much lighter vein, of a memorable press conference I attended at Wentworth in 1996, when Seve Ballesteros eventually agreed to end a long-standing feud with Jaime Patino, over the choice of Valderrama as the venue for the Ryder Cup the following year. In the interview area of the media centre, the bold Seve pulled a small, crumpled piece of paper from his pocket as an improbable "prepared" statement.

He then proceeded to address the assembled media with the unforgettable words, "There will be no questions, only answers." This was followed by the most fulsome apology imaginable. Most players would have been publicly ripped apart for what he did to Patino, but, being Seve and his gift for mischievous humour, we forgave him.

There was no humour at Ponte Vedra, but there was humility, which impressed Nick Faldo, a guest on the Larry King show. "I don't think Tiger could ever have imagined himself standing in front of a room of people and having to apologise for his indiscretions," he said. "It was a pretty profound apology."

Then Faldo added: "But the bottom line for us golfers is that we're still in the dark as to when he's going to return to play golf again. He's obviously trying to rebuild things with Elin and she has said that behaviour is more powerful than words. I think it's extremely important for him to get back out on the golf course because that's what he is, a golfer chasing Jack Nicklaus's record. He wants to leave this as his legacy. But he'll only do it when he's 100 per cent comfortable and knows he can win. I couldn't see a sponsor being willing to give Tiger Woods $20m right now."

Brandel Chamblee, a former US Tour player turned presenter on the Golf Channel, also highlighted the player's humility. "It was a different side," he said. "In terms of rebuilding his image, I thought it was comprehensive and sincere. I was surprised by his honest revelations. We had not seen humility from Tiger Woods in the last 15 years."

In terms of the player's future, however, the most telling insight came from Dr Drew Pinsky, a noted American addictionologist (yes, that's what he's called). He talked of watching elements of Woods's delivery with "a bad feeling." "There were good things but he kept repeating over and over again his apology," he said. "He kept emphasising how he was a bad person who behaved outside of his core values, but he never said 'I'm a sick person with a problem and this is where it's landed me'."

This was a reference to one of the tenets in the recovery programme of Alcoholics Anonymous that its members are sick people trying to get well, rather than bad people trying to become good. Dr Pinsky added: "I wouldn't necessarily expect him to stand up and admit to being a sex addict, but I would like to have heard him say that he went to places he should not have gone. And I didn't get the impression of someone who was completely giving in to this (rehabilitation) process. What I saw was somebody struggling against the process. I saw a man who looked depressed and sometimes those patients who struggle desperately not to capitulate can become severely depressed."

So, when will we see Woods back in action? The answer clearly depends on a satisfactory completion of a rehabilitation programme to which he returned yesterday. And one assumes that it's a complex process insofar as the normal treatment for addiction to drugs, alcohol and gambling, as in total abstinence, can hardly be expected of a 34-year-old sex addict.

In the meantime, the tour desperately needs him back. We're familiar with "nobody is bigger than the game", as the ultimate admonition of a wayward sportsperson. As a unique exception, however, it can be said that Woods is bigger than tournament golf in the US. If we take, for instance, the 2008 PGA Championship, which is the only major he has missed on home soil since turning professional, there was a reduction of 78 per cent in the TV viewing figures for the Saturday, compared with the previous year.

Remarkably, I understand that US Tour commissioner Tim Finchem had not spoken to Woods between November 27 and last Friday. In the event, it's hardly surprising that he and the tour are "supportive" of whatever decision the player takes regarding a comeback.

How are they doing without him? "He's been out before, when his father passed away a few years ago and through his injury in 2008," Finchem replied. "Obviously revenue increases significantly in the tournaments he plays in, plus there's this intangible of what he brings to the sport as the number one player in the game, whether he's competing that particular week or not."

An abiding image for me of Friday's conference was of Woods publicly admitting to his indiscretions, while his mother, Kultida, sat stoically within feet of him, arms folded, eyes downcast and a firm set to her mouth. It was a Woods I had never seen before, since I first met him when he played in Scotland prior to the Walker Cup at Royal Porthcawl in the summer of 1995.

I believe he genuinely wants to get well again but it may be a tougher battle than any of us can imagine. As his closest friend, Notah Begay, said: "It's a little bit harder than making a swing change." But at least, he has taken the first step.

Sunday Independent

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