Practically every new twist in the shocking tale of Tiger Woods includes an aerial view of his Florida home where his troubles began, when he pulled his SUV out of the driveway and drove it into a tree.
More questions arise when one surveys the expanse of grass across the street — the practice range at Isleworth.
Perhaps the most pressing: When will Woods slip into his spikes, step out of his house and hit golf balls again?
There is no telling when the world’s No. 1 player will choose to return to the PGA Tour and the massive galleries that, most certainly, will not gaze upon him quite the way they did at his previous 253 Tour events.
Woods has been out of the public eye since the car crash and subsequent allegations of extramarital affairs took Tigermania into startling new territory during Thanksgiving weekend. He went 13 years without a hint of scandal, the first $1 billion athlete with barely a blemish, guarded with the media even in good times. That’s not likely to change now.
“I am dealing with my behavior and personal failings behind closed doors with my family,” Woods said while confessing to “transgressions” on his Web site last week. “Those feelings should be shared by us alone.”
The greater mystery is his future.
“I think he’s held at a different standard than everybody else out there,” Kenny Perry said Friday at the Chevron World Challenge. “This will be interesting to see how he handles this, though. This is a totally different knock on him when he gets out there and plays next year.”
Until the crash in the wee hours of Nov. 27, anticipation about 2010 in golf was geared toward Woods’ pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record in the majors, especially a year with Pebble Beach (U.S. Open) and St. Andrews (British Open) in the rotation.
That has been replaced by uncertainty and uneasiness.
A sport that promoted its wholesome image as its biggest asset now has a tawdry mess on its hands because of its star player, who happens to be among the most famous athletes in the world.
“What’s interesting to me about this situation is that while its bad in the short term, for golf, on a global basis, it has moved from being a sport to having iconic, celebrity status, and a whole host of other people are now interested,” said John Rowady, president of rEvolution, a Chicago-based sports marketing and media agency.
“And it may be a sport that is not prepared for that kind of publicity.”
The timing was not the greatest. The PGA Tour is struggling to find title sponsors at four tournaments and renew deals with at least a half dozen others. It also will start negotiations on a network TV deal that ends in 2012.
“I think one of our biggest selling points for the corporate world is that we are relatively controversy-free,” Geoff Ogilvy said at the start of the year. “We don’t generally have too many golfers getting into trouble like some other athletes in other sports do. We’re pretty squeaky-clean like that. It’s been like that for a long time. It doesn’t really seem like it’s going to change.”
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem has been silent during all this. He hasn’t made himself available for comment except for a statement in support of Woods’ family and the player’s request for privacy.
Asked if Finchem would take questions about concerns for golf’s image or whether it would affect business, spokesman Ty Votaw said the Tour does not comment on “hypothetical situations, conjecture and guesswork.”
At the start of the decade, Finchem was at Pebble Beach talking about how golf was in good hands. He cited the new arrivals of Adam Scott, Charles Howell III, David Gossett, young players who represented the values inherent in golf.
No need to mention Woods.
No one ever imagined his name would be splashed across anything but the sports pages, except for being on the cover of Time magazine in 2000 during one of the greatest summers of golf.
Padraig Harrington was quick to distinguish between Woods as a player and a person.
“It’s very much a private matter there,” Harrington said. “He wasn’t … speeding or had a DUI and hurt somebody. It really is a family matter. Hopefully, that’s the worst that golf could ever do. But how it reflects on golf? I suppose things like this have happened before at times, and we move on.
“I would still say golf I know this may be saying it from inside the sport – is constantly the No. 1 sport with the moral ethics and things like that. So I think we’re in a very strong position going forward.”
Woods’ corporate sponsors said they are standing by him. Most sports marketing consultants believe the scandal involving his personal life will have little bearing on TV ratings or contract negotiations. No one can be sure, however, just as no can predict where or when he will return to golf.
“There’s no impact on the sport itself other than the fact its best asset is a little damaged right now,” said Michael Gordon, CEO of Group Gordon Strategic Communications, a crisis PR firm in New York.
“But it starts with Tiger. He’s at the top of the pyramid,” Gordon said. “When Tiger is hurt, other assets could get hurt, too – potentially the PGA Tour, sponsors, his family. It’s a little bit of a domino affect, and he’s the first domino.”
His peers at the Chevron World Challenge – the tournament Woods hosts but did not attend – have largely been supportive without passing judgment, perhaps because they realize that Woods is their meal ticket. They are playing for $5.75 million this week, a snapshot of life on the PGA Tour made possible by Woods and his enormous appeal.
Total prize money was $65 million the year Woods turned pro in 1996. They played for $275 million this year.
Stewart Cink is among those who have jokingly suggested Woods is not human, having won 82 times around the world and 14 majors. After losing to him by a record margin at the Match Play Championship last year, Cink said, “I think maybe we ought to slice him open to see what’s inside. Maybe nuts and bolts.”
Woods twice mentioned in statements during the last week that he was, indeed, “human.” Will that make him seem more vulnerable as a player?
“I don’t think that whatever comes out of this will affect his golf because he’s a professional, and part of being a professional is to separate your personal life from what you do on the course,” Cink said. “I’ve had plenty of times when I came to the golf course in a tournament, and I was just a wreck off the course. … And you have no choice but to just leave that. It’s not always real easy, but he’ll find a way, and he’ll be fine.”
Greg Norman, who preceded Woods as golf’s biggest draw, understands scrutiny into one’s personal life, having disclosed in October that his 15-month marriage to tennis star Chris Evert was ending.
He believes golf is bigger than any one player and will be fine. And while he can empathize with Woods’ public life on display, Norman doesn’t feel sorry for him.
“Hey, he’s the No. 1 player in the world,” Norman said Saturday at the Australian Open. “Publicity is going to follow you no matter what you do, whether you win tournaments, lose tournaments and whatever happens.”
Woods has started at Torrey Pines every year since 2006 when healthy. Tournament director Tom Wilson said he recently met with PGA Tour security consultants about what needs to be done, if Woods chooses this event to mark his return.
“We might need to add a few chairs in the media center,” Wilson said.
If keeping together his family – wife Elin and two children – is a priority, Woods might wait longer.
“Is this going to make him stronger? We’ll find out,” Perry said. “Is this really going to get inside his head a little bit and really going to mess with him? I don’t know how the crowd is … going to attack him. Are they going to verbally abuse him out there? We don’t know.
“I don’t think it’s going to change our tour next year at all,” he said. “Only time will tell.”
Woods has tried to quell minor issues in the past with one sentence in a news conference or one posting on his Web site. Though three statements have been posted on his Web site since the accident, they’ve done little to answer lingering questions. As a result, media outlets have shown no signs of scaling back in their hot pursuit of information.
“When you get nonsporting media spending money on stories, whether they’re true or false, it’s just fanning the flames,” Rowady said.
Either way, he said the next few months will go a long way, starting with Woods returning to golf. He said Woods will need to raise his game not only on the course, but for the tour and its sponsors, his own sponsors and TV partners.
“If it’s true that golf is a gentleman’s game, it benefits by the way he finishes this process,” Rowady said. “How he comes out and eventually speaks and plays could be an asset, and then it heightens the awareness. What’s surprising to me is how quickly people are willing to tear him down. I don’t know that anyone benefits by making Tiger Woods into a villain.”