Stewart Cink was at a birthday party when he learned about Tiger Woods taking an indefinite leave from golf. A friend had the news on his cell phone, and even as the page loaded with the announcement, Cink figured a punch line was coming.
Then he noticed a text message on his own phone, along with four or five voice mails from the media.
“That’s when I knew this was serious, and not just another joke,” Cink said Saturday. “I didn’t really have a reaction. I really wasn’t surprised. It’s probably the right thing for him to do.”
How serious is it for golf without its biggest star?
The ramifications for Woods and his sport began to unfold Saturday. One of his sponsors, Gillette, said it won’t feature the world’s richest athlete in its marketing campaign while Woods takes time off to repair his personal life.
He has been married to Elin Nordegren for five years, and they have a 2-year-old daughter and a 10-month-old son.
“This is supporting his desire to step out of the public eye and we’re going to support him by helping him to take a lower profile,” Gillette spokesman Damon Jones said.
Such a move will be far more difficult for the PGA Tour. Woods has been the face of golf for more than a decade, and the sport had no trouble pitching its squeaky-clean image behind a star who had avoided even a hint of scandal. Woods’ world has imploded over the last two weeks, however, with lurid tales from alleged mistresses and Woods admitting to the “disappointment and hurt” his infidelity caused so many, starting with his family.
“It’s probably damaged the game to a degree,” Greg Norman, golf’s biggest draw in the generation before Woods, said at his Shark Shootout in Naples, Fla. “I get texts from family members whose kids idolize Tiger, and they don’t want to tell them because they don’t want to pollute their minds with what’s happened.”
While many questions remain about exactly what did happen – over the course of Woods’ marriage and the Nov. 27 car crash just outside his home – his decision Friday to take an “indefinite break” from golf has fans and his colleagues buzzing about when or if he’ll return.
“It’s a scary vision. It’s a very scary vision,” Ryder Cup player Graeme McDowell said. “We’re under no illusions. We’re much more prosperous golfers for having Tiger Woods playing in our era.”
No one knows how long Woods will be gone. Everyone does know Woods’ absence will be costly.
A year ago, he missed eight months, including two majors and a Ryder Cup, while recovering from reconstructive surgery on his left knee.
“Just the absence itself, we’ve been through that,” Cink said. “I don’t think it’s any rocket science in saying him not being involved in golf for a while is going to hurt ratings. He’s exciting. And him not being there makes it less exciting.
“No one can take the place of Tiger Woods out there,” he said. “The rest of us are going to have to put on a better show.”
The PGA Tour already has 33 tournaments scheduled for network television in 2010, with 10 more on the Golf Channel. When Woods was out with his knee injury, ratings typically plunged 50 percent.
The ratings Woods attracted is what helped the Tour negotiate blockbuster deals with the networks that allowed prize money to quadruple since he arrived. Most believe ratings won’t suffer from Woods’ image being tarnished, and might even improve whenever he does return because of all the publicity.
“I honestly don’t think Tiger is going to come back earlier because we need him to come back. He’s going to come back when he fixes his problems,” Brad Faxon said. “It’s a bit of a worry, but we’ve survived for a long time. Like Greg (Norman) said the other night, nobody’s bigger than the game. You could put, ‘Comma, except for Tiger’ in a lot of situations. But we will survive this.”
Former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson said the networks’ loss in ad revenue will be much less severe than the drop in ratings.
Companies that advertise around golf are attracted by the demographics of the sport’s core fans, said Pilson, who now runs his own consulting business. Most of those fans watch golf whether Woods is involved or not. The casual fans who tune in only when Woods is in contention aren’t the viewers these advertisers are targeting.
“While you may have a 50 percent increase in viewership, a lot of that 50 percent is just bonus,” he said.
Even so, these are uncertain times.
“Clearly, whenever you have your main Clydesdale go down … it wasn’t good for us last year and it’s not good for us this year,” said Joe Ogilvie, who previously served on the Tour’s policy board. “It makes us rethink the entire golf industry. It’s very easy when you have him to get fat. You have the greatest draw in sports and you think he’s always going to be there. To a certain extent, it should make you think, ‘What does golf have to do to get lean?’”
Woods taking an indefinite leave could mean reduced visibility in advertising, especially if more sponsors take Gillette’s lead. None of his TV commercials has aired since Nov. 29, although such spots are rare during a slow time of the year in golf.
“I think that this probably is a win-win for his sponsors who were trying to figure out how they were going to manage their relationship with Tiger given the substantial and significant fall from grace,” sports attorney David Cornwell said. “By absenting himself from the public arena, it gives them a chance to pull back and gives everybody a chance to take a deep breath.”
Some sponsors, such as Nike, are still sticking with Woods.
Woods has been with Nike longer than any other corporate sponsor – “Hello, world” was the campaign Nike ran when Woods turned pro in 1996 – and it pledged “full support” while waiting for his return.
Woods already was on leave from golf, not expected to play even in good times until the last week in January at Torrey Pines. His decision Friday evening left everyone wondering when they would see him again.
“We need him out here,” Mark Calcavecchia said at the Shark Shootout in Naples, Fla. “What he’s done for our Tour and the game of golf over the last 13 years is unparalleled, really. So we’ll see how long it takes, and whenever he’s ready, he’ll come back. Hopefully, he’ll have smooth sailing and he’ll be better than ever.”
For now, Woods remains in a self-imposed exile, his whereabouts unknown. He has not been seen in public since the Nov. 27 car accident set off his shockingly swift downfall.
His yacht “Privacy” was docked at the Old Port Cove Marina in North Palm Beach, Fla., on Saturday. His wife, meanwhile, is the new owner of a six-bedroom house on a small island near Stockholm that can only be reached by boat.
Stenake Johansson, chairman of the Residential Association on Faglaro island, said Woods’ wife, Elin, became the owner Dec. 1, one day before Woods first confessed to “personal failings.” Johansson, who did not know whether the couple and their children planned to move in, said negotiations most likely started shortly after the house was put on the market in August.
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AP Sports Writers Tim Reynolds in Naples, Fla., and Rachel Cohen in New York; Associated Press Writers Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm and Dennis Passa in Coolum, Australia; and AP Marketing Writer Emily Fredrix in New York contributed to this report.