The Woods landscape has changed forever

Tiger Woods during the Australian Masters.

Tiger Woods during the Australian Masters.

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So, we will end the 2009 PGA Tour season as it began – Tiger Woods on the sidelines.

Old story?

Not even close, because though we had a good feeling how long it would take to repair his injured knee, we haven’t a clue as to how much time a shattered reputation, humbled ego and devastated domestic life need to heal.

Same man, same iconic figure, but the storylines are worlds apart.

Reader poll

When will Tiger Woods return to the PGA Tour?

  • San Diego Open (Jan. 28-31) 2%
  • Arnold Palmer Invitational (March 25-28) 25%
  • Masters (April 8-11) 20%
  • U.S. Open (June 17-20) 10%
  • After the U.S. Open 5%
  • He will not return in 2010 38%

2218 total votes.

Two weeks after a seemingly minor car accident outside his home touched off a firestorm of controversy merged two worlds as different as fire and ice – sports journalism and tabloid reporting – Woods emerged late Friday, albeit via his Web site. Making his third statement since the onslaught of sensational tabloid news of infidelity has rocked his empire, Woods wrote: “After much soul-searching, I have decided to take an indefinite break from professional golf. I need to focus my attention on being a better husband, father, and person.”

Immediately, you could almost get a sense of people falling into one of two camps – the cynics and the compassionate.

First, the cynics. They, of course, will view this as the only move his team could make to try and salvage a reputation that up until Thanksgiving was as close to perfect as humanly possible.

“This,” said a source within the inner circles of the PGA Tour, “is about trying to save a billion-dollar empire. You can’t fault them for it.”

By announcing an “indefinite” leave from the game, Woods can remain hidden and not be subjected to the incomparable media scrutiny that would surely be unleashed should he show up for a tournament. There is nothing he and his team of advisers can do about the seemingly endless string of tabloid stories, except to hope that they die down and that perhaps Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie do something to steal the scene.

They’ve always got Britney Spears to root for, too.

Though the line of Brinks trucks delivering a reported $100 million per year in cold, corporate sponsorship cash are being sent by people who thus far have stood by Woods, there are strong indications that there are serious cracks in the foundation.

Just the other day, a survey conducted by Argyle Executive Forum showed that 37 percent of marketers polled would “suspend” a relationship with Woods and 25 percent would “cancel” it. Only 22 percent voted for maintaining a relationship.

Woods’ team knows this is nothing that he has ever faced before. Heck, he’s barely ever been embroiled in a minor sports controversy, never mind one that ranks as perhaps the biggest one in 50 years.

You could argue that Team Woods dropped the ball from the opening hours of this story and never have they correctly estimated the power – be it good or bad – of today’s tabloid world.

“It’s a classic example of not understanding today’s reality,” said a sports agent. “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. Woods has said, ‘I’ll go into a hole. I’m on a search.’ ”

By pleading, once again, for privacy, and for writing that “it may not be possible to repair the damage I’ve done, but I want to do my best to try,” Woods might not do anything to dissuade the the cynics, but he’ll no doubt bring in tighter his legion of supporters.

The compassionate will argue that the subject at the very heart of this story – infidelity – is one that should remain private. By asking for “forgiveness,” Woods has seemingly played a trump card that all of America understands. The line of celebrities, politicians and athletes who have been granted forgiveness stretches from coast to coast.

You’d be foolhardy to think that fans won’t give him another chance, especially since, to many of them, Woods has taken the extraordinary step to walk away from the game to save his marriage.

Ah, but the cynics could counter that Woods can’t stay away too long, that while he might earn $10 million by playing golf, he earns 10 times that by simply being the world’s greatest sports icon. Leave the playing field and Woods might still be tabloid fodder, but he’d no longer be drawing those huge checks from Nike, AT&T, Gatorade, Accenture, Gillette and Tag Heuer.

Or so goes the thinking.

One agent said he didn’t totally buy into that.

“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.”

And what does “indefinitely” mean? Compassionate folks might suggest he’ll be out three months, maybe six, or even the entire season. One PGA Tour official disagreed and suggested that part of the strategy of saying “indefinite” is to “get people looking beyond San Diego (the San Diego Open, Jan. 28-31).”

Who knows, except for this: The Woods landscape has changed forever.

“He’ll never be looked at or thought about in the same way,” said a PGA Tour source. “But if he comes back humbled and a better person, well, that’s what you hope happens. He’s hurt a lot of people.”

And to think, in just 10 weeks in the summer of 2000 – three major-championship conquests – Woods’ legacy was cemented, seemingly forever.

Who could have thought that it would take just two weeks to shake that?

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