Tiger Woods announced in the Friday statement which rocked the globe: "I need to focus my attention on being a better husband, father and person." And for now, the world must, at the very least, try to take it on trust that Woods' sole priority is what his "indefinite break from golf" will mean to his family.
Yet his absence will have a profound effect on the game that made him sport's first billionaire. Clearly the longer he is out the more profound it will be. But there will be an effect, no matter if it is one major, two majors or even one Ryder Cup. As Colin Montgomerie pointed out yesterday: "It will impact on every tournament." Indeed, it will impact on every aspect of professional golf. From the man, to the player, to the finances, to the audience, to his rivals. Everything will change.
So, what will it mean for...
As penances go, Tiger Woods not playing competitive golf makes Tiger Woods not playing around look like something he might give up for lent. While there has predictably been much talk of a shrewd image-saving PR plan in operation in this decision, there can be no doubting the sacrifice he is making. Evidence can best be provided in his eight-month absence last year, when he was recovering from radical knee reconstruction. Woods spoke of the "brutal" physical pain before calling the mental anguish "far worse". "Boy I miss competing," he said at the time. "It's something I've always done." In his career-defining pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' record major haul, Woods even did it when his doctors told him not to, and in the aftermath of his father's death, when his own frazzled emotions told him not to. In fact, since he first played competitive golf as a six-year-old, Woods has never chosen to abandon the fairways; the choice was always made for him by life's imponderables. But now he's stalled on 14 majors, is still four short of Nicklaus and it's all his fault. That is the self-damnable knowledge with which he will be forced to cope in these forthcoming months. Whether his wife recognises the anguish of the forfeit may go a long way to deciding if he is for real.
Tiger Woods is not going to give up golf per se – just golf per dollar. He will still practise and work on his swing and the reality is the break might even help Woods' game. There were clear technical problems when he returned this last season. This will all be about quality time and expect a portion of that to be spent with his coach, Hank Haney, on the range. But what of the tournament rust he will develop in his self-enforced absence? Well, consider this. When Woods returned in February it took him just three tournaments to relocate the winning enclosure – and that was with pain shooting through his joints. Woods may not have won any majors in his comeback year, but with seven titles he did win more events than any of his rivals. If anyone possesses the physical gifts to shrug off professional inactivity and so quickly it is this man. Mentally, however, it may be a different matter. Has he been diminished in his own mind because of this scandal? That will be the most compelling question on his return.
Montgomerie merely articulated yesterday what his fellow pros have been thinking as the destruction of Mr Clean has played out. The aura is shattered, that wall of perfection has been split, the cracks are there. Whether his rivals will seek to prey on this new vulnerability is up to them but it is hard not to look at the burgeoning new guard including Rory McIlroy and believe the thirst for the hunt has not become more pronounced. Already a few of the pros have broken one of their trade's golden rules and criticised the Untouchable One. Expect the collective lip to loosen still further, but don't wait for a full-out assault. There is almost unanimous recognition that Woods is the reason why their riches are so plentiful. "Indefinite is a scary word." That statement was made by Geoff Ogilvy, a major winner many experts would take to profit most in Woods' absence. The Australian's concern tells of a genuine fear that their superior may never re-emerge. He is their benchmark as well as their provider. Padraig Harrington would understandably disagree, but a major won without Tiger in the field is a major downgraded. His rivals want him back. For the good of their wealth, if nothing else.
Tiger famously adores the greenback and will not enjoy the drop in earnings one thrupenny bit. On course he collected more than $20m this year and off course the figure has risen above $100m. Which side of the moral fence his sponsors will fall is unsurprisingly one of the central storylines, although from a golf perspective it is difficult to envisage Nike, his equipment and apparel provider, leaving him stranded. Cad or not, plenty of us will forever dream of hitting it like Tiger. Perhaps it is also part of the penance that his beloved wallet will suffer, but with half a billion or so in the bank he will survive. If only the same certainty could be applied to the PGA Tour. It was surely indicative of how much the American circuit needs him that no mention of a suspension was given in their commissioner's ever-so-rapidly released statement on Friday night. In Tim Finchem's own rulebook it says Tour members will be banned for "conduct that brings unwelcome publicity". It's fair to say this publicity hasn't been welcome. With tournament sponsors such as FBR and Verizon having already elected to walk away at the end of 2010 – just like five other sponsors have this year – and with 10 more contracts to expire in 2010, these are critical times for Finchem and his dealmakers. The uncertainty – if not the scandal – surrounding their calling card is bound to make their job to maintain current prize levels trickier, if not impossible. Events could well be lost; in fact it seems likely they will. When Woods returns he may not only have his own brand to rebuild but an entire industry.
Has there been anything more ironic in this gritty drama than hearing endless PR "experts" declaring how Tiger should act next? The very reason why Woods' "transgressions" – or, as he now calls it, "infidelity" – have attracted such headlines is because of the image cultivated by, your guessed it, "PR experts". Their breed presented the original myth and evidently they wish to construct a new one on the wreckage. Max Clifford is the latest generous spin merchant to step forward, advising Woods to pour his heart out in a TV interview with Oprah Winfrey, alongside his wife (why Elin should agree to that humiliation is anyone's guess), and show himself to be a contrite, little hubby. That may work on one absurd Redemption Man level. But there's another way. How about turning up and being the ultimate golfer, as opposed to the ultimate role model? Yes, there are two routes Woods can go – the honest route or the PR route. The trouble is one could end up being a circuitous journey to where he is now.
The inner circle
Is there any way they can all survive; from the guarded manager to the gruff caddie, to all the other support staff seemingly trained to satisfy his wishes? Jay Townsend, the former pro turned BBC pundit suspects not. "It comes down to his wife Elin," he said yesterday. "I think she's running the show right now and I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot of people disappear from his inner circle. They had to know about what was going on. In her mind they have to be part of what happened."
The statistics do not lie. When Tiger is on the television, the casual fan turns on. Otherwise he turns off. "Mathematicians have calculated the smallest number known to man. It's the viewing ratings golf will get without Tiger Woods." Jay Leno said this as Woods took his 2008 leave; history assured the American talk-show host he would not be disproved. In Woods' first full professional season, viewing figures for the final round of the four major championships were up worldwide by nearly 59 per cent. And since then they have risen when Tiger has been part of the drama of the stretch and dipped by more than 50 per cent when he has not been involved. The pertinence of these facts really does not need explaining. But there is more than the huge numbers and the mammoth momentary implications. Tiger brings his own atmosphere to a tournament, particularly a major. The organisers are always loath to talk of smaller attendances and point towards vagaries such as the weather. But the evidence is anecdotal. Fewer security guards, fewer cameras, fewer media and absolutely no skylarks bothered by his legendary 6am practice rounds. The 2008 Open did not seem as big, the 2008 USPGA did not seem as big. It was the party conference lacking the PM. Sooner or later the lustre would fade.
The hero worship
Never mind the suddenly emboldened players, how will the fans react? Woods has always been excused his F-bombs, his club-throwing and his general surliness. If he won, they cheered, they bowed, they scraped. Henceforth, the heckles will be inevitable and they will only grow in volume should the Tiger tantrums resurface. Woods has part, if not all, of a fan-base to win back and in the process he may require a total makeover. Pure genius may not be enough anymore.
Next year was supposed to be Tiger's year. He has won four times at Augusta, has not missed a Masters since 1995, but still it would rank as his third favourite venue on this major roster. He has played one US Open at Pebble Beach and won by a record 15 shots. He has played Opens at St Andrews and prevailed by eight shots and five shots respectively. If it is widely accepted he will have to miss the Masters in April – if his sacrifice is to be taken seriously – then it is also widely regarded as inconceivable that he would miss both Pebble Beach and St Andrews. They are his two favourite places on earth. But miss them he well might. And what happens then? Lack of atmosphere (see above) and champions who could not avoid the dreaded asterix. To many cynical eyes, this long-awaited major year would be a write-off.
The Ryder Cup
Celtic Manor and Newport would doubtless miss him for all the aforementioned reasons. But would America? And would their captain, Corey Pavin? Without Woods in Kentucky last year, Paul Azinger found the secret to Starred and Striped bonding and led the team to their first victory this decade. How would the new humble Woods fit into this dynamic and how much would Montgomerie seek to capitalise on his flaws? The bizarre role the Ryder Cup wives play would only add to the scrutiny. Would anyone really need that? Apart from the publicists and PRs, of course.
Woods is not the only pro with skeletons in their locker and there will be many nervous glances at the scandal sheets in the next few months. Will Woods' treatment warn off the rest? Will the old rogue culture be rooted out from the exclusive clubhouses? Probably best not bet on it.
The place in history
Woods' place as "the greatest" seemed assured. But now? Overhaul Nicklaus and the arguments against will be merely ethical and mere ethics have no place in a sport's pantheon. The odds remain on his side but not as outrageously as they once were. Woods had been 1-20 to track down and pass the Golden Bear – today he is 2-5. Because of the scandal the men with the satchels make him eight times more unlikely. A formality no more.
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