Tiger loses top backer as players fear slump

Accenture ends six-year association after deciding Woods is 'no longer right'

The Tiger Woods saga finally hit the eponymous villain where it hurts last night as one of his major sponsors cut its ties with the world No 1, Accenture announcing Woods "is no longer the right representative".

The decision will cost the 33-year-old tens of millions and the fear must be that more sponsors will now feel able to follow the lead. Woods has been with Accenture, the management consultant company, since 2003 and was seen as central to its marketing strategy. Within the game of golf, the news was greeted with the deepest of groans. Today the individual, tomorrow the sport? The portents are as ominous as they are obvious.

Yesterday, his peers were still digesting Friday's stunning announcement that Woods has "taken an indefinite break" from competitive sport as he attempts to save his marriage after a fortnight of allegations of extramarital affairs. The Shark Shooutout in Florida is traditionally an end-of-year jolly, with the emphasis on easy money. But Graeme McDowell, the Europe Ryder Cup player, revealed the atmosphere at the Tiburon Golf Club this year has been one of long-term concern for the finances of the PGA Tour and beyond.

"We're under no illusions," McDowell said. "We're much more prosperous golfers for having Tiger Woods playing in our era. There's plenty of global superstars on the way up to replace him. But they're not just quite ready to replace him yet."

McDowell believes Woods' self-enforced exile – "to focus on being a better husband, father and person" – will not last long, although, like Geoff Ogilvy, he conceded "indefinite is a scary word". Woods' chosen adjective has sent a collective shiver down the spine of the American circuit, as Greg Norman, the Shark Shootout host, admitted. "The Tour has got to be worried, because what's the definition of indefinite?" asked the Australian. "Indefinite meaning, OK, it might be a year because a lot of issues have got to be resolved? That's the word you've kind of got to drill in on."

That is an exercise currently being undertaken by so many tournament organisers around the globe. Perhaps, none are doing so quite as optimistically as those at the Dubai Desert Classic, who yesterday told Woods he could break European Tour rules and "decide just two days before to come". Their event is at the start of February.

If Woods' time of penance is to be taken at all seriously, then surely he will need to miss at least a few months, if not one major. Sandy Lyle is of the belief that Augusta should prepare to be without their four-time champion. "As far as the Masters is concerned in April, it looks a bit grim," said the Scotsman, before talking of the necessity of a Woods return. "He has done an awful lot for golf and the sport needs Tiger to come back. He's put golf on the map."

Woods also put golf on prime-time TV, particularly in his own country. Last year, when Woods missed eight months after his ACL reconstruction, viewing figures were cut in half in America and now, with tournaments sponsors leaving the PGA Tour as contracts expire, the situation appears critical. "I don't think it's going to help anything, that's for sure – especially in a recession," said Nick Price, the three-time major winner. "It's hard enough to find sponsors out there, and now to try to sell things without Tiger in the field... I hope he comes back. I hope he comes back a changed man."

What else changes around Woods will also be of interest. Focus has inevitably fallen on the role of his caddie, Steve Williams. The New Zealander has often been described as being like an older brother to Woods; indeed, the latter was the former's best man at his wedding last year. But Williams yesterday insisted he was as much in the dark as anyone. "I had no knowledge of what Tiger's indiscretion was," said Williams. "Whilst I am a very good friend of his ... I don't know what he does off the course."

Peter Alliss sounds like one of those minded to believe Williams. "Tiger's got very few friends, in my opinion," said the veteran BBC commentator. "Very few people have got into the inner sanctum, so nobody really knows him. But if he doesn't play for the first six months of next year then he might have decided he's come to the end of the road. If we learn, come the end of February, that he's not going to play in the Masters at Augusta in April and maybe not in our Open Championship in July then it's getting very serious." Indeed, for American golf this could be as serious as it gets.

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