Tiger Woods is deciding which pieces of his shattered image he should pickup and which he should leave behind

Feeling blue: Woods exits his Feb. 19 press conference, having apologized for his "irresponsible and selfish behavior."
Lori Moffett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Tiger Woods was willing to give up whatever it took, but he ended up ceding far more than even he could have anticipated. In the annals of achievement, that makes him a cliché: the breathtaking rise, dizzying fall and heartbreaking collateral damage are staples of the great American biography.

There is one important caveat, though: Woods still must write the third act. And now it's about not what he is willing to give up, but what he can recover.

What does Woods want back? And can he turn lemons into Arnold Palmers, using the occasion of his undoing to reinvent himself? It seemed possible, and intriguing, until Woods called a strange non-press conference at PGA Tour headquarters for his first public appearance. Woods would field no questions, and attendance would be strictly limited. The message from Woods, it seemed, was that he was still in control. Worse still was that the non-press conference was staged in the middle of the Accenture Match Play in Tucson, Ariz., which smelled like retribution since Woods had been dumped as Accenture's spokesman after the scandal. "Selfish" was how Ernie Els described the timing.

When asked if the announcement could wait, IMG's Mark Steinberg, Woods' longtime dealmaker, said no. Taken literally, that could only have meant that Woods was planning to meet that day's deadline to commit to the following week's Waste Management Phoenix Open. He was not.

As it turned out, he called the gathering simply to announce he was really sorry, and headed back to rehabilitation, presumably for sex addiction. The lesson was not that Tiger had the capacity for humility, although it seemed possible. More enlightening was that after 15 years in the public eye Woods had finally run out of goodwill. For years he was less adored than tolerated, and now he was neither.

The blow back against Woods started with the first two words of his inaugural press conference as a pro in 1996, when his "Hello, world" matched the advertising copy of his first big TV spot. Having walled himself off from much of the rest of the world, he had already begun to forfeit himself to the brand, becoming the first pro so aptly described by his own signature golf ball: the Nike ONE. (No weak, lower-case letters for TW.) He was guilty of chasing a dollar, leaving lesser Tour events to wither and die in his absence, keeping the press at arm's length, throwing clubs, and yet there was always a defense: Look what he's meant to the bottom line.

By the time he was caught living a double life, Woods was a sort of composite character brought to us by Corporate America, a casualty of the brand, a man whose real identity had been pulverized, sanitized and monetized. "You never know what's going on in another man's mind, and I don't want to say anything bad, but he got on the wrong side of the 8-ball and kept going with it," says Will MacKenzie, one of the Tour's most liked players and a married father of one. "What he did, in wedlock, the run he went on, I'm baffled by it. I can't believe a guy we thought was so bright just let it go and let it go for so long."

Somewhere Woods became confused. You could see it when he told Sports Illustrated's John Garrity after the 2006 season — about a half a billion dollars into his career — that his goal was to get to "a place where my family can be financially secure." You could hear it when Woods explained that his TV commercials were "a way for me to get across another side" of himself — alas, not a very authentic side, since he wasn't the one who wrote the copy. The brand subsumed Woods. "Tiger" was all just slick packaging, starting with his adopted name, and one was left to wonder when and where the humanity in him disappeared.

To talk to his junior-golf contemporaries, some of whom, like Chris Riley, are now on Tour, Eldrick Woods was irrepressible — the kid who loved telling jokes and proving he was one of the gang. The problem was he was also clearly destined for greatness, commencing the ultimately disastrous dichotomy of Woods vs. the Rest of the World. "The presence of him even in the 10-and-under division — he had this aura about him that he was unbeatable," says Megan Mahoney, who played tournaments with Woods as a child and is now executive director of the San Diego County Junior Golf Association. "His family, his mom and dad and aunts, would wear these 'Team Tiger' shirts with a picture of an actual tiger on them."

The freakishly gifted yet still likeable child would become a sullen, imperious man on an island, if not yet Jupiter Island, Fla. — the country's most expensive zip code, and where Woods purchased a lavish estate in 2005 that he is still remodeling.

Woods, 34, is not the force he was a decade ago — he was 139th on Tour last year in putts from 15-20 feet — but he'll win again. He'll eclipse all records, as his father Earl predicted all those years ago. The thing is, it doesn't matter anymore. "If he was beating us by five before he's going to beat us by 10 now," says Steve Flesch, a four-time Tour winner. "I just wonder if what's happened will eat him up from the inside out."

Stephen Ames once questioned Woods's erratic long game in the press. An angry Tiger responded by throttling Ames 9 and 8. But that game is over. Tiger won. "Who really cares if he comes back and kicks our ass or not?" Ames says now. "I'm still going to go home to my wife and kids at night, and he has to worry about that. It's tough, but that's the way it is."

For golf's No. 1, golf has lost its primacy, leaving Woods nowhere to hide. Just as the downfall of the world's most recognized athlete had nothing to do with chasing a little white ball, neither will his redemption — if indeed it's forthcoming. And it won't be about rebuilding the brand, either. He could do that, says Scott Rosner, associate director of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Sports Business Initiative. Kobe Bryant did it, Ray Lewis did it — like them, Woods would have to win again, for starters. And he'd have to do something more.

"He's got to let down his guard and put a human face to it," Rosner says. "That comes with a different lifestyle and a different burden. If you think about it, he's got to become in some respects more like Phil, where there's a level of humanity to him, that everyman kind of quality."

Woods demonstrated at least a trace of what might have been humanity in his press conference, the first thing he'd done right, PR-wise, in three months. But the timing and choreography were all wrong, and suggested either he or Steinberg still imagine Tiger Woods as a brand to be rolled out with military precision. Columnists pounced: "Woods still doesn't get it."

Indeed, by losing containment of the story, he and his flacks will have trouble dictating the terms of the comeback. Few if any cared that the Golf Writers Association of America boycotted the press conference, but the larger message was so obvious that even Woods alluded to it: Tiger no longer gets to make his own rules.

The last, best move for Team Tiger will be to leave the brand for dead. It is the brand, or more accurately the artifice that kept the brand printing cash, that helped dupe an angry public, and that upset isn't likely to go away anytime soon. Woods may be truly sorry, or he might just be sorry he got caught, but either way, for now he couldn't sell Gatorade in the Sahara. The only thing he can peddle is his golf, and this deep into his career that shouldn't be a problem.

"Tiger can make anywhere from $15 to $30 million a year just by playing the PGA Tour and a select number of tournaments overseas that pay appearance fees," says Bob Williams, chief executive officer of Burns Entertainment and Sports Marketing. "He doesn't even have to get involved with sponsors."

And he shouldn't. His role as a paragon of beneficence was a great trick, one that fooled us all for longer than the most indefatigable optimist could have expected. But in the end it hurt Woods much more. The brand can only damage him now, as the question of what Tiger is selling becomes moot and wholly subservient to the question of who and what he is.

Woods appears not to realize this yet. After a months-long ordeal that began in the mysterious early-morning crash the day after Thanksgiving, it seemed certain he would change everything, starting with Steinberg and the rest of the "team," who may have known and, even if they didn't, looked too complicit to keep around. But then came February, and Steinberg was still in place, still apparently trying to assert control and settle scores. There was something inescapably sad about it all, as if Woods was missing his chance at reinvention, ignoring the axiom, "Never let a crisis go to waste."

You had to guess that the endorsements would return, as they have for Kobe, and Steinberg would get his cut for reeling them in. Woods would win again, giving license to a certain impressionable demographic — kids, golf geeks — to love him again. At the press event, a man done in by a lie at long last apologized to the world, his mother in the front row, at times unable to even meet his eyes. It was all too awkward, an SNL skit just begging to be made, which was ironic because something about Woods finally looked real again.

Was it? Without another person on the stage, or anyone asking questions, it was impossible to tell. Here he was apologizing for playing by his own rules while playing by his own rules; telling us, in painstakingly enunciated words, that his words don't really matter anymore. (This last epiphany, he told us, came courtesy of Mrs. Woods, the sage Elin Nordegren.)

Can the union of Woods and the public be saved? Humility from Tiger would help, as would forgiveness from the public. And vice-versa. Woods got deified, we got entertained; Woods got crucified, we got entertained. Maybe the dollar, having devoured the man, will spit him out whole, or at least recognizably human. Maybe Tiger's actions over the next decade will back up his oh-so-public Step 5 of the 12- step recovery process, when mixed messages and stagecraft once again hid Woods from all who would deign to meet him.

He needs time; we need time. After all of the headlines and revulsion, stakeouts and sudden interest in rehab clinics in Hattiesburg, Miss., nothing, and everything, had changed.

 

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