Two thousand and nine will be a turning point for Tiger Woods. This will be remembered as the year that Tiger's impeccable image took a serious hit. No matter how many more major titles he wins or how many records he breaks, we will never look at Tiger Woods in quite the same way after this year.
First, his on-course invincibility vanished at the PGA Championship when the superman with 14 major championships lost one for the first time after holding the 54-hole lead to the lightly regarded Y.E. Yang.
Three months later, that slip-up seems almost irrelevant compared to the tabloid tsunami that irrevocably tarnished his carefully crafted public image. It began with a small earthquake on Thanksgiving weekend when Woods was involved in a suspicious, late-night, one-car accident outside his stately manor in Windermere, Fla.
It continued, turning into a wave of rumors about a domestic spat possibly sparked by an unconfirmed National Enquirer claim about Tiger having an affair. Woods was hospitalized and released, but were his injuries from the crash or from something else?
The wave crested when he refused to be interviewed by the Florida Highway Patrol. That made him look like he had something to hide or, even worse, like he thought he was above the law. Then he announced he wouldn't play in his own tournament, the Chevron World Challenge, an off-season event that supports the charitable works of the Tiger Woods Foundation, or even show up to serve as host and glad-hand. In a release, he claimed he was under a doctor's orders not to travel. Let's see, he could win a U.S. Open at Torrey Pines with multiple microfractures in his leg but couldn't fly in a comfy private jet to California because of a cut lip and some bruises?
So much for Tiger's image as a tough guy. Now the same can be said for his image as a good guy. The whole thing turned into a full-blown tidal wave on Tuesday when Us Weekly brought forth a former cocktail waitress who has appeared on a reality show, Tool Academy, and who claimed she had an affair with Tiger. She offered text messages and even a voicemail message as evidence. After those were released on Wednesday, it became clear that Woods did the right thing by skipping the Chevron Challenge. It would've turned into an appalling circus.
On Wednesday, Woods issued a statement apologizing for his "transgressions," but he didn't get into specifics. After saying he had let his family down, he went on to criticize the tabloid press for invading his privacy and printing erroneous rumors. (He never supplied the police, the public or the media with any facts to avoid all the speculation.) Yes, being the most famous person on the planet can be a terrible burden, but in his apology he sounded more sorry for getting caught than for his actions. Maybe that's harsh. Maybe that's unfair. But that's the way the public is going to view this.
Until now, Tiger has been total Teflon when it comes to bad publicity. He drops f-bombs and other expletives at tournaments with regularity and impunity. When he angrily slammed his driver into the ground at the recent Australian Masters and it bounced into the gallery, where it was caught by a fan, that tantrum barely rated a mention in the media. (John Daly probably would've gotten a suspension for it.) Bobby Jones was in his teens when he corrected similar on-course behavior and grew into the game's most admired gentleman. Tiger will be 34 this month.
Tiger has had incidents early in his career that earned him bad press pulling out of a tour event after he was already on-site and missing a related dinner there in his honor, and telling politically incorrect jokes in a GQ article. Those and other minor transgressions were always forgotten in the wake of his ongoing awesomeness. It didn't hurt that he had a popular persona that was derived almost entirely from humorous commercials for Nike, Buick and the PGA Tour, among others. It was a controlled image.
When he was introduced at his tour debut at the Greater Milwaukee Open in 1996, he said, "I guess, hello world." His comments were hailed as a breath of fresh air until that weekend, when Nike ran its first Tiger commercials based on the advertising phrase, "Hello world." Tiger was a marketed product from the very beginning.
Remember, all of this chaos started with Tiger's worst drive of 2009 crashing his Cadillac Escalade into a fire hydrant and tree just out of his driveway at 2:25 in the morning. It's too late for spin control when jokes are being passed around with you as the punchline. Examples: What's the difference between a golf ball and a Cadillac Escalade? Tiger can drive a golf ball more than 300 yards. What did Tiger and wife Elin do on Thanksgiving night? They went clubbing.
Nothing has stuck to Tiger before. This one, this digital inquisition, will. It has turned into a public-relations nightmare. All Woods can do is lie low, duck and cover. The worst part for Woods isn't the public humiliation, although that's pretty bad; it's the damage to his relationship with his family. There are two children involved and, by all accounts, Woods is a doting father. It remains to be seen how they will pull through this.
No golfer has endured tabloid treatment like this. Not even Greg Norman, who divorced his long-time wife and got remarried to Chris Evert, then split from her this year. Not Nick Faldo or Colin Montgomerie, who also suffered high-profile divorces. Their level of fame was nowhere near Tiger's, and their trials mostly happened before the birth of the insatiable Internet news cycle.
This unseemly episode may impact Tiger's long-term image. He is chasing the record 18 major championships won by Jack Nicklaus, but he may never get close to Jack's legacy. Nicklaus was a beloved champion, a paragon of sportsmanship and the game's most popular icon. Woods, who plays head-down, emotionless, ruthless golf, appears headed down a path more like that of Ben Hogan, a hard-edged loner who became reclusive after his playing days. Hogan was feared on the course and admired for his unmatched skill and dedication, but he wasn't beloved and rarely granted interviews. Few really knew the man.
PGA Tour players love Woods because he singlehandedly quadrupled the size of purses due to his drawing power, but few players know him, mingle with him or have conversations with him that extend beyond small talk. That's probably not going to change any time soon. Woods, like Hogan, may become even more insular and isolated after this. Maybe in the 21st century, that's the only logical way to deal with fame.
Perception rules over facts in the court of public opinion, and this verdict is going to go against Tiger, no matter what is ultimately revealed. Forget those seven wins he had on the golf course this year. What we're going to remember about Tiger's 2009 is a crashed Cadillac, a $164 citation for careless driving and a betrayed wife.
Tiger's image will never be the same. Neither will his life. All we really know for sure is, this was all his fault.