From the blood sport that is American politics, my favorite bit of slang is "the death watch." It describes the giddy, media-saturated period during which a scandal-tainted politician squirms and hems and haws before succumbing to the inevitable humiliation of a firing, resignation, impeachment or some other kind of trip to the gallows.
The Tiger Woods death watch began last Friday afternoon when news broke of his mysterious late-night car crash, which came just a couple of days after a juicy tabloid report detailed the married father of two's purported dalliance with a New York party girl.
By going deep underground Woods turned his death watch into a national obsession: When will he talk to the cops? When will he show his famous, bloodied face? Will he turn up for his Tuesday press conference at the Chevron World Challenge, his vanity tournament that supports the Tiger Woods Foundation?
With today's stunning news that Woods will not play at the Chevron, we can now call off the death watch. Unless a paparazzo with an itchy trigger-finger catches him on a diaper run, Tiger will not be seen again until late January, when he makes his traditional season debut at Torrey Pines.
The official word that Woods is taking his ball and staying home came in a terse statement on his eponymous website, which declared Tiger was "unable" to play "due to injuries sustained in a one-car accident last week." Oh, really? The dude won the U.S. Open with a broken leg but can't play in a glorified exhibition because of a fat lip? The World Challenge is the fifth most important tournament in golf to Woods behind the four major championships on which he's built his legacy and for him to skip it is evidence of how seriously Tiger is taking the first misstep of a very public life. It is also the only logical endgame for an image-obsessed control freak.
The only chit that Woods has left is access. He will not grant the public what it wants most, a perp walk down the fairway, or some kind of awkward press conference confessional. Even in the best of times Woods has always kept his fawning public at arm's length. No way he's now going to stoop to answering a series of inconvenient questions. When it comes to dealing with the media, Tiger plays by his own rules, and always has.
For years Woods has chosen to disseminate information through his own website. When it's convenient, he will give mini-scoops to a couple of select golf publications, knowing that in exchange they will always protect his interests. When events mushroom beyond his control, Tiger's usual approach is to simply pretend the controversy doesn't exist. To cite only one of many examples: when his caddie, Steve Williams, created a stir by making inflammatory remarks about Phil Mickelson, Tiger's biggest rival, the chattering class decided that the uppity sherpa would have to be suspended, or maybe even fired. Woods blew the whole thing off, saying he had spoken to Williams and that was that.
Now Tiger is doubling down on the same strategy, counting on the fact that the American attention span is so short that in two months no one will care anymore about the details of his accident, or his marriage.
Torrey Pines is Tiger's home turf, where he's been playing since he was a kid and winning since he was a teen. It is the site of his defining triumph, at the 2008 U.S. Open, during which he grimaced and groaned his way to victory on a left leg with two stress fractures. Next January, he will strut into the press room, announce that he's only going to answer golf-related questions and then tenaciously continue on with the business of being the greatest winner in the history of sports.
Even mired in a scandal, Woods will not go off-message, steadfastly protecting his vanilla, corporate image. It's a strategy that is either woefully naive or impressively dignified. Either way, Tiger doesn't care what is being said on Internet message boards or by the supposed crisis-management experts on cable TV.
He's going to do things his way, as he always has.