The Tiger Woods saga began as a mystery, morphed into a public relations test case and then devolved into a tawdry tabloid feeding frenzy. Now, with Woods's announcement last Friday that he is taking an "indefinite" leave from tournament golf and Accenture's announcement two days later that Woods was being dumped as a company spokesman it has suddenly become a business story. Clearly he needs some time to try to heal his family and address whatever demons have put his life and career at such a crossroads. But in l'affaire Tigre there are many unanswered questions; among them: How long will he be gone? How much money is he going to lose? And what does this mean for his sport?
If Woods skips the PGA Tour's West Coast swing and then the Florida events in March, he will have had four months of soul-searching and counseling and marital groveling away from public scrutiny. But if Woods misses the Masters (April 8-11), then we'll know he's in a bad way. Augusta National is his favorite course and the place that has most spectacularly defined his legend. It would also throw into doubt the rest of a schedule that seemed tailor-made for Woods to enjoy a monster year. This summer the U.S. and British Opens visit their respective cathedrals, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews. The last time golf enjoyed this double-dip was in 2000, when Woods won both Opens by a combined 23 strokes en route to the greatest season in the history of the sport.
Those heroics helped launch an unprecedented corporate pitchman who, at 33, has already pocketed some $900 million in endorsements. Accenture's move, ending a six-year alliance, left little doubt that Woods is going to take a significant hit in the marketplace for his philandering. But even if two thirds of Woods's endorsement portfolio vanishes, that still leaves him with around $30 million a year in funny money, along with whatever he earns between the ropes (more than $20 million in '09).
Woods's sport may not come out so unscathed. Long-term sponsorship deals signed in advance of the economic downturn have allowed the Tour to keep its schedule largely intact, but going forward there are an ominous number of sponsorless events, including the San Diego stop in late January at which Woods was supposed to make his season debut. Depressed television ratings in his absence won't help attract sponsors, and the Tour's position is weakened as it begins negotiations with the networks for the next TV deal, due to begin in 2012. As one anonymous pro recently lamented, "He screwed all of us too."
Over the last 13 years Woods has remade golf in his own iconic image, along the way peddling himself as a keeper of the game's values: honor, integrity, playing by the rules, that kind of blather. Woods will eventually return to competition, but when he does, golf and its best player will have to be sold in an entirely different way.