SI’s senior writer Jon Wertheim sat down with Ari Fleischer in midtown Manhattan last week, before reports surfaced that he was working with Tiger. While Fleischer would not confirm that Woods was a client, the former White House press secretary spoke about Tiger’s crisis management in theoretical terms. Si.com caught up Wertheim on Tuesday, following the announcement that Woods would make his much-anticipated comeback at the Masters.
Q: How surprised are you by today’s announcement?
A: Not. We had a good sense that Woods was going to end his “indefinite leave” this spring and for a variety of reasons, it makes sense that it will be at the Masters. For one, this has been his signature event. He knows the course, the knows the vibe. The better he plays, the more it will defuse and diffuse the situation. His return is going to be a zoo no matter what, but why not stage it at a) a place where you’re most likely to play well and b) a place with the most innate decorum and c) a place with restrictive access. He wasn’t going to come back at event where media access was lax and anyone with a badge could get inside the ropes.
Q: How surprised are you by the reports that Woods has hired Fleischer?
A: Again, it makes sense. Like Woods, Fleischer is an IMG client. (In fact, Fleischer’s sports consulting business was set up as a 50-50 partnership with IMG.) In a short amount of time, Fleischer has become the go-to guy for sports entities—be it the BCS, steroids-tainted Major League Baseball or Mark McGwire—with image problems. Plus, Tiger’s damage control to date has not been particularly effective. If you need to focus your message and try and choreographed a huge media event, you do worse than hiring a guy who spent three years at the White House, that included 9/11 and the launching of two wars.
Q: Any sense what the damage control strategy will be?
A: When I asked Fleischer how he would advise Tiger, he first offered the obvious: “Golf well.” As he put it me: “[Tiger’s] future will be defined by what happens when he returns if he comes out and wins tournaments, wins the Masters, he’s back. If he plays poorly, people are going to say, ‘He’s lost his game, he’s lost his ferocity,’ and no matter what goes wrong with his game they’re going to blame it on what he did.”
As for specifics, Fleischer repeatedly stressed that Tiger ought to draw a line between his private life and personal life, much as a politician would. Tiger is going to have to take questions, but I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for a full public cleansing. Here’s Fleischer: “Obviously what Tiger did was horrendous in his personal life. But he’s under no obligation to tell anyone the details about it. …Being in public life doesn’t mean you have to succumb to the overwhelming curiosity factor that permeates everything in our society.”