Golf is a gentle game, a gentleman’s game. The slightest breach of etiquette draws a stern, silent sneer. Silence is the norm for putting, driving, signing one’s scorecard. Players are expected to play by the rules and report their own infractions. Handshakes are encouraged. So when the world’s best golfer snubs the rules of respectability, there is a price to be paid, and in Tiger Woods’ case, it was a heavy price indeed.
Golf is a gentle game, a gentleman’s game. The slightest breach of etiquette draws a stern, silent sneer. Silence is the norm for putting, driving, signing one’s scorecard. Players are expected to play by the rules and report their own infractions. Handshakes are encouraged. “Get in the hole!” is discouraged. The game is owned by rich and well-healed country clubbers, by kings and counts. And, oh, by the way, no jeans allowed.
So when the world’s best golfer snubs the rules of respectability, there is a price to be paid, and in Tiger Woods’ case, it was a heavy price indeed. Woods’ infidelities, which he admitted in a heartfelt apology Friday, have had serious reverberations that cannot be comprehended in golf or other circles.
When Alex Rodriguez was caught cheating on his wife, Major League Baseball wasn’t rocked on its heels. In fact, even his drug admissions/non-admissions didn’t throw the game for a loop. When Bill Clinton finally admitted having sex with that woman, the government kept on ticking. And when Kobe Bryant sat in front of cameras with his wife to apologize for his Colorado fling, the NBA didn’t take a licking.
With Woods, though, this was such a shock, such a kick in the teeth that there were repercussions that went beyond his own personal tragedy. His Thanksgiving evening accident, or whatever it was, couldn’t have come at a worse time for professional golf. With the economy already in a tailspin, losing the all-time top draw was a serious matter. When Woods plays, the PGA's television ratings rise 93 percent. That, of course, translates into further revenues. Since he last played in November, PGA ticket sales dropped 15 to 20 percent.
The PGA was already up against it with sponsors bailing and tournaments failing. The Air Canada Championship, Buick Challenge, Canon Greater Hartford Open, Genuity Championship, International, Invensys Classic at Las Vegas, Memorial, Michelob Championship at Kingsmill, Phoenix Open, Reno-Tahoe Open, Valera Texas Open and WorldCom Classic/The Heritage of Golf have all gone poof.
PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem recently said charitable donations raised at tournaments are expected to be down from 2008's record $124 million. The economy is bad, but losing Woods exacerbated, well, everything.
For Woods, the results of his irresponsibility were catastrophic. Woods earned $64 million from endorsements alone last year, making him the top athlete brand as ranked by Forbes magazine. No. 2 amongst active athletes was David Beckham at $18 million. Woods lost sponsors from Accenture to Tag Heuer watches to Gatorade. About the only company to stick by him has been Nike.
Worse for Woods, professionally speaking, was the interruption in what had been a strong comeback from knee surgery. He’s the first athlete to have topped $1 billion in assets, but also on his mind was his 14 major championships, just four behind Jack Nicklaus’ record 18. And Woods is only 35 years old.
Now, cynics look at Woods’ apology, which include a promise to clean up his image on the course, as a means of restoring his endorsements and his place in the game, but that’s not the case. This was a heartfelt apology, and it doesn’t make a difference if it was scripted, written for him, read stiffly or choreographed before a controlled group that included his mother, Kultida. Nor did it matter if he didn’t take any questions.
The fact is, the man was contrite, and to his credit, he touched all the bases, confirming just about everything that had been reported, from his “affairs,” to his relationship with his wife, Elin, to his engagement of therapy.
“I stopped living by the core values that I was taught to believe in,” Woods said. “I knew my actions were wrong, but I convinced myself that normal rules didn't apply. I never thought about who I was hurting. Instead I thought only about myself. I ran straight through the boundaries that a married couple should live by. I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled.”
The cynics will say he was trying to upstage the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Arizona when in fact he gave that his former sponsor (whatever it is) more publicity than it could handle. Some will say that he has ticked off his fellow pros when in fact just as many know where their bread is buttered. “In my opinion, I wish he would come back as soon as possible,” said U.S. Open champ Lucas Glover. “It makes us play better, makes the Tour look better, makes the sponsors happier and all that stuff.”
Some would say he even upstaged the Olympics. The fact is, Woods is bigger than all of them. He doesn’t owe anyone a public explanation or apology, but he chose to do so and he did it well.
“Elin and I have started the process of discussing the damage caused by my behavior,” he said. “As Elin pointed out to me, my real apology to her will not come in the form of words. It will come from my behavior over time. We have a lot to discuss. However, what we say to each other will remain between the two of us.
“Elin has shown enormous grace and poise throughout this ordeal. Elin deserves praise, not blame. The issue involved here was my repeated irresponsible behavior. I was unfaithful. I had affairs, I cheated. What I did is not acceptable. And I am the only person to blame.
“It's hard to admit that I need help, but I do. For 45 days, from the end of December to early February, I was in in-patient therapy receiving guidance for the issues I'm facing. I have a long way to go. But I've taken my first steps in the right direction.”
His public statement was one of those steps.
Mike Fine writes for The Patriot Ledger.