How the mighty have fallen

BILL LANKHOF

, Last Updated: 9:49 AM ET

Celebrity raised Tiger Woods to near God-like status. That same celebrity has now condemned him to a philanderers' prison.

He has done this to himself.

Woods has been left to twist in the foul winds of innuendo, speculation and the awful truth that his integrity is forever compromised. The story was told by more than a dozen women who decided to kiss and tell, and a discomfited wife, who never tells anything. But, truth is, it was Woods who wrote the story.

He created it. He made it possible.

He flourished mightily on his talent, charm, affability and charisma. He cashed in on the fame, fortune and women that it brought his way. He took it all: The $100 million a year in endorsements, the notoriety of becoming the world's first billionaire athlete, the trophy wife, the cute kids, the mansions and adulation.

For more than a decade he has been the face of professional golf, raising it to unprecedented heights of popularity. No other single athlete, other than perhaps Michael Jordan, has been able to change the fortunes of his game and fellow athletes as Woods has done.

Perhaps it was all too much to ask that one man could, like Icarus, fly so high without crashing. He is not the first star athlete to prove to be a lesser god than portrayed by his spin-masters. In retrospect, he hung with Charles Barkley and Jordan so perhaps the public should've been a little skeptical of the squeaky clean image golf liked to portray of both him and itself.

The image doctors in charge of putting Woods back together will blame the media. Eventually they will point to Woods' pillow mates as gold-digging opportunists. And maybe, some were, but it is Tiger who created this mess.

It is only Woods who can clean it up. This didn't have to be the never-ending agony it has become if Woods had managed the crisis instead of letting it manage him. He invited speculation when he didn't go on the offensive immediately. If he had, if he had merely admitted that he'd been unfaithful, if he'd admitted he had a row with his wife, if he'd admitted he messed up, chances are the world would've simply nodded, and forgiven. It did with Kobe Bryant. It has with Alex Rodriguez. But Woods and his handlers didn't tell their story. Instead they invited suspicion, tall tales and made him a joke on late-night TV. All night. Every night.

Tiger will rise, of that there should be no doubt. It will happen when he returns from self-exile to the golf course. When he resumes the chase to surpass Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles much will be forgotten if not forgiven. But that crowning moment, which seemed so near with 14 major trophies already in his care, is now a future shrouded.

He had seemed an unstoppable force, the sport's No. 1-ranked golfer for the past 235 weeks, $100.2 million in career prize money, almost double Phil Mickelson's total.

But behind the gaudy numbers, behind the public smile, there was a seediness hidden from the world, from his sponsors and mostly from his wife, Elin Nordegren. So now he leaves the game. There is, he says, a need to heal himself and his family but eventually the need to compete will bring him back. And, he will win again. He will be Tiger again -- on the golf the course. Off It? That is a more difficult question.

When the list of consorts runs from porn stars to models, TV broadcasters and a long list of hostesses and waitresses, Woods' former all-America, family-man image isn't going to fly. The ramifications for Woods and his sport began to unfold last weekend.

Business consulting firm Accenture dumped him as a spokesman. Gillette hasn't. Yet. But it's a pretty good guess that when they came up with the slogan: "Best a Man Can Get" they weren't thinking it would be Jamie Jungers.

The announcement that he will take time off is damaging to the sport, but probably not a bad idea for Woods personally. At the best of times, the life of a pro athlete isn't conducive to a settled home life. "If the public understood that 78% of athletes two years out of the game are either bankrupt, divorced or unemployed, they would have a much graver understanding of how difficult this lifestyle is," says Bob LaMonte, an educator, member of the board at New York University and a sports agent for more than 30 years.

Woods' dalliance isn't unusual to pro sports. If every athlete with an extra-marital fling took the year off, Don Cherry would be unemployed, sports writers would be covering the national oragami championships and needlepoint would become the closest thing going to a contact sport. "It is ironic that so many champions, who made it to the top through determination, focus and discipline, could display such poor judgment off the playing field," writes Pauline Wallin, a psychologist and author of Taming Your Inner Brat.

'STIMULATION'

"The need for stimulation, combined with miscalculating risk, is what compromises the judgment of people who drive recklessly, use drugs, get into physical fights, engage in adultery and commit acts of violence. To that extent, sports stars have to work harder than the rest of us to stay out of trouble."

So Plaxico Burris takes his gun dancing, Michael Vick goes to the dogs and considering all the waitresses on his to-do list, Woods might want to consider using drive-thru more often.

If Woods isn't the only athlete to fall from grace, his indiscretions are more far-reaching than those of his contemporaries. A year ago, he missed eight months while recovering from reconstructive knee surgery. TV ratings dropped by 50%. The networks sell ads based on a promise of a certain rating. They can't afford to make up for ratings that fall short. Negotiations between the PGA Tour and CBS and NBC on new contracts are expected to start late next year. If the networks aren't convinced Tiger will be playing, it could reduce broadcasting rights fees. It is those fees that have, since Woods' first full season in 1997, helped triple prize money to $275 million.

Industry sources predict Woods' absence for a year could cost the industry more than $500 million. Ticket sales for tournaments Woods pulls out of would be expected to fall by 25%. "We need him out here because of sponsorships and just the awareness in our tour in general," said Steve Stricker.

Reaction from Tour colleagues has varied from stoney silence to a suggestion that next time instead of a light iron, Nordegren should hit him with the driver, but all know that a prolonged absence by Woods will hurt everyone. At least everyone not calling themselves Mrs. Woods.

"Golf needs Tiger Woods," Brad Faxon said. "(Having) him on the golf course is good for everybody."

None of Woods' TV commercials has aired since Nov. 29, although such spots are rare during a slow time of the year in golf. But his endorsement companies have made one thing clear; much like the public, they don't quite know what to think, taking dramatically different positions.

Accenture dropped Woods' image off its website homepage and ended a six-year relationship. The company made up about 10% of Woods' annual $100-$140 million income in endorsements.

Nike, his main sponsor, signed him to a five-year deal in 2006 for an estimated $120 million, and will continue the relationship. Nike chairman and co-founder Phil Knight said the scandal surrounding Tiger Woods is "part of the game" in signing endorsement deals with athletes.

VIDEO GAME

Other sponsors including PepsiCo Inc's Gatorade, Electronic Arts Inc (EA), TLC Vision Corp, Upper Deck, Berkshire Hathaway Inc.'s NetJets and Tag Heuer, are playing coy and gauging public sentiment. Woods is in the fourth of a six-year deal with videogame company EA Sports and his branded video game has so far made $103 million. A Tag Heuer spokesperson said the company will continue its relationship. Tag Heuer last Thursday had yanked his ads in Australia but the same day, store owners said sales of Tiger's watches were significantly up since the beginning of the scandal. ATT says it is "evaluating" their relationship.

He could also lose up to $20 million in appearance fees. Then there is what he will lose on the golf course. In his last full season of 2007 he earned more than $10.8 million in prize money alone and this year would likely have surpassed that total. He won six of 17 events last year, earning $10.5 million and looked fully recovered from injury, the competitive fire back in his game.

Instead, when the PGA Tour season begins next month with two tournaments in Hawaii, followed by four more in California, it will arrive with Phil Mickelson, Padraig Harrington, uncertainty and no small amount of trepidation. But no Tiger, who, for first time in his career and in life, is in desperate need of a mulligan.


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