Caged Tiger

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Say what you will about Tiger’s transgressions, his fall from family and America’s grace, the all-too easy golf-related jokes about his catting around.

The images of Woods’s steely veneer, his resolute pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major titles record, the man in total control, have been shattered amidst the tabloid headlines (the New York Post’s simple “Cheetah” remains the best) and tales of his taste for women from all walks of life, including a pancake house manager.

The still barely explained car crash outside his Orlando home the night after Thanksgiving is now largely an afterthought, considering the bag of mistresses who have stepped from behind bars of silence and the others who allegedly set up his dalliances on 19th holes around the globe.

Now Woods, trapped in his world of tawdry infidelity, is taking an indefinite leave of absence from the PGA Tour to correct matters with his wife Elin and their young family– not to mention to try and repair his lothario image.

His sponsors, the ones who put him in living rooms around the country whether the residents played golf or cared not iota about it (the vast majority), are consulting their marketing caddies about how to proceed with the fallen icon. Gillette will support Tiger’s withdrawal, by limiting his role in its marketing programs. AT&T said it’s assessing its relationship with the golfer, while Nike, in a statement said it is looking “forward to his return to golf. He and his family have Nike’s full support.”

Woods makes a reported $100 million annually from his corporate endorsements, dwarfing his on-course winnings, as the major part of the record $1 billion be has collected over the years as the globe’s highest paid athlete.

However contrite, however heartfelt Woods may prove to be when/if he emerges from his lair during his links absence (will he miss The Masters or the other majors?) no one will ever view him the same. There’s no mulligan here — think Michael Jackson.

Could he afford to put his clubs away for good? Absolutely! But his ego and his Majors mission would not be sated. And presumably one has to play in order to continue to be paid as an endorser. Unless of course, Nike wants to continue to just do it.

And how long can the networks and PGA, which face the loss of 10 title sponsors at the close of the 2010 season, live with their meal ticket locked in the clubhouse?

So Woods — who has transcended his sport, bringing in millions of casual viewers and general sports fans, many of whom otherwise see golf as a “game” played by white guys in bad clothes — figures to return sooner, rather than later. If ratings rose dramatically when Tiger won or was in the hunt in the past, imagine how they will skyrocket upon his return to the course. Like a new exhibit caged at the zoo, the initial gawking will be unbelievable.

Indeed, advertisers only interested in grabbing GRPs should hedge their media schedules, making sure their buys include a position on Golf Channel’s opening-round Thursday coverage upon Woods’s return. That telecast will obliterate all of the Comcast-owned network’s Nielsen records, notably the 1.7 million who tuned in its Feb. 26 telecast earlier this year of the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, which marked Woods’s return to golf following his knee surgery and rehab after his stunning win over Rocco Mediate at the 2008 U.S. Open.

Golf Channel just needs to make sure it keeps its boom mikes and cameras away from the crowd: the banter from the gallery will make Tiger’s F-bombs over wayward drives seem FCC-friendly, while there could be some chippies looking for their own Happy Gilmore moment.

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