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Spotlight on Woods and His Strategy

By Richard Sanomir, The New York Times

Feb 19, 2010

Tiger Woods’s live scripted mea culpa on Friday at 11 a.m. Eastern time, from the T.P.C. Sawgrass clubhouse in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., will inevitably be compared with two forms of the modern celebrity apology: one made famous by Mark McGwire and Alex Rodriguez and the second by politicians like Eliot Spitzer and Mark Sanford.

But unless Woods surprises viewers, his brief statement (no questions, please, from the few reporters in the room) will not fall into either category.

Woods is not an officeholder who has violated the trust of those who elected him. Spitzer resigned as governor of New York after revelations about money he spent on call girls. Sanford, the still-sitting South Carolina governor, had an affair with an Argentine “soulmate” that is leading to divorce.

Although McGwire delayed apologizing for five years, he spent days talking to numerous news media outlets, explaining his steroid use. Trying to control his message for as long as he could, he did not face questions during a news conference, but he was criticized for saying he used steroids to benefit his health, not his performance.

Rodriguez faced a news conference last year, moved on and was not punished for violating baseball’s drug policy.

Woods is in a different position, which raises questions about the wisdom of his one-man, five-minutes-or-more apology show. McGwire and Rodriguez transgressed against baseball. But Woods did not sin against golf.

McGwire needed to give his version of full disclosure to return to baseball as the Cardinals’ hitting coach. But Woods does not need to apologize to earn his return to golf; fans, the PGA Tour, his remaining sponsors and the TV networks want him back as soon as possible.

In speaking to an assembled group of friends, colleagues and associates, Woods will apologize to those “whom Tiger feels he owes a direct and personal apology,” Glenn Greenspan, his spokesman, said Thursday.

But if they all deserved an apology, shouldn’t they have gotten one from him privately, rather than on TV?

And they will risk looking like a group surrogate for the classically cuckolded wife if Elin Woods is not there. More important, how much can he possibly say in a few minutes to satisfy a public overstuffed with tales of the oversexed Tiger?

“What’s most important for Tiger is not the length of his talk but to speak from the heart,” Greenspan said. “If that takes a little longer, then he’ll use all the time he needs.”

The timing of his announcement was determined by a week’s break from his therapy “at which time he has spent a few days with his children,” Tim Finchem, the PGA Tour commissioner, wrote in a letter to the tour’s policy board.

Whatever the timing, Walter Guarino, the president of Insight/SGW, a brand positioning company, said: “When you apologize for being unfaithful, that’s your own personal indiscretion. If you feel it advances your cause and makes you better off in terms of people liking you more, that’s your own call.”

He added: “Is it the right thing? That’s up to the man.”

But Guarino, who is also a professor at Seton Hall University, said that barring a give and take with the news media, Woods should play golf and say nothing.

Just as trying to use a scripted statement is unlikely to serve Woods well, a news conference would be a risky step. It would create the sort of unruly encounter he cannot control.

After the polite, de rigueur questions about Woods’s return, the follow-ups would naturally have focused on the car accident that unleashed his public downfall, his affairs and the sexual-addiction therapy he is reported to have undergone. Woods has rarely faced a contentious press or one eager to mine his personal life. He is always in control of what he says. But controlling a thoroughly tabloidized story is like wrangling eels.

Kevin Sullivan, who runs a strategic communications company, said that Woods should take questions because the appetite for unscripted, candid answers was unlikely to be satisfied by a statement.

“Whether in a press conference or in a series of interviews, he has to take questions, even if he limits it to an environment he’s comfortable in,” Sullivan said.

To all the potentially cringe-worthy questions, he said, Woods should give no details. “He’s under no obligation to reveal anything,” he said. “He’s not an elected official. He can say, ‘I used terrible judgment,’ ‘I wasn’t true to my values,’ ‘Look what it cost me,’ ‘I’ve lost fans.’ ”

Until he decides to answer questions, Woods is exerting whatever control he still has by limiting direct coverage Friday to a small pool of reporters whom he will ignore. His scripted appearance will be the third leg of a dubious media strategy — consisting so far of two statements on his Web site — that began shortly after his secret private life started to unravel.


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