Tiger’s screwing this all up, the thinking goes. He’s blown it from the start — from going into hiding, to the half-assed mea culpas he posted on his website (“I’m not perfect”), to his announcement that he’s taking a leave of absence from his career. In a year in which another serial womanizer, David Letterman, laid out a nearly perfect road map for damage control in similarly trying circumstances — disclose early and cleanly so that, for God’s sake, you don’t create a vacuum for the tabloid press to fill! — well, why is Tiger doing pretty much the exact opposite? Is one of the world’s great one-man brands actually one of the world’s most clueless brand managers?
Maybe not. Maybe Tiger knows exactly what he’s doing. Let’s consider his four-point game plan so far — which, yeah, might actually amount to a strategy:
1. Let the bit players take the stage.
The Letterman tactic of early, clean disclosure only works if you know exactly what you’re disclosing. Dave’s extramarital excursions occurred within his own tightly controlled environment — in the office of the show (and corporation, Worldwide Pants) that he runs. He hooked up with, apparently, trusted (and discreet) co-workers. He was able to take charge of the narrative only because his lovers (and his wife) allowed him to. Tiger’s entanglements, on the other hand, involved a sprawling, worldwide network of obviously indiscreet and deeply unpredictable characters. There was no way he could even partially address all the rumors without begging a million new questions. You can’t control chaos, you can’t spin the unspinnable — Tiger must have realized that as soon as the first of his flirty text messages leaked to the tabloid press. So he just waited to see what would come next — knowing there’d be a lot of nexts. What’s happening now, to Tiger’s benefit, is that the members of his harem are essentially beginning to cancel each other out. Nobody can keep the club promoter apart from the cocktail waitress, apart from the other cocktail waitress, apart from the supposed prostitute, apart from …
2. Go on an “indefinite break.”
Brilliant! Especially since leaving his sabbatical open-ended creates a whole new narrative of anticipation — or, actually, desperation. Because clearly the entire golf-industrial complex is seriously screwed by Tiger’s disappearing act — from Nike, which basically built its entire golf business around Tiger, to the PGA tour, as lampooned on Saturday Night Live last weekend:
Everybody expected Tiger to skip some golf events — he’s still in bunker mode — but announcing it as “indefinite” flips the script and puts Tiger back in control. Essentially, he’s all like, Okay, you all hate me so much? Fine! Go ahead and live without me! In a split second he went from being golf’s albatross to golf’s future savior (the second coming of Tiger).
3. With apologies to Nike, Just Fuck It.
Yesterday came word that Elin is set to divorce Tiger. Yeah, Tiger has made noises about working to save his marriage, but does anybody doubt that a split isn’t the best thing for everybody — especially Tiger? (Particularly if we believe TMZ’s report that Elin is physically abusive?) Frankly, when you think about it, Tiger’s history with his harem is so wide-ranging and reckless that you almost have to conclude that he was engineering his own downfall. It’s a cliché, but he probably wanted to get caught. From the earliest days of his career, as Charles P. Pierce recently wrote for Esquire, he “was something of a hound.” (“Everybody knew. Everybody had a story.”) Golden handcuffs — all those insanely lucrative endorsement deals — forced Tiger to play-act the Happily Married Family Man, but clearly his bliss lay and lies elsewhere. Woods, poor bastard, just wanted to live the George Clooney lifestyle! He chose to continue to live that life even after he got married, knowing full well that sooner or later the house of cards of his carefully constructed image would come crashing down. Like Michael Jackson, Tiger Woods may have been a guy who just couldn’t say no — was told he couldn’t afford to say no — to his handlers. So he found another way to say no — indirectly, but much more forcefully.
4. Stew in your own mess — it’s a form of penance.
Is it possible to begin to feel pity for a guy so under siege because of his own reckless actions? Yeah, definitely. In fact, a key turning point in the eventual Redemption of Tiger Woods came with Monday’s Post cover, with its “TIGER’S AGONY” headline, and the bits about how he’s only “barely hanging on.” See? It’s happening already! Tiger has been waterboarded for weeks by the media, and now the media (even the Murdochian press!) is actually beginning to ascribe qualities of stoicism and sufferance to their torturee. It’s like Stockholm Syndrome in reverse.
The real beauty of Tiger’s strategy is that he doesn’t have to worry about playing his cards right — because he’s not technically in the game. When you decline to follow the usual damage-control script, there’s no danger of falling off-script. Media pile-ons always reverse themselves in due time, and by then, Tiger, perversely ennobled by his ordeal, will be ready to play golf again.
Without even breaking a sweat, he could come out of this as a whole new sort of athlete: the Media Gauntlet Iron Man.