New York:Tiger Woods will be back on television this weekend during the Transitions Championship, bashing the air with a right-hand uppercut fist pump. The appearance will be brief, almost subliminal, but the statement will be unmistakable, the image powerful.
In a 5-second sliver of a 30-second spot on NBC, the wordless message will be "Remember me?"
The battle to rebuild Woods' image is under way, and it will not be hurt by the PGA Tour's use of his familiar celebratory ritual in a promotional spot for the Players Championship in May. The spot is scheduled to be broadcast this weekend.
It will be a strong visual reminder to tour advertisers and sponsors that Woods will soon be back doing what he does best: playing golf and winning events. And although it is a spot for the Players, it will help the Masters, which will be broadcast by CBS, by emphasizing that Woods' return there in April promises to be anything but ordinary.
"This will be the most-watched Masters ever," said Bill Sutton, a sports marketing consultant and professor at the University of Central Florida. "The golf people will want to see how he competes and there will be other people who watch this because, 'Wow, Tiger Woods, I hear all these bad things about him. I want to see what he looks like."'
On the level of the Woods brand and his personal well-being, the return will be the apparent culmination of one stage of a rehabilitation process marked by his somber apology last month at the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse. Seeking forgiveness from his wife, Elin, his family, friends, business associates and fans, he referred to his "repeated irresponsible behavior," admitted he was unfaithful and said, "I am the only person to blame."
Now, as Woods returns to golf to restore his career, the focus shifts to a key crisis-management objective: changing the subject.
Augusta National is the best place to accomplish the objective, and the process already has begun, said Bob Dorfman, the executive creative director at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco. Dorfman rates the endorsement value of athletes in the Sports Marketers Scouting Report.
"Certainly in the sense of the public, and dealing with that, and dealing with the media, this is the smartest place to return," Dorfman said. "The crowd will be policed very closely and if there are any untoward comments, they'll yank those people out."
Woods will sit with the news media for an interview session early in the week of the Masters, which Dorfman and other crisis management specialists say will be a critical moment if he is to begin closing the chapter on questions about his precipitous fall. This, many experts agree, could very well be Woods' most important Masters appearance.
But not so fast, said Mike Paul, an image expert who is the president of MGP & Associates PR in New York. Paul is not convinced Woods has put in enough time in therapy at a sex addiction center, and added that without tough questioning by the news media about his behavior, Woods is not yet equipped to face the extreme pressure and scrutiny he will undergo when he returns to golf.
"If he were my client, I would tell him that until you have had a number of tough questions asked and answered by the mainstream press, you're going to continue to be in crisis," Paul said. '`What's happening right now is that we're starting to drink the Kool-Aid already. We're switching focus from a man who was a serial adulterer with many different women as the root of the crisis to a man that we want to watch play golf again.
''Some inexperienced people believe that his coming back and winning golf tournaments is going to make it all go away. That's just not true.``
Ready or not, here Woods comes and marketers will be among those watching closely, looking for any evidence that his appeal to consumers has eroded. Fellow competitors will be evaluating whether his skills have slipped or whether his legendary confidence has been shaken.
Some will be look for improved demeanor, including no more club throwing, for which Woods was criticized after hurling his driver at the TPC Boston. Others will be monitoring for off-color language, sometimes picked up by parabolic microphones after errant shots.
''A lot of people are not happy with his behavior on the course," Sutton said, adding: "People will be watching for all kinds of things. But they mostly will be watching to see whether he can win.``
Dorfman agreed. ''In these kind of cases the most important thing is winning," he said. "The sooner he can start winning, the sooner advertisers will come back and the fans will forget. We saw it happen with Kobe Bryant.``
The idea that Woods could actually step back into the arena and win a major after a five-month absence from tournament golf is raised only because he has done the unthinkable before.
Of the prospect of Woods winning the Masters, Sutton said: ''It would be like Roy Hobbs stepping out of the hospital bed in 'The Natural.' With limited practice, limited game conditions, if you will, the world looking at him, and all the pressure on him if he won the Masters, I think it would be more significant than the victory over Rocco Mediate in the U.S. Open.``