Categorized | Women in Sports

Wall of Silence

Tiger Woods has been golf's central figure for years, but his recent off-course exploits have made him among the most controversial. (Associated Press)

When it crumbled, Tiger Woods’ image went with it

By LEONARD SCHOENBERGER

Earl Woods, Tiger Woods’ father, and his second wife, Kultida, moved to Brooklyn, NY in 1972. Earl was working as a public relations officer in the army. Steve Helling, author of “Tiger – The Real Story,” a book claiming to reveal the “real” life of Woods, says it was back then that Earl learned how to deal with the media. “Answer only the questions asked, offering no additional information needlessly. Manage the media meticulously, ensuring that every word is carefully planned,” Helling writes about Earl’s approach. Earl passed that knowledge to his son and Woods perfected it, making it almost impossible to catch a glimpse of the Tiger beyond the golf superstar.

This enabled Woods to live a double life, the one of the perfect family man and golf superstar and the one of lies and deception. Keeping the media out of his life in the first place, enabled him to operate in secrecy and keep his affairs unknown until the car accident last Thanksgiving that led to the sex scandal that destroyed his image and personal life. By turning himself into the flawless superstar, Woods made his downfall even more spectacular.

Jaime Diaz, a writer for Golf Digest, has interviewed Woods many times. “From a very young age on, Earl taught Tiger to answer only what he was asked,” said Diaz. “And Tiger soon started taking pride to some degree in thwarting journalists to get information from him by playing the game of withholding.” Diaz first met Tiger in 1990. Woods was only 14 years old but Diaz remembers that already back then he was reserved and wary. After Woods had played a round with Diaz and Earl, they sat down for lunch and Woods asked Diaz: “Why does the media have to know everything?”

Tiger Woods publicly apologizes on Feb. 19, 2010. (CBS)

The story of how Woods watched his father hit golf balls in the garage as a toddler has often been many times. When Woods was only 2 years old, he showed off his talent to Bob Hope on the Mike Douglas Show. “From that moment on the world knew that there was this kid out there who could play,” said Larry Dorman, who writes about golf for The New York Times. And from that moment it was clear that Woods was not going to lead the life of an ordinary person. “Already as a junior, he was insulated from his peer group because of his celebrity,” said Dorman. “He was not ever an ordinary student, he always stood out from a very young age on.”

There was a huge interest in Woods because he accomplished things on the golf course that nobody had ever done before. He won three consecutive U.S. Junior Amateur titles from 1991 to 1993 and three U.S. Amateur titles in a row from 1994 to 1996. Woods was able to live up to the expectations of his father, who often portrayed him as perfect. Diaz recalls Earl telling him that he was “very proud that Tiger is a better person than he is a golfer.” Diaz thinks that Woods felt “owned” by the public from a very young age on and turned into a very independent person. “The focus and drive that complemented his talent is what made him a transcendent genius. But those same qualities, employed in rebellion, would also foster a personal coldness and a dread of public scrutiny,” wrote Diaz in Golf Digest in February 2010.

Before Woods had even played his first tournament as a professional, he had endorsements worth millions of dollars. His agent at International Management Group (IMG) and his father were very careful in controlling Woods’ image. Hank Gola, a golf writer for the New York Daily News, claims that the mechanism to shield Woods from the media was already in place when he turned pro in August 1996. “But when Tiger won the ’97 Masters in his first major as a pro, the interest in his person exploded,” says Gola.

Only two months later, at the ’97 US Open at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, MD, the first major after the Masters, Woods shot 74 in his opening round. Gola recalls that Woods just ran off after the round without facing up to the questions at the usual press conference. “Nicklaus went to talk to Tiger after that and told him that he had always felt that it was part of his job to talk to the media,” says Gola.

Despite this incident, Dorman claims that Woods was more open towards the press and willing to expand on questions in the beginning of his professional career. “Back in the early days of his career he was pretty open and had not yet become as guarded,” says Dorman. “He had not yet become as wary of the media but the demands on him became greater.”

This changed in April 1997, when Charles P. Pierce wrote a story on Tiger Woods for GQ Magazine. Dave Anderson, a columnist from the New York Times and Adam Schupak, a writer for Golf Week, consider this article a turning point in Woods’ relation to the media. “Pierce wrote many things, that Tiger, maybe naively, considered off the record,” says Schupak. Parts of the story portrayed Tiger as an “average” young man telling dirty jokes and speculating about the reasons why pretty women always hang around with basketball and baseball players. “Tiger never makes the same mistake twice,” says Dorman. “ He became much more wary towards the media afterwards; there was never again such a candid look at Tiger.”

Click here to read Pierce’s profile of Woods.

Thanks to the education of his father, Woods had never told journalists more than he needed. But the more his fame grew the more he shut off towards the press. Gola cannot entirely comprehend this behavior. “He could have known who he could trust,” he says. “He could have decided to ‘bring in’ certain writers and learn to trust them. But he didn’t trust anybody.” Diaz recalls Woods telling him in 2000 that not saying much was a way to protect himself. “To live a sane life, I have to be ruthless sometimes and put up a wall, be cold, say no. If I didn’t, I would never have my own time and space, which is vital to me to achieve what I want in life,” said Woods.

In terms of achievements on the golf course, there is still one player that Woods is trailing in the record books: Jack Nicklaus, a player very accessible to the media. “Nicklaus was the best interview in sports, not only in golf but in all sports,” says Dave Anderson, a columnist for The New York Times. “He would talk for as long as you wanted to ask him questions.”

Doug Ferguson, a golf writer for the Associated Press, thinks that besides Woods’ personality, there was also a question of the era he played in. “Back then covering golf and sports in general was more about fun and joy,” he says. “Nowadays you have people who write stories to create attention for themselves and that has contributed to the image of the media as the enemy. And Tiger probably thinks that they [the journalists] are after him.”

Anderson agrees and sees Woods under enormous pressure because his every move is analyzed. “Nicklaus and Palmer played in a much more causal time,” he says. “Tiger is on a stage every time he plays.” Anderson mostly credits the modern advancements in technology for the increased coverage and media interest in Tiger. “The world today is much more electronic,” he says. “Back when Jack [Nicklaus] and Arnie [Palmer] played there was no cable TV, no ESPN, no Golf Channel, no Internet, no video games.”

The current Masters champion, Phil Mickelson, learned a lesson in the immediacy of today’s media when he took his children to a donut store in Augusta the day after his victory on April 11. Soon after he found a picture of himself and his daughter in the papers that had been taken by an employee. “It’s fascinating because it just shows how things have changed over the last 15, 20 years since I was out on tour,” Mickelson said in an interview with the New York Post. “When I went to college we didn’t have cell phones, and since I’m out of college and out on tour, everybody is media now. The lady behind the counter at Krispy Kreme is media, and it’s an interesting thing to get used to.”

Nowadays, athletes have to be a lot more aware of what they because they cannot control as well anymore where it is going to end up. “The 24/7 news cycle has changed the way athletes regard the media,” says Dorman. And while Mickelson, the No. 2 golfer in the world, gets a lot of media attention, he cannot be compared to Tiger. “He sits on top of the world more than others,” says Diaz. “I think the media has exploded and someone like Tiger will not be able to live a life like Palmer or Nicklaus were able to live.”

Woods has often been compared to Michael Jordan for what he achieved in his sport and for the type of interest he sparked. Diaz thinks that Woods learned a lesson from Jordan in dealing with the media. “Jordan considered himself a victim of the media and it got out of hand for him too,” says Diaz.

Many golf writers think Woods should take a similar approach to Palmer and Nicklaus and be more willing to talk beyond the required press conferences. But Paul Farhi, a writer for the Washington Post, thinks that Woods has a general aversion towards the media. “He is Tiger Woods. The media doesn’t serve any of his desires, so why would he entertain people asking the same questions over and over again,” asks Farhi. Schupak agrees and thinks that Woods only makes himself available if there is money at the end of the line. “If it is in the best interest of his sponsor he will make himself available,” he says.

No athlete has ever earned as much as Tiger Woods. Only a fraction of his annual income directly results from winning golf tournaments. After the scandal about his extra-marital affairs broke in late November, several big sponsors dropped Woods. After his public apology and his return to the golf course, many sports marketing experts said they believe that he will be able to restore his image and become the billion-dollar athlete again. Woods’ manager, Mark Steinberg of IMG, nicknamed “Dr. No” among golf writers, was very successful in releasing as little information about Woods’ life as possible. All the endorsements created an image that had to be protected in order to make the most money. Dorman thinks this was the Woods strategy was pursued from the very beginning. “I am not sure Tiger created this concept on his own but he went along and embraced it,” says Dorman. “Advertising is about myth-making.”

Tom Rinaldi, a sportscaster for ESPN, has interviewed Woods several times. Before his return to golf after the scandal, Rinaldi was one of two reporters to do a one-on-one with Woods. He partly blames the sports press for not getting closer to Woods. “The media has operated in fear,” he says. “Why, I don’t know.” Gola also cannot understand that some writers were afraid of losing “access” to Tiger. “What access?” he asks. “They [Woods’ management] were not giving us anything anyways.”

Rinaldi thinks that his rapport with Woods is stronger now than before the scandal but thinks that Tiger’s general attitude towards the media has not changed. “There were no restrictions on what I could ask Tiger in the 5-minute interview before the Masters,” he says. “But he simply didn’t answer the questions he didn’t like.”

Woods is not more open towards the media than before the scandal and everybody who expected that he would let his guard down from now on will be disappointed. But Ferguson thinks that at least some in the media were happy to see him fall. “There was a sense and fashion in the media that saw great delight in him suffering. They wanted Tiger to be Arnie [Palmer] or Jack [Nicklaus] but he wasn’t,” he says. “They took it personally and felt that now was payback time and enjoyed to see him fall from grace.”

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