Monday, March 22, 2010

Out of the woods

Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

When you initiate a search for 'Tiger Woods' these days, the top result is the subset 'jokes'. He currently occupies a place in the international laughing stock canon well north of G W Bush. This is why I have some sympathy for his predicament and a forensic interest in the skillful way he is being piloted through it. GWB can dine out at a profit on his golden buffoonery forever but Woods has to get back to being taken seriously - fast.

The public appearances he's given in the last day or so reek of being styled and scripted to the last syllable and facial tic. But surely this is what a global media audience has been conditioned to expect. If his wranglers had initiated a world-wide focus group on how Tiger should appear and what he should say, the strategy would have ended up being the same. It's all about hitting the right recognition buttons.

Rich and famous people do bad things. There is only one reason for this. Because they are fun and opportunities for transgression are handed to them on a plate. Where you and I might get offered a Rich Tea or Chocolate Digestive if we are lucky, they get a gram of coke and free entry to Spearmint Rhino. You are much more likely to eat a cream cake if it is put in front of you than if you have to walk to a shop to buy it yourself. What everyone is interested in is how you will attempt to justify your indulgence if you are caught eating a bag of cream cakes when you are the spokesperson for a healthy heart campaign. The cream cake itself is irrelevant.

So, what's the plan? Let's start with his demeanour. Tiger is very good at looking like he's on the verge of tears. This is being brilliantly exploited. All he has to do is not smile when he's talking about his failure to meet his own standards. And then there is the costuming (see above). The dark suit jacket is mandatory. That's a no-brainer. But the pillowy shirt closed at the collar was a masterstroke. He looked like he'd just come from night court. Edith Head couldn't have styled him better.

Now, to the content of what he's said. Simon Barnes of The Times posits a theory that the contrite apology to the hurt multitudes mirrors the first rung of the classic 12-step rehabilitation programme. One must formally make amends to anyone who has been harmed by one's behaviour. The two interviews Woods gave to sports channels in the US yesterday bear the marks of therapy undergone. Rehab may be playing a part but the answer is simpler I think. The world's media seemed to be demanding an apology as a precursor to moving on. Only an idiot or someone who was innocent of all accusations would have refused it. We all know Tiger is neither of those.

In yesterday's interview with ESPN's Tom Rinaldi, one carefully crafted answer reveals the entire, meticulously plotted course.

First, the confession and mea culpa,

I was living a life of a lie. I really was. And I was doing a lot of things, like I said, that hurt a lot of people.

This begins with a tasty sound morsel complete with catchy alliteration that was, of course, snapped up by the media and ends with an all-encompassing yet unspecified fess-up.

Then there's the switch from first to second person,

And stripping away denial and rationalization you start coming to the truth of who you really are and that can be very ugly.

Rehab jargon that infers an almost objective overview. When Woods uses terms like 'ugly' and 'brutal', he does so twice removed. He is not owning up to this ugliness but rather attributing it to a 'truth' that belongs to this other person from whom he is now able to step away.

The two personae begin to reconnect when a solution is at hand,

But then again, when you face it and you start conquering it and you start living up to it.

Finally, the switch back to first person brings control back inhouse,

The strength that I feel now, I've never felt that type of strength.

Again, this is tactical and designed to meet a particular audience expectation - confirmation that all things happen for a purpose and adversity serves to make us stronger.

American culture is based on optimism and grounded in the myth of heroism tinged with hubris. Americans will not easily relinquish their heroes, especially when they have talents that are hard to replicate.

Has Tiger done enough? You betcha. Kasparov couldn't have played it better.