Tiger's Real Test Will Come When the Hype Around His Return Fades

Tiger Woods, whose shameful personal behavior cost him tens of millions in endorsements, is due to emerge from his self-imposed isolation from the game of golf at next month's Masters, and not a moment too soon. The sport of men dressed in ugly pants clearly needs Woods to boost its flagging TV ratings and lackluster equipment sales.

Excitement is already brewing among golf fans about Woods's return to the tournament he has won four times (as in 2005, pictured). The crowds in Augusta, Ga., should give the golfer and his family a warm welcome. No doubt executives at Nike (NKE) and Electronic Arts (ERTS), who have stood by Woods as he sought treatment for sex addiction, will be cheering, too, as will the game's broadcaster, CBS (CBS), which should reap the benefits of Tigermania from eager advertisers.

Such hype hasn't been seen in sports since basketball legend Michael Jordan returned to the court in the 1990s after a disastrous attempt to play Major League Baseball. This moment has been built up with the precision of a Swiss watch by the Woods PR machine led by former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. Interesting how a picture of Woods and his wife together is being trumpeted in the New York tabloids.

Some media reports are saying Woods's return will generate ratings that will equal the Super Bowl. That may be true, but remember that Woods carries a golf club and not a magic wand. Interest in the golfer's return will likely fade over time.

Not Much Impact on Investors

His strength as a pitchman also may be overblown, Despite its association with Woods, Nike trails other companies such as Calloway Golf (ELY) in the golf equipment market. Electronics Arts is floundering with shares that are up only 2% over the past year and down more than 63% over the past three years. CBS's shares were down today before lifting in the afternoon, but Nike's have barely budged. Meanwhile, interest in golf has been waning for years as less available time and rising money concerns keep Americans away from the course.

For Woods to restore the luster to his tarnished brand, he's going to need to convince the public that he has learned the error of his ways -- not just that he's sorry that he got caught. The public that admires Woods the golfer needs to like Woods the husband and father. It may seem like a Herculean task because of his pre-scandal reputation for bratty behavior, but it can be done. His recent apology was a start but nowhere near sufficient.

Americans love to build up heroes and cackle with delight when they succumb to their human weaknesses (more than a dozen of them in Woods's case). But after someone begins to dust himself off and tries to make amends, the public begins to hope their fallen hero succeeds despite all of the cruel but accurate things said in the press.

I call it the Robert Downey Jr./Charlie Sheen syndrome after two actors liked by the press despite their well-known history of substance-abuse problems. Downey, of course, has done a better job lately of staying sober than Sheen, but the analogy with Woods is still apt. Woods's real test will come in about a year, long after interest in the scandal has waned.
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