Tiger's First Steps Back to the Tees

Tiger Woods yesterday took his first public steps on Rehabilitation Road. We saw what has been lacking from day one: humanity and humility, live and in person. It doesn't take much for us to let people move past their sins; we just need something that can trigger our sympathy. That is reputation-restoration rule #1, and yesterday Tiger finally followed it.

From this saga's beginning, Tiger did everything wrong from a reputation management perspective: he issued multiple, uninformative statements; he refused to talk in person; and he let his mistresses define him and what he did rather than speaking out and defining himself. Most egregiously, he did nothing that gave us any room for sympathy. Had he done early on what he did yesterday, many more of us would have sympathized with him and viewed the porn star, the cocktail waitress, and the prostitute as piling on rather than as telling us the secrets Tiger kept hidden.

Significantly, yesterday, Tiger didn't play the victim. He could have blamed addiction, as others before him have done, and implicitly excused his conduct as something for which a disease or illness, and not him personally, was responsible. But, he didn't. He just did the right thing, taking sole responsibility for his actions and telling us what he is doing about it. That was another important step to gaining our sympathy. While few baseball players have gone this route, too many have said they used steroids because they had to in order to compete, trying to excuse their conduct and not acknowledge their choices. Tiger, smartly and authentically, did not take this path.

After Tiger announced he would make a statement, the criticisms poured in: he's going to talk only in front of friends; he's not going to take questions; he's doing it on a Friday on the day of the Accenture tournament. Some reporters even boycotted the statement. And golf pros finally broke their silence, criticizing him on the record and anonymously. From a strategist's perspective, the criticisms regarding yesterday's format never made sense -- Tiger had to start from somewhere and he wasn't going to do it sitting down with Bob Costas, Barbara Walters, or a room full of reporters competing to ask the most invasive and tough questions.

No doubt that time will come -- but not for the unnecessarily salacious questions -- but yesterday wasn't the time for it. The setting, surrounded by friends and trusted reporters, actually greatly added to the personal nature of his first public confessional. Yesterday was just a first step, and no adviser (let alone friend) would let him face questions when so much regarding his personal life and professional career remains up in the air.

As for the pros complaining, their hectoring appeared as thinly-veiled competitive contempt finally coming out. Unintentionally, we're sure, their speaking out likely benefited Tiger. Here Tiger was, finally making himself vulnerable and doing what golf-fandom has been begging for, and his competitors attacked him? Nothing helps build sympathy for someone more than when that person is attacked, particularly when it is unfair. So, the next time he sees them, Tiger should actually thank Ernie Els and the others who chose to kick him when he was down -- they've helped him, not hurt him.

Make no mistake. Tiger is on his way back. He will be golfing and winning before we know it, and old and new sponsors will flock to him if he wants them to because he will continue to make them money. Tiger is actually a much safer bet for a sponsor now than before. Before, nobody knew about Tiger's issues, and when the wall came crashing down, so did the image the sponsors bought. But now, if Tiger should commit sins anew, nobody would be surprised and it wouldn't affect his brand. Going forward, his sponsors will sell him for who he is -- one of the best athletes ever, not one of the best people ever. And, golfers and non-golfers alike will again tune in to watch Tiger perform on the fairways and the greens.

Future athlete and celebrity wrongdoers better learn from Tiger's experience, in a way that Tiger hadn't learned from his predecessors. The lessons are worth repeating: gain sympathy; do this by saying what you did and what you're going to do about it; don't play the victim; and acknowledge the bad choices you, and you alone, made.