The golfer still has a lot of work to do in order to rebuild his image

By Jeff Labrecque
Updated February 26, 2010 at 05:00 AM EST

You knew things were bad for Tiger Woods when even Mel Gibson said he felt sorry for him. Eighty-four days after his car crash uncorked endless speculation about a series of extramarital affairs, a clearly rattled Tiger Woods stood in front of a handpicked audience of friends and accepted responsibility for his ”irresponsible and selfish behavior.” During 14 minutes of brutal self-flagellation, Woods repeatedly apologized to his wife, Elin (who did not attend the event), and everyone else affected by his fall from grace. While some were moved by Woods’ words — ESPN’s Michael Wilbon told his viewers, ”I thought there was substance and depth to it” — others were far less sanguine. ”When the history of this is written, it will be a textbook example of how not to do it,” argues longtime crisis manager Howard Bragman. ”At every turn, he’s let other people define him instead of defining himself.”

Indeed, Gillette, one of Woods’ remaining sponsors, questioned whether the 34-year-old golfer would ever again appear in their ads. And even those who have continued to stand behind him, like Nike and Electronic Arts, must have flinched at what the speech did not address: Woods’ return to golf. Saying only, ”I do plan to return to golf one day, I just don’t know when that day will be,” Woods seemed to squash hopes that he would return for April’s Masters Tournament. ”Tiger’s already lost between $50 and $100 million [in sponsorships] and the ability to negotiate at the terms he was negotiating when he was number one,” says CNBC sports-business reporter Darren Rovell. ”Staying with him relies on the expectation that he’ll be back to being the number-one golfer. But as time goes on, [his absence] becomes harder for sponsors to deal with.” It’s also a problem for the broadcast networks, which paid the PGA Tour millions to air its tournaments. During an eight-month Tiger blackout in 2008 when Woods was recuperating from knee surgery, ratings for golf tournaments plummeted a staggering 47 percent.

Returning to the links wouldn’t just be good for the networks, though: As Kobe Bryant and Alex Rodriguez can attest, getting back to work is also Woods’ best hope for changing the conversation. But as he returns to sex-addiction rehabilitation, his stalled image rehab might require another push. ”He’s got to sit down with a credible journalist — one of the first-name people,” says Bragman, referring to the likes of Oprah and Matt Lauer, who have, respectively, helped Whitney Houston and Michael Phelps move past personal scandals.

If Woods decides against a heart-to-heart, he may have to lean on his most bitter adversary: the press (pretty much the only group the golfer didn’t apologize to). ”The best thing to happen to Tiger is if TMZ and RadarOnline and the National Enquirer follow his family and take genuine pictures of them spending time together,” says Rovell. ”Tiger with his two kids and Elin at Chipotle. People need to see that.”

Celebrities Tweet on Tiger

”I’ll be holding a press conference later today to express my regret at not having sex with many, many beautiful women” — Michael Ian Black

“Very honorable words from Tiger Woods. Good for him…” — Mandy Moore

”Can some1 explain to me how a man-slut gets the same network coverage as our president or a telethon for #Haiti? Anyone?” — Alyssa Milano