Americans tend to love comeback stories more than they hate cheaters.
Tiger Woods seems to be the latest example.
He’s once again No. 1 in professional golf, and his image is on the mend several years after a high-profile cheating scandal. More than 60 percent of people polled by the “Today” show
said he deserves a second chance. In the last month, Woods has made headlines for golfing with President Obama and for dating Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn.
But Woods still draws controversy. Most people can’t forget his cheating scandal.
So is he truly back?
“He’s on the way back,” said Lee Gordon, director of corporate communications at 180 Communications in Tallahassee, Fla., “but I don’t know if Tiger is ever going to be what he was four years ago.”
The strength of his comeback leans on how well he plays, and how well he handles himself publicly in the months and years to come, say PR professionals.
The cheating scandal
The story of Woods’ infidelity broke on Thanksgiving weekend 2009 when Woods was involved in an auto accident at his home days after a National Enquirer
story accurately revealed an affair. At least 12 women were confirmed to have carried on affairs with the golfer, whose wife, Elin Nordegren, eventually divorced him—to the tune of $100 million.
His play suffered after that. Woods came back to compete in the 2010 Masters tournament, but didn’t look like the same player. He went an entire season without winning an event for the first time since turning pro. His longtime coach, Hank Haney, quit on him and wrote a book about Woods.
“I think things have changed, and he's clearly not the golfer that he was,” Haney told ESPN
Though Tiger’s draw in the golf world has never wavered—even when he was losing, people were still interested—it’s his image that took the biggest hit. Some sponsors stuck with him, while Gillette, Accenture, AT&T, General Motors, and Gatorade dumped him.
Woods continued to struggle in the 2011 season, falling to No. 58 in the player rankings. He broke his winless streak in December 2011, and one could argue things have been looking up for him ever since. He is favored to win next month’s Masters tournament.
Since his career began, Woods has been measured by Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 wins in major championships. Woods has been stuck at 14 since the 2008 U.S. Open. It looked for a long time like Woods would never recapture his early prowess, and that Nicklaus’ record was safe.
Today, golf pundits aren’t so sure; neither are PR pros.
“I did not think in a million years we would see Tiger Woods ‘back,’” said Gordon. “Yet here we are. It’s amazing—a testament to how well he played.”
If Woods tops Nicklaus’s record, he’ll be remembered as the greatest golfer of all time, according to Gordon. If he doesn’t, Woods’ obituary will say he could’ve been the greatest, if not for his personal failings.
“The more he wins, the more he plays well, the less people are going to be talking about his personal life,” said Gordon.
Despite his strong play and positive headlines, Woods remain a divisive figure. For instance, Nike shared an image on its Facebook page
this week featuring Woods with the words, “Winning takes care of everything.”
A number of people were not amused. “That's pretty disgusting, Nike,” said one of the many comments. “Tell that to his children.”
However, Nike has not backed away from the ad—it still leads the company’s Facebook page—and several other commenters have expressed support for Woods.
Chicago-based PR executive Gini Dietrich said people want to get behind a winner and that’s what Tiger Woods is.
“He flubbed his extramarital affair communications, but enough time has passed and he's kept his head down and worked hard to get back into golf,” she told PR Daily. “I think society will be more than happy to put him back up on a pedestal.”
The true measure of whether Woods has reformed is how he responds if a second scandal emerges.
“I just hope he's learned his lesson, because there will be another mistake, and how he handles it will show whether or not he really is reformed,” she said.
Kevin Allen contributed to this report.