For Woods, sorry, sorry and sorry again 

This was one spotlight he never sought, probably never dreamed of, and most definitely avoided for as long as humanly possible. When Tiger Woods claimed the stage for his TV apology — and make no mistake, it was a stage, pure and simple — his mission was to be authentic and sincere.

Or, at least, as authentic and sincere as managing and repairing a multinational, multimedia, multimillion-dollar brand can ever be.

"There are some things I want to say," golf's most towering figure told us, his eyes wide, his tone low, his backdrop blue velvet. If only it were that simple.

This may indeed have been a sincere apology. It certainly felt moving at times. Tiger Woods may be genuinely remorseful and desperate to make amends to all those people, from his wife to his fans, who have been demanding some kind of resolution after those ugly revelations of infidelity and months of silence.

But the circumstances of his mea culpa — the infomercial manner in which it was set up, teased, stylized and delivered as regularly scheduled programming — obscured any genuine message struggling to punch through.

So many of the talking heads in the runup to Woods' 13½ minutes (apparently Warhol's 15 minutes has more condensed competition now) talked about how he needed to be genuine, human, a real person. Yet in America, that's only part of the story. We want humanity in this country, but we admire message management, too — and Woods has wanted control to a fault.

Even with his dented image, the story of Tiger Woods on Friday, Feb. 19, 2010, was a choreographed yarn being spun by the planet's best imagemakers and brand managers — storytellers as adept at their craft as the candidates for Best Director at next month's Oscars.

"This is a box, all wrapped up. Anyone can see it. It's so clear that he has controlled it and packaged it," said Leila Brammer, a communications expert at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., who studies how public figures repair their images.

Woods, or the people managing him, certainly took pains to cover all of the cultural bases. His statement ranged from place to place, wounded party to wounded party, managing to invoke all of the requisite images of recovery in modern America.

He said sorry three times and took the blame, shifting it to no one except the safe scapegoat of the media. He talked about the "the issues I'm facing," the work he had to do on himself and the people he'd let down. He used the language of the 12-step program. He admitted he had a problem. He said family came first. He even invoked old-time religion — Buddhism, in this case, reflecting his status as not only a cultural symbol but a multicultural one.

And yet ...

He went on too long. He didn't allow questions. He wanted to talk to the public but kept everyone out of the room except the exact 40 people his handlers picked. He made an obvious play to keep women — the interest group he has most offended — front and center, including his mother.

The choreography was hardly surprising from a man who built his career around controlling the message. But the stakes couldn't have been higher — not just for his personal life and image but for the fiscal health of Brand Tiger. In a way, Friday's apology was an economic stimulus for the mini-economy that is Tiger Woods.

"We think of it as just being about Tiger. Well, it's a lot more than just Tiger. It's all the people who are depending on Tiger for a living," said Jeffrey Bell, a partner at Gallatin Public Affairs, a strategic public-relations firm that has helped clients overcome image crises.

That overcoming, for Woods, began earlier this week with a carefully staged photo designed to look like it wasn't — an image of him running (in Nike gear, of course) that was given to a photographer who was informed well in advance that he'd be jogging by. Same story with golfing photos of Woods that emerged Thursday.

The teasers fit well with television, which adores few things more than being able to air a live event under controlled circumstances.

ABC offered up George Stephanopoulos, and a becardiganed Matt Lauer chimed in for NBC from Vancouver. Both of ESPN's channels dedicated an advance half hour to preview programming. The Golf Channel served up completely packaged pregame and postgame shows to accentuate the dramatic arc of hero rising, hero falling, hero redeemed.

But in the end, this scripting reveals a key trait about Americans and their idols. In a culture that has arrived at a curious three-way intersection of therapy, authenticity and Hollywood endings, we must have a signpost that we can move on. Closure is everything.

Look at the scripted truths of reality TV and the carefully managed sensibilities of weekday morning programming: We hunger to be handed a feeling that no matter how messy life — married life, in this case — becomes, things ultimately make sense.

The sad fact is that it almost doesn't matter whether Tiger Woods' apology was sincere. What matters — for his business, for golf, even for plain old us — is that it appeared to be.

"The American people are incredibly forgiving of those who ask for forgiveness. But you have to ask for it in a sincere way," said Gerald Patnode, a branding expert at York College in Pennsylvania.

So forget whether you think the apology was any good; for its purposes, it was good enough. It reconciled private and public, puritanism and prurience, condemnation and forgiveness. It was enough verisimilitude for the moment at hand. Now we can move on to more important things.

Like finding out about fresh celebrity infidelities, seeing who wins "American Idol" and getting back to the well-packaged entertainment that, in so many ways, helps shape our lives.

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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