Tiger Woods disappears into the bunker

It is simultaneously the biggest story in the worlds of sport and celebrity: a genuine international mystery that has the world baffled. Where on earth is Tiger Woods?

The world’s greatest golfer, and the man once projected to be the first billionaire athlete, has not been seen in public since the night he crashed his car outside his Florida home last November.

His rumoured whereabouts range from a series of exotic locations around the globe to the idea that he might still be holed up in his Florida mansion, undergoing lengthy sessions of marriage counselling in the wake of revelations of his serial adultery with numerous women. But only one thing is clear: no one has any idea where he is.

“It really is amazing. Anyone wanting, in effect, to disappear from the face of the earth should take a leaf out of his book,” said Ashley Dos Santos, an executive at Crosby-Volmer International Communications and an expert on crisis PR.

In fact, Woods’s achievements in disappearing would seem to match any of his many astonishing sporting triumphs when it comes to skill, perseverance and triumphing against the odds. He has one of the most recognisable names in sport and his face has been plastered over newspapers and TV channels across the world. At the same time, the paparazzi industry has mobilised its resources to hunt for him, knowing that a photograph of Woods is likely to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Yet, even in the era of camera phones, not a single photograph — or even reliable sighting — of Woods has emerged. “He is not the kind of person who can put on a pair of sunglasses and a hat and go about the streets unrecognised. Yet no one has a clue where he is,” said Dos Santos.

No wonder, then, that the reports that have emerged about Woods’s whereabouts have tended to verge on the fantastic. One report, now thought to be a hoax, had Woods travelling to Phoenix in America’s south-west to have surgery on his teeth after his outraged wife, Elin Nordegren, was alleged to have hit him with a golf club. Another one had Woods renting out a floor of the Trump International hotel in New York, bringing in his own security, so that he could hide out safely in the middle of Manhattan.

Yet more rumours have put Woods living in his yacht off Florida, near to one of his supposed mistresses. Or renting a game reserve in South Africa, where the animals would presumably help to keep out prying eyes. He has also been “seen” in Long Island, San Francisco, France and the Bahamas. No doubt some of the most extreme conspiracy nuts have him sharing a room with Elvis on the moon.

But nearly all experts agree that Woods cannot hide for ever and that the longer he stays hidden the more obsessed the world will become when he does finally emerge. “This is a classic case of what not to do in a crisis,” said Dos Santos.

Opinions vary as to how and when Woods will return to the spotlight and resume the sport that made him famous. Most experts think that he will have to follow in the footsteps of other publicly shamed celebrities, such as author James Frey, actor Hugh Grant and chatshow host David Letterman, and do some sort of public confessional.

Certainly he would have his pick of friendly chatshow hosts, such as Oprah Winfrey, who are likely to be only too happy to provide Woods with an unthreatening vehicle for his contrition. Another option would be to hold a strictly controlled press conference, possibly not allowing questions, at which Woods could make a statement.

Either way, it is likely to be a prospect that fills Woods with dread. “He is such a private person. But he needs to go public and explain his mistakes and apologise,” said Professor Frank Shorr, a sports journalism expert at Boston University.

Doing so would pave the way, not only for Woods to re-emerge into public life, but also allow him to play golf and start earning prize money and endorsements again. Few imagine that will be entirely incident-free, even in the wake of a public apology. Golf tournaments allow an almost unique closeness between fans and the players. Some form of heckling, whether friendly or not, is inevitable. “He is going to have people yelling at him. They will boo. It is not going to be the same as it was before. But he is going to have to go through that. His anxiety levels must be incredible,” said Shorr.

All is not yet lost for Woods. Golf desperately needs a star of his calibre, and the sports business bigwigs would welcome him back with open arms. So, in the end, would the American public, most communications experts believe. As long as they get their apology. “He has not done something that is absolutely unforgivable by our modern society’s standards. It is something from which he can recover,” said Dos Santos. – guardian.co.uk

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