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Tiger Woods Keeps Tight Grip on Message

Tiger Woods is scheduled to break nearly three months of silence today. When the fiercely private superstar addresses the microphone, he'll do it on his terms.

The golfer who owns a yacht named Privacy hasn't given interviews or answered questions since crashing his SUV outside his estate in Windermere, Fla., in the wee hours of Nov. 27 - triggering a tabloid frenzy over his extramarital affairs.

Now, seven weeks before The Masters - golf's first major of the year and an event Woods has won four times - he is re-emerging from his self-imposed exile.

At 11 a.m. ET today, Woods, 34, is scheduled to face a single camera providing live coverage via satellite at the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. - close to the PGA Tour's headquarters. Three wire services and some pool reporters have been invited to attend - but they won't be allowed to ask questions. The rest of the news media, if properly credentialed, can watch on TV from a hotel ballroom a mile away.

The choice of location and timing of the announcement angered some players competing in the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship, 1,750 miles away in Marana, Ariz.

"I don't think it's very good," Englishman Oliver Wilson said Thursday after his second-round win vs. Rory McIlroy. "From a player's point of view, it seems very poor. You have a brilliant event, and the sponsor deserves a lot more. And for the (PGA) Tour to set it up (near) their headquarters, I just don't think that's right."

Reputation management expert Mike Paul, president of MGP&Associates PR, says clamping down on the symbolic voice of the people hurts Woods' chances of gaining sympathy from the general public.

"The media would ask him questions we ourselves want to ask. If he denies that, it's not news, it's an advertisement," Paul says. "I tell my clients all the time: When you don't answer tough questions, you deny yourself the opportunity to repair your reputation by going through the fire. You must go through the fire."

Oprah option better?

So there will be no Alex Rodriguez-like Q&A with assembled news reporters, no Mark McGwire-like one-on-one, no therapy session on Oprah Winfrey's couch. Instead, Woods, agent Mark Steinberg of IMG and spokesman Glenn Greenspan are scripting a tightly controlled environment for his first public appearance.

Woods will address "a small group of friends, colleagues and close associates," according to an e-mail from Steinberg.

"I would have done Oprah. She was the perfect fit," Paul says. "This is a family issue, a marriage issue, a women's issue. If he had been able to win the hearts and minds of the female population, he would have had an easy time winning over the males. Because there's still a lot of guys saying, 'Let the guy play golf.' But there's not a lot of women saying that."

The world's No. 1 golfer has a symbiotic relationship with the PGA Tour. Since turning pro in 1996, he has won 14 majors - four shy of the record held by Jack Nicklaus. The Tour, meanwhile, has capitalized on the "Tiger Effect" to boost prize money from $65.95 million in 1996 to $279.8 million in 2010.

So it was no surprise that when Woods and his team asked the Tour to arrange space in the clubhouse of the nearby TPC Sawgrass today, Commissioner Tim Finchem obliged.

But player Ernie Els told Golfweek magazine Wednesday: "It's selfish. You can write that. Mondays are a good day to make statements, not Friday. This takes a lot away from the golf tournament."

If Woods' appearance seems more like a presidential TV address, that might not be a coincidence. Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary to President George W. Bush turned crisis management consultant, formed a joint venture with IMG nearly two years ago.

Fleischer, who plotted McGwire's strategy as the ex-slugger returned to baseball as the St. Louis Cardinals hitting coach, and IMG did not return calls Thursday.

Similar to Rodriguez's first news conference after admitting to using performance-enhancing drugs, Paul says Woods would be better off allowing the news media to hit him with questions now.

Hit to image has been huge

It has been 2 1/2 months since Woods lost control of his carefully crafted image. Wife Elin has been photographed without her wedding ring. Many sponsors that made him the world's richest athlete - according to Forbes, he is the first to make $1 billion - cut ties or distanced themselves.

Accenture was the first sponsor to bail out after the sex scandal erupted, saying he was "not the right representative."

Woods is known to have a long memory. He has frozen out TV commentators such as Peter Kostis of CBS, whose comments have displeased him.

McIlroy, 20, an emerging star from Northern Ireland, says Woods "might want to get something back against the sponsor that dropped him."

Accenture spokesman Fred Hawrysh doesn't believe Woods is trying to undercut the tournament. But the consulting firm "currently has no intention" of re-establishing a marketing relationship with Woods, he said Thursday.

Whether you agree with how Woods has dealt with the crisis or not, there's no denying the damage to his once-gold-plated brand on Madison Avenue.

Woods posted the highest popularity rating in the history of the USA Today/Gallup poll when first measured in 2000: 88 percent. But after admitting to infidelity in December, his favorable rating plunged a record 52 points to 33 percent from 85 percent.

Besides Accenture, AT&T has dropped Woods. Procter&Gamble's Gillette and Swiss watchmaker Tag Heuer have suspended their campaigns.

Six sponsors have stood by him: Nike, EA Sports, Upper Deck, NetJets, TLC (which filed for bankruptcy protection Dec. 21) and the planned Tiger Woods Dubai resort in the United Arab Emirates.

None of these sponsors has aired a prime-time TV commercial starring Woods since Nov. 29, says Aaron Lewis of Nielsen. And none of the sponsors contacted by USA TODAY says it is planning anything new around Woods.

Corporate reputation consultant Alan Towers applauds Woods for defending his right to privacy. But he thinks Woods should hold his head high today and avoid a groveling mea culpa.

"What did he do to us? I wish somebody would tell me," Towers says. "I'm not saying it was right. But statistics tell you that 50 percent of married people cheat. I enjoy watching him play golf. What he does off the course is none of my business."

Reputation experts such as Towers, who believe Woods and his team have handled the crisis as well it could be handled, acknowledge the protective bubble put in place for today won't last forever.

Sooner or later, Woods will have to face hard questions from reporters and heckling from the galleries.

"With the right finesse, he could have stood there, answered every question within limits and never had to answer them again," Towers says. "Instead, he's got a lifetime of stonewalling ahead."

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