Some have called the new Tiger Woods Nike commercial (see below) the downright weirdest event of the TV season: Embattled golf star Tiger Woods stands stock still, filmed in black and white, his doe eyes hinting at tears, as the voice of his late father, Earl Woods, intones: "Did you learn anything?"
After the Tiger train wreck of the past four months – when Tiger remained virtually silent before holding a no-questions-barred press conference Monday in advance of the Masters today – the ad comes across as shocking yet serious, vaguely creepy yet seemingly genuine.
To Tiger, his father was larger than life – the retired Army lieutenant colonel who through patience, purpose, and sheer will shaped his son into perhaps the greatest golfer ever. Sometimes overbearing, but always preaching with love, Earl Woods introduced Tiger to golf at age 2, and coached him during his first years as a prodigy.
"I used prisoner-of-war interrogation tactics, deprivation techniques [on Tiger] – you name it, I used it, although I always gave him an out," the elder Woods told the Monitor in 2004. Woods recalled his mentoring of his son in the book, "Training a Tiger: A Father's Guide to Raising a Winner in Both Golf and Life."
Against that sobering title, one question has loomed large through Tiger's travails during the past four months: After Earl Woods passed away in 2006, did Tiger lose an anchor that couldn't be replaced?
A new Tiger?
Tiger mentioned his father several times during Monday's press conference, at one point saying that one particular piece of fatherly advice had animated his days in a rehabilitation clinic: "He said that to help other people, you have to learn how to help yourself. I never understood that before."
Coming after that press conference – and a week leading up to the Masters that showed the usually recalcitrant Woods opening up, smiling, and even saying that golf "is fun again" – the ad seems part of an effort to extend Tiger's personal rehabilitation to his brand, as well.
For Nike, the global sports apparel firm that stuck by Tiger while others let their sponsorships lapse, rehabilitating the golfer's image is critical to their golf brand, which was built almost entirely around Woods.
"We support Tiger and his family. As he returns to competitive golf, the [new] ad addresses his time away from the game using the powerful words of his father," the company said in a statement.
The same old Tiger?
But it also opens him to the old criticism: that his contrition is less about genuine remorse than massaging his image. An unscientific People magazine poll had 32 percent saying it's moving and 68 percent saying it's manipulative.
Writes one commenter on the Fanhouse.com website: "Using his dead father to help his personal comeback and sell Nike goods – [Tiger] continues to reach new lows."
"Now. Close your eyes. Remember back to your childhood – to a time when you did something wrong. Do you recall what hurt more than a spanking," it says. "Having your parents say, 'We're not mad. We're disappointed.' "
Is Tiger just a big kid looking for his dad's approval? Only he knows that. But the unusual ad, it seems, is at least an honest acknowledgement, in front of the entire world, that he is still his father's son.