Tiger wants you to forgive, and to buy new Nikes

Tiger Woods had gone home for the day by the time the cute
little kids in green hats and white overalls scampered across the
greens, and the trio of greatest living Masters champions got
together for a sentimental reunion in the par-3 contest that is an
annual tradition at Augusta National.

A shame, because even though his own kids aren’t here, the
gathering on the eve of the Masters would have been the perfect way
to show off the new Woods that we’ve been promised. A time to show
him having a few laughs with the guys and doing something Woods
vowed to do just two days earlier – give back to the fans.

A time to take some of the sting off a new tabloid report that,
if true, makes him look even more despicable. Without going into
detail, it included the words “21-year-old,” “neighbor” and
“sex.”

Who knows why he didn’t show. He may have had dinner plans or a
session with his addiction sponsor.

He might even have been using the afternoon to work on his new
cause – helping other people who, like himself, suffer from the
terrible affliction of not being able to keep their pants on when
it matters most.

So he left it to the marketing people who made him a star in the
first place. The making of a new image began not with Woods
reaching out to fans at the par-3, but with an ill-advised,
ill-timed Nike commercial.

It invokes the voice of his late father who wants to know if his
son had learned his lesson. Woods, wearing a Swoosh on his cap and
on his vest, also wears a soulful look – as if he had just been
taken to the woodshed.

It wasn’t the first time Earl Woods entered the conversation
this week. Woods brought up his father the other day, blaming the
stress of his dad’s final illness for his fondness for the sleeping
drug Ambien.

But this was even more crass. This was even more calculating.
This was flat out nauseating.

“I want to find out what your thinking was. I want to find out
what your feelings are. And did you learn anything?” Dad asks.

There’s no answer, but it could have been: “Yes, sir. I learned
to be more careful when I send text messages.”

Indeed, the attempt by Nike to begin trying to craft public
opinion in Woods’ favor is so cartoonish it’s laughable. Selling
shoes is one thing, but selling moral rehabilitation is better left
to those who do it on Sunday.

Maybe the people behind the Swoosh are so worried they’ll lose
their franchise they’re desperate to try anything. Or maybe they’ve
just figured out they needed to do something – and fast – because
people aren’t buying what Woods says, either.

Augusta National chairman Billy Payne became the first top golf
official to call Woods out Wednesday with a tongue-lashing
delivered as part of his remarks to open the tournament.

“I hope he now realizes that every kid he passes on the course
wants his swing, but would settle for his smile,” Payne said.

The world’s greatest golfer tees it up Thursday for the first
time in five months, and for the first time since he reinvented
himself as a changed man. He’s doing it on the biggest stage in
golf, a place where he catapulted into superstardom, a place where
he’s won four times.

He’s contrite, humble, and eager to give back to a game that
made him wealthy beyond belief. He wants to be a better man, and
he’s determined to do it the right way.

At least that’s what Woods and his image-makers want us to
believe.

That’s why we saw Woods sign a few autographs earlier this week,
and roll a few golf balls to kids off the 18th green. That’s why he
actually looked in the direction of a few fans during his practice
round.

If it seems plastic, maybe that’s because it is. If Woods seems
to be following a script, maybe that’s because he is.

Fans here don’t seem sure how to respond to him just yet. Woods
gets scattered, if polite, applause and there’s an occasional shout
out of “Go Tiger.” But, while there seems to be respect for his
game, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of affection for the
person.

That could change as time goes on, he wins a few tournaments,
and the details of his sordid secret life recede from memory. It
might even change if Woods could do the improbable and win a green
jacket on Sunday.

So if you buy the new image, go ahead and cheer. Stand up and
scream for Woods the way you might have once before.

And if you really want to help the guy, go buy some new
Nikes.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated
Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org