How Tiger Woods protected his image
In the summer of 2007, a representative for Tiger Woods called an editor at Golf Digest with some awkward news. Though the magazine was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to secure preferential access to Woods, the golfer had agreed to a rare, in-depth interview and cover shoot with another publication, Men's Fitness.
Golf Digest editor Jerry Tarde acknowledged that he was "mystified" that Woods had agreed to this. Under Golf Digest's contract with Woods, the monthly, which is owned by Condé Nast Publications Inc., spent as much as $1 million annually on donations to the Tiger Woods Foundation, printing the charity's annual report and sponsoring many of Woods' preferred tournaments, according to a person familiar with the terms. In return, Woods agreed to contribute monthly articles on golf techniques and limit his appearances in competing publications.
Yet never had Golf Digest been granted the level of access to the golfer's private life allowed for in the article and photo shoot published in Men's Fitness in August 2007. Tarde says he did not object because the interview wasn't a violation of Golf Digest's agreement with Woods. He said he assumed Woods had agreed to the interview as a way to generate publicity for his trainer, Keith Kleven. Kleven, who was quoted extensively in the Men's Fitness article, did not return calls for comment.
Woods had cut an unusual deal with American Media Inc., the owner of both Men's Fitness magazine and the National Enquirer tabloid newspaper. Woods agreed to the cover shoot and photo spread in Men's Fitness, whose circulation of about 700,000 per issue is less than half of Golf Digest's nearly 1.7 million, in return for the National Enquirer squelching a story and photographs purportedly showing Woods in a liaison with a woman who wasn't his wife, according to people directly involved in the arrangement.
American Media Inc. denies there was any deal to quash photos of Woods in a compromising situation. In written statements to the Journal on Dec. 11, the company said descriptions of a deal between American Media and Woods were "inaccurate" and "false." A spokeswoman and a lawyer for the company declined to specify the inaccuracies, but said sources who described such an agreement were "misinformed." Asked whether there was any deal made with Woods to quash a written article, the lawyer said "no comment."
Woods's agent, Mark Steinberg, declined to comment on the Men's Fitness article or any allegations concerning marital infidelity by his client. AMI Chief Executive Officer David J. Pecker also declined to comment.
But according to accounts provided by former employees of AMI and other individuals with direct knowledge of the arrangement, there was a deal between Woods and the owner of the National Enquirer. A close examination of how exposure of that alleged infidelity was suppressed more than two years ago reveals fresh details about the quid pro quo. It also offers a look at how Woods and his handlers worked to hide the golfer's off-course behavior to protect the image of a superstar whose endorsements made him one of the richest athletes in sports.
The woman purportedly photographed with Woods in 2007, a Florida restaurant employee named Mindy Lawton — along with at least one of her family members — was recently promised an undisclosed sum in return for telling her story exclusively to News of the World, a London-based tabloid owned by News Corp., which also owns The Wall Street Journal. The agreement blocks her from discussing her alleged relationship until after Dec. 20 — two weeks after it was first published in the U.K., according to people familiar with the matter. Hayley Barlow, a spokeswoman for News of the World, confirmed Lawton is under contract to the newspaper. "News of the World has a reputation for breaking big stories and that comes at a price," she said.
The National Enquirer episode began with an encounter in the late winter or early spring of 2007 in a church parking lot near Woods's home in Windermere, Fla., according to the people with direct knowledge of the situation. A person working on behalf of the National Enquirer, based in Boca Raton, Fla., tailed Woods to the empty parking lot, these people said. Hidden from view, the photographer snapped photographs of the married Woods meeting a woman in his car. After the encounter, the photographer followed Woods to a small airport, where the golfer got on a private jet and took off, those people said.
The photos were so poorly lit that it was nearly impossible to tell what the couple was doing in the parking lot, says one person who saw the pictures. This person said it was unlikely the story could have been published without more evidence. At any rate, the Enquirer notified Woods' representatives and the woman in the photograph that the publication had photographic evidence of the golfer having an affair and was ready to expose the encounter, according to people directly involved. It didn't disclose to Woods' representatives that the quality of the photographs was so poor, according to those people.
Within hours, representatives of Woods told the Enquirer that Woods wouldn't comment on the alleged affair, say people close to the matter. But the representatives made an offer: If the Enquirer dropped the story, Woods would sit for an elaborate interview for sister publication Men's Fitness, according to people with direct knowledge of the arrangement.
After Woods' camp offered the interview to American Media, people familiar with the matter say the company began negotiating with Lavely & Singer, a 15-lawyer firm in Los Angeles that is known for its aggressive tactics in disputes surrounding the publication of controversial articles about celebrities. Neither Jay Lavely Jr., who represents Woods, nor his partner, Martin Singer, responded to questions from the Journal.
After weeks of discussion, the two sides hammered out a contract detailing guidelines for the interview and the photo shoot, as well as the guarantee that the story of Woods' rendezvous in the church parking lot wouldn't be printed, according to a person who has seen the document.
The interview and photo shoot took place in 2007. "We had a great discussion," said Roy S. Johnson, a former Sports Illustrated editor who was working as a freelance writer when he conducted the interview. "He worked out for us in the gym down there. He hit balls for us to be able to capture that wonderful swing. We talked about how he and Elin often worked out together."
In the August 2007 issue, a beaming Woods appeared on the cover of Men's Fitness. Inside, a 3,500-word story appeared, headlined "Tiger!" It was a coup for Men's Fitness. The issue sold about 176,000 copies on the newsstand — more than 30 percent more than the average for the magazine's 10 issues that year, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. In May 2007, Johnson was named editor in chief of Men's Fitness.
American Media disputes that version of events. In an email Thursday, Samantha Trenk, the spokeswoman for American Media, said the idea for the interview came from Woods. "Tiger's camp approached us, and was happy that Tiger and Roy had a previous relationship," she said.
In late May, Steve Cohn, editor in chief of Media Industry Newsletter, took a call from a public-relations firm that said it was working for American Media pitching a story that Johnson scored a coup by getting Woods to pose for the cover of Men's Fitness. Cohn wrote in his July 16, 2007, issue that Johnson secured the interview based on a longstanding friendship with Woods.
This week, however, Johnson said he had nothing to do with securing Woods and that he wasn't told at the time how the coveted interview was arranged. "I wasn't privy to anything that transpired," he said. "I was a freelancer. They asked me to write the story and I was happy to do so." Asked whether he was subsequently told how the interview with Woods was arranged, Johnson declined to comment.
American Media said it has never claimed Johnson arranged the interview with Woods.