An image of Tiger Woods pumping iron and wearing nothing more than a wristwatch and a skullcap above the waist conjures up a number of thoughts, and none of them are what you’d file under the categories of “I regret those transgressions” or “I offer my profound apology.” And that's exactly why Vanity Fair’s February cover works.
Woods might have played the media when he attempted to claim a Thanksgiving rendezvous with a fire hydrant was no big deal, but now the media — or at least Vanity Fair — is playing Tiger, by turning him into a three-part teachable moment.
Don’t solve a mystery, make it worse
Vanity Fair’s cover promises “The Mystery of a Sports Superstar We Thought We Knew.” Now at this point, nearly two months since the crash, the mystery — just what the hell happened Thanksgiving night? — seems pretty obvious. And that is why reminding us of Woods’ 1997 interview in GQ is such a good way of moving the story forward: It resurfaces questionable statements from the past.
GQ writer Charles Pierce interviewed the then-21-year-old on the verge of winning his first Masters Tournament. What came out was “largely a series of profane quips by Tiger,” noted Vanity Fair’s Buzz Bissinger. Bissinger cites examples such as Woods saying, “What I can’t figure out is why so many good-looking women hang around baseball and basketball. Is it because, you know, people always say that, like, black guys (are well endowed)?”
In another moment Bissinger cites, during a GQ photo shoot “where four women attended to his every need and flirted with him as he flirted back, Woods told a joke: He rubbed the tips of his shoes together and then asked the women, ‘What’s this?’ They were stumped. ‘It’s a black guy taking off his condom.’ ”
Woods probably thought that GQ interview was behind him, and largely, it was, despite his reputation in many journalistic and golf circles for a proclivity for such profanities. But wait, Tiger said what? Yes, what you say at 21 can come back to haunt you — even if you're the greatest golfer in the world. The statements are troubling for a variety of reasons, but for Woods, now they’re trouble because they give his fall from grace even more texture.
Golf, shmolf. Poor judgment is more compelling
When Annie Leibovitz took the “raw, never-before-seen photos” of Woods back in January 2006, Woods had just come off a 2005 season that included wins at the Masters and then at the U.S. Open — the 10th major win of his career. That season he topped the money list for the sixth time in his career and was ranked No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings.
Moreover, these achievements came on the heels of knee surgery and a massive retooling of his swing. Photos of Woods at this stage of his career, looking unlike any other golfer on the links, should have been newsworthy in their own right. But obviously, they weren’t. It took a massive scandal for Leibovitz to be able to dust them off and get them in print.
It’s never too late to get in on the game
The speed at which news breaks slows to a glacial pace in the world of monthly magazine printing cycles. In order for magazines to arrive in mailboxes and newsstands on time, pages tend to need to get to the printer a full six weeks before their on-sale date, which makes covering a current story in a fresh way nearly impossible for monthlies. But Vanity Fair did it.
Publicists, gird your loins. Damage control can’t extend only to 24-hour news channels, dailies and weeklies. VF just proved there’s always something out there we haven’t seen or don’t remember hearing. If it’s spun the right way, people will notice.
Courtney Hazlett delivers the Scoop Monday through Friday on msnbc.com. Follow Scoop on Twitter @courtneyatmsnbc