Tiger looks ready to prowl

2011-11-24 12:18

Washington - Tiger Woods is showing vintage form, inking new sponsorship deals and looking ready for a run at redemption on the two-year anniversary of his fall from grace in an epic adultery scandal.

The former World number one golfer, a 14-time major champion, was hospitalized on November 27, 2009 - the day after the American Thanksgiving holiday - after a late-night car crash that led to the unveiling of his secret sex life.

Woods, who divorced from Elin Nordegren last year, has not won a tournament since the scandal was revealed, with more than a dozen women claiming sexual trysts with him, shattering the iconic image Woods built in a historic career.

But success this month in Australia, where his last triumph came at the 2009 Australian Masters, has given Woods signs of progress as he chases the all-time record of 18 major titles won by Jack Nicklaus.

"I'm starting to play better now," Woods told CNBC on Monday.

"It's just a matter of putting it together over a longer period of time."

Sponsors deserted Woods, who became a punch line for comedians, even as the US PGA Tour wondered how things would change after the downfall of a man whose fame boosted prize money and television ratings.

Worldwide attention for an apology statement and his return from a hiatus at the 2010 Masters showed there was still interest in Woods, but injuries helped keep Woods winless, notably a knee injury suffered at this year's Masters.

Woods has moved from Orlando to a new South Florida home with an adjacent practice area, changed his swing with coach Sean Foley and changed his caddie, firing Steve Williams and hiring Joe LaCava in September.

And there have been signs of success. Woods led the Australian Open earlier this month but faded with putting woes.

Woods stumbled early at the Presidents Cup last week but sizzled in singles with five birdies in 11 holes on the way to a victory that secured the trophy for the Americans once again.

"I'm very pleased with the progress I've made with Sean and it's finally paying off under pressure," Woods said.

Woods became the first athlete to earn one billion dollars in career prize money and endorsement payments, according to Forbes magazine, just before his fall from grace.

Sponsors fled from him in the wake of the scandal, including Accenture, AT&T, Gatorade, Gillette and Tag Heuer. Nike and EA Sports, makers of a Woods golf videogame, were notable exceptions.

Now sponsors are returning to Woods. A Japanese heat rub deal earlier this year was the first. Since then, Swiss watchmaker Rolex announced an endorsement deal in October and Fuse nutrition products signed him to a deal in November.

"Rolex is convinced that Tiger Woods still has a long career ahead of him and that he has all the qualities required to continue to mark the history of golf," a Rolex statement said.

The US PGA signed nine-year TV contract extensions to 2021 in September, and while no payout figures were revealed, the jump from $80 million in prize money in 1997 when Woods won his first major at the Masters to $280 million this year is likely to continue unabated even as the economy struggles.

The new deal ensures current telecasters the chance to cover Woods, who turns 36 next month, in events through age 45, essentially for the remainder of his most competitive years as he chases the career mark of Nicklaus.

Woods said in August he still expects to pass Nicklaus, who won his last major at age 46, for the major win mark and that he has benchmarks for where he hopes to be at certain ages.

"At 38, that's three years, 15 (majors)," he said. "If I win all 15, I'll be looking all right. I would be in good shape."

But there are plenty of challenges ahead for Woods, who ruled the rankings for 623 weeks but has now tumbled to 51st and has not broken par in all four rounds of any event over 22 tournaments since the 2010 Masters.

Woods no longer hits drives longer than his rivals, forcing him to rely upon a clutch short game and solid putting to win.

"You feel for him," Australian golf legend Greg Norman said. "You know how hard it is to get it back again - because it's not the same."

Woods has struggled with injuries to his surgically repaired knees while new young rivals such as World number twoRory McIlroy, the reigning US Open champion, have excited fans in a way not seen since "Tigermania" struck in 1997.

"He's still the biggest attraction in the game of golf," McIlroy said of Woods. "The only thing that has changed is that he just isn't winning as much as he did back then.

"But that's not to say that he won't do it again."