During his pre-tournament press conference Tuesday before the British Open – yes, he had one – Tiger Woods was asked about the possibility of representing the United States when golf makes its Olympic debut in 2016.
"Well, I hope I can qualify," Woods said. "I'll be – four more years, I'll be 40 by then. It will be something that – I've never experienced. And … I would love to be able to have a chance to represent my country in playing in the Olympic Games."
There was a time not so long ago when some believed Woods wouldn't even be playing competitively at age 36, let alone 40. And there was a time when a lot of American golf fans, dare we say most American golf fans, would object to the idea of Woods representing their country at the Olympics. After his 2009 scandal, Woods' favorability rating plummeted from 88 percent to sub-40.
And now the possibility of Woods on the medal stand in Rio not only is feasible, but also is kind of appealing.
The debate about whether Woods is "back" on the golf course is still unresolved in most minds, at least until he wins another major. But quietly, almost imperceptibly, his brand has recovered. "Tiger Woods" means something different in 2012 than it did in 2011 and certainly different from 2010.
Remember the phrase, "Go on, be a Tiger"? That was Accenture's marketing slogan for Woods before his infamous Escalade accident. It was such a positive suggestion that it almost could apply to anything in life. Go on, take a financial risk. Go on, take that dream vacation. Go on, save up for that convertible. In the ads, Woods was depicted on the course, eyeing a shot that seemed tricky but was doable because he was Tiger. It was optimistic, bold and yet safe.
Then came Woods' unsightly, disgraceful spiral, and Accenture cut ties. "Go on, be a Tiger" became a punch line. Go on, cheat on your wife. Go on, ruin your image with a string of lascivious texts. Go on, destroy the greatest sports career in a generation.
These days, however, "Go on, be a Tiger" is more palatable – at least on the golf course. We've seen him apologize, albeit mechanically. We've seen him stay out of the tabloids. We've seen him win a tournament. We've seen him make shots that would belong on an Accenture poster in an airport concourse. "Go on, be a Tiger" doesn't make us cringe the way it did. That's significant.
"He was an 11 before  on a 10-point scale," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "He transcended his sport. He moved the needle. After the car crash, I'd put him at a 3. He was pretty much tainted as a marketing vehicle. I'd say he's back to a 7 or an 8."
Before the scandal, Woods could endorse any product – inside or outside sports. He could endorse a bank and stamp it with the label of reliability and risk-protection. He could endorse a watch and have it connote class. He could endorse a family brand, like Buick, and have it mean both excitement and caution. Those out-of-sport opportunities aren't there anymore. Buick, for example, is off his bag and its endorsers are now more trusted names, like Shaquille O'Neal and Peyton Manning. But performance companies, like Fuze and of course Nike, are not only getting the benefit of hours of camera time this weekend at the British Open but also the fairly safe assumption that Woods will not embarrass the brand on the course. Yes, the thrown clubs and cursing are juvenile, but it's not like the regular weekend golfer doesn't do that on the local muni.
"It's endemic versus non-endemic sponsors," said Swangard. "Endemic sponsors like Nike are still with him. They can sell against that brand equity. What we saw with Kobe [after being accused of rape in Colorado], as soon as he was out there throwing 82 points down, Nike was able to monetize that."
In other words, Woods is gradually ceasing to be reflective of anything other than golf. That was a bad thing for years, as his marketing meaning was corroded permanently. But now it's become a good thing. Watching Woods at the British Open this weekend will actually be a break from the scandal of the day – Penn State – which is ironic when you consider some referred to Woods' downfall as the greatest scandal in sports history. That seems so silly now. There is Penn State, and there is everything else. And "everything else" includes Woods at Windermere.
This doesn't make what Woods did any less disturbing. But it does put it into a different perspective. Woods hurt himself, his wife, his family and his children. He did not abuse underprivileged kids. He did not commit a felony. Woods disgraced himself, but he didn't disgrace the game of golf. He didn't disgrace any institution. That made his rehab feasible. And whether or not he wins a major this year, 2012 has a very good chance of being remembered as the year when Woods' rehab neared completion.
Woods has won three tournaments this season, which should make him a finalist for Player of the Year honors even if he doesn't win another trophy for the remainder of 2012. None of the 2011 finalists won more than three tournaments. Woods already has the golf shot of the year: his chip-in from the deep rough at the Memorial. His résumé for 2012 is pretty strong when you account for the standard belief heading into January that he might never win again. And although Rio is a long way off, it's safe to say that if golf was an Olympic sport this year, Woods would make the U.S. team.
So while Woods may not have plenty of time to catch Jack Nicklaus in major victories, as the door on that seems to be rapidly closing, he has plenty of time to win back hearts and minds. Four years seems like a very long time when you consider how intensely (and justly) criticized Woods has been since his last major victory in '08. But that means four years is plenty of time for Woods to stay healthy, stay out of the gossip pages and set his sights on a spot in Rio.
For some, the idea of Tiger Woods representing the U.S. at the Olympics is abhorrent. That's understandable. But for others, whether he's got 19 major championships by 2016 or still just 14, it will be a satisfying end to an unlikely American comeback story. And whether you like him or hate him, you have to look back at 2008 and look ahead to 2016 and come to one conclusion:
Woods is halfway there.
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