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November 30, 2009

Tiger Woods sells razors, eye surgery, Gatorade and cellular service as easily as he pitches golf balls onto the green, but if his squeaky-clean image takes a hit, so could his lucrative stream of endorsement deals.

Since turning pro in 1996, the world’s top golfer has pulled in more than $750 million in endorsements, far more than he’s made winning tournaments. In the last year, Woods pulled in $110 million in endorsements, tops among athletes, according to Forbes. But fallout from the mysterious one-car crash outside his Florida mansion could leave Woods’ endorsement magic in the deep rough, say experts. Their advice: Come clean ASAP.

“In order for Tiger to stop the bleeding, he has to plug the wound–NOW,” said Barbara Laskin, whose New York-based company trains public figures in handling the media. “Here is the one truism: the cover-up is (usually) worse than the crime–and in this case, it surely is,” she added.

Details of the Friday morning incident are sketchy. The initial report, that the golfer had gone for a wee-hours drive, then hit a fire hydrant and a neighbor’s tree before his golf-club wielding wife rescued him by smashing the rear window of his Escalade, has not held up well to skeptics. Coupled with reports that Woods had been having an affair with a New York nightclub hostess, the event has folks wondering if there was a more direct relationship between Woods’ injuries and that golf club Elin Woods was swinging. Woods isn’t bringing any clarity to the situation with cryptic written statements and his refusal to talk to cops.

Jeff Lloyd, managing director at image consultant Sitrick and Company, said there doesn’t appear to be anything to the story that needs to cause Woods long-term damage. But acting squirrelly about it can only make things worse, said Lloyd, whose company recently counseled Chris Brown, after the singer pleaded guilty to beating then-girlfriend Rihanna, and has also worked with Paris Hilton.

“I don’t know what the facts are, but he has a tremendous amount of good will,” Lloyd said. “He’s extremely popular. The biggest problem here is the overreaction to something that most likely has a reasonable explanation. The worst case scenario is that there was some sort of marital dispute, and name a couple that hasn’t had one of those.

“But the rumors and innuendo will only continue until there is some sort of definitive statement from him that addresses this. The worst option is to go through a sort of water torture, where the facts come out in drips and drabs.”.

Other athletes have seen their endorsement deals dry up when their image took a hit:

  • Swimming superstar Michael Phelps lost an endorsement deal with Kellogg’s after photos surfaced on the Internet of him sucking on a bong at a college party. Other sponsors, including Visa, Speedo and watch company Omega stood by the swimmer, after he came out with a quick mea culpa.
  • When Kobe Bryant was accused of raping a woman in a Colorado hotel, he beat the charges but lost millions in endorsements. Bryant had signed a $45 million deal with Nike just before his 2003 arrest, but the sneaker giant benched him for two years until the incident blew over. McDonald’s and Nutella dumped the Laker guard altogether. By 2007, Bryant was pulling in $16 million a year in endorsements and this year, the figure climbed to $45 million, according to Forbes.
  • Michael Vick made $7 million in endorsements in 2005, ranking him 33rd on Forbes’ list of celebrity pitchers. But when he was busted for dogfighting charges, the endorsements disappeared. He’s back in the NFL, playing second string for a fraction of his old salary and the only deals he has are public service announcements for the ASPCA.

Woods hasn’t been accused of anything approaching rape or dogfighting, and likely won’t face any criminal charges at all. Both he and the nightclub hostess deny that any affair ever took place. But much of his appeal lies in his wholesome, scandal-free image. And the best way to reclaim that, according to Laskin, is to ‘fess up and take the full hit now.

“The key to surviving this incident is to get your story out fast, efficiently and as honestly as possible,” Laskin said. “And the dutiful wife should not be at his side, unless she’s fully committed. Otherwise, it looks fake.”

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