Here's the delusion of the century: Tiger Woods will retire from golf.
If you believe that, of course, there are some consequences that naturally follow. Golf will become boring again. CBS and NBC will lose rivers of money as viewers flee the PGA Tour and start watching bowling or playing Monopoly with their families. And, of course, Nike and half a dozen other conglomerates will have to find another pitchman.
Just one question: Why would Tiger Woods ever quit golf?
Oh, right: He got caught cheating on his wife. Okay, multicheating. But since when does that stop a multimillion-dollar enterprise—which is what Tiger Woods really is—from moving ahead with business? David Letterman got caught multicheating and never lost a single sponsor or even broke stride. It helps that he's funny about it, but the fact is that most Americans don't expect Dave to be an upstanding citizen. They just expect him to make them laugh.
Newt Gingrich. Eliot Spitzer. Britney Spears. Winona Ryder. Robert Downey Jr. Hugh Grant. Mel Gibson. See the pattern emerging? All violated a so-called social norm, bottomed out, and bounced back. Even Michael Vick—whose illegal dogfighting ring was especially grotesque—picked up his career again after getting out of prison.
It's a cliché to say that America is Comeback Nation, so instead, let's acknowledge the familiar ritual that Tiger Woods has now embarked upon. When celebrities screw up, there's a well-worn path they must travel before they're welcomed back by the famously forgiving American public. There has to be contrition and cleansing, and it has to look like something significant has changed. Usually some time has to elapse while the Fallen One hovers in purgatory, to signify sacrifice (although Letterman seems to have skipped this step). It's kind of like going through a carwash: You go in dirty, get hosed down and battered around, emerge dripping wet, then air-dry for a little while until you're good as new.
Tiger has started. He's taken an indefinite leave from golf and is supposedly huddling with his family, out of sight. Before long he'll take the image consultants' advice and issue a public apology, in person. Whether he stays married or not is probably up to Mrs. Woods, but it doesn't matter in terms of Tiger Inc. If he emerges as Repentant Family Man, he'll probably be able to pick up right where he left off. But if his alter-ego prevails, and Tiger morphs into Rakish Bad Boy, he might find new life as a pitchman for GoDaddy or Trojan or ExxonMobil. There's no shortage of edgy brands looking for famous promoters.
The real story will unfold when Tiger returns to golf. My guess is he'll sit out less than a year. In terms of punishment, that will be long enough. Missing a couple of big tournaments will represent several million dollars worth of money he could have won (and endorsements he could have earned) but didn't. Sure, he's rich, but that's still a lot of money, and Americans will see it as an adequate sacrifice.
Why would he wait longer? Tiger was a golfer before he was ever a married man or a silicone chaser or an object of ridicule. He'll always be a golfer. It's his business. There might be questions about Tiger's character or judgment but not about his core competency. He's a ferocious, practically superhuman competitor, and it's almost impossible to imagine that he'll retire because of a divorce or a tabloid scandal. Tiger will keep golfing because that's what he does. Besides, if golf gets as dull as commentators predict, fans will be begging him to come back.
Now, imagine Tiger's return to the tour. Millions of people who don't even care about golf will probably tune in to see if he chokes or looks guilty or glances luridly in the direction of a female fan. Even if it's a minor tournament, it could garner the best ratings ever for golf. So don't worry about the networks.
If Tiger plays great, he'll be a phenom all over again: The focus! The ability to compartmentalize! Or he could flounder for a while, but that might produce an even niftier tale, straight out of Hollywood, with the requisite drama and pathos capped by a happy ending. In either of these scenarios, Tiger would probably end up as well off as before. Maybe even a bit better, if he appears to have borne some scars and gained some depth.
I suppose there's a slim chance that Tiger's game will completely fall apart, or he will become a hermit who sticks to his private putting green and is never seen in public again. But that's not the American Way. Millions will be cheering for Tiger's triumphant return. He just needs to complete his penance.