Tiger not out of the woods yet with sponsors
* Sponsors voice quick support for Woods
* Experts say he could have done more earlier
* Big question: when does he play again?
By Phil Wahba
NEW YORK, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Tiger Woods has only begun the long road back to recovery as a credible spokesman for corporate sponsors who have lavished a fortune on his stellar golf career.
Woods apologized to friends and fans on Friday for marital infidelities that led to his exit from the game in December for an indefinite period. In a scripted television appearance, he told reporters he was headed back to therapy and wanted to return to golf. He gave no date, but did not rule out playing this year.[ID:nN19238374]
Some of his biggest endorsers, from athletic gear maker Nike Inc (NKE.N) to men's personal care company Gillette, quickly voiced their support for the athlete.
But advertising and communications experts say Woods took only one of a dozen more potential steps toward rehabilitating his $100 million a year brand after a storm of publicity over his troubled personal life. Uncertainty over when he will return to the links may also give advertisers pause, they said.
"It's a first step. He had to do what he did today -- it was genuine," said Neal Pilson, a former CBS Sports (CBS.N) president who now heads his own sports consultancy, Pilson Communications.
"I don't think Tiger can ever recapture what he had, but he can be a viable representative down the road. There are lots of potential advertisers out there."
The scandal that engulfed Woods since a car crash near his home last November has damaged his once-sterling persona in the eyes of consumers, and his ability to endorse corporations.
Business consulting firm Accenture (ACN.N) dropped him from their advertising, as did telecoms company AT&T (T.N) and luxury watchmaker Tag Heuer.
Michael Cherenson, a former chairman of the Public Relations Society of America, said Woods' words were spot on, but his tone lacked the conviction of a sincere apology.
"People don't listen with the ears but with their stomachs and I'm not sure he struck the right chord," Cherenson told Reuters. "I say this with tongue in cheek, but he was probably more persuasive with his mistresses."
Michael Gordon, chief executive of Group Gordon Strategic Communications in New York, gave Woods an overall "B" rating for his performance. The next step would be for the golfer to sit down for an interview with a top journalist and show he is willing to answer tough questions, Gordon said.
NIKE PROVIDES COVER
Nike, considered Woods' most important sponsor, quickly sent out an unequivocal statement on Friday, saying it "fully supports" the golfer.
"That's all that matters -- they're (Nike) a core brand that's stuck with him," said Paul Swangard, the managing director of the Warsaw Sports marketing center at the University of Oregon in Eugene.
Nike's decision gives other advertisers cover to keep Woods as a spokesman, Swangard said.
Other sponsors quick to voice support on Friday included Electronic Arts Inc ERTS.O Upper Deck, and Gillette, a unit of Procter & Gamble. (PG.N)
Experts noted Woods was handicapped by not taking control of the crisis earlier, putting out brief statements but not appearing in public and allowing his image to languish in a daily dose of sensational tabloid headlines.
"This statement could have been three minutes (long), three months ago. It was 14 (minutes) today and he still has yet to get in front of a camera and answer questions," said Robert Boland, a professor of sports management at New York University.
Ultimately, though, Woods may be better off waiting to finish therapy to learn how to tame his temptations and put his family life order, lest they again become a distraction that take away from his biggest asset as an athlete.
"The issue is when can he go back on the golf course and win tournaments. If it takes a year, it takes a year," Pilson said. (Additional reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Whistler, British Columbia; Editing by Frances Kerry)
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