Tiger Woods is more than a golf phenomenon, he's also one of the most successful sports brands in history. And while what is delicately called "The Thanksgiving Incident" certainly hurt Woods' reputation and marketability, his announced return to the sport next month at the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Ga., is seen by some analysts as a very smart way of rehabilitating both the man and the brand.

Gregory Wagner is among the faithful. A self-professed Tiger fan, Wagner is a veteran of the American advertising industry. Now a lecturer at the University of Denver's Daniels College of Business, he served as creative director at D'Arcy and Leo Burnett, has led campaigns for a variety of sports institutions and, in years past, worked on beer commercials that were featured during the Super Bowl.

Wagner says he wasn't surprised by Woods' announcement. "You've got a situation that probably couldn't be more of a homecoming for Tiger than the Masters," he says, calling the tournament "a very friendly place" for Woods. After all, Woods has already won the Masters four times and counts it as the first major tournament he ever won. In addition, it's a polite audience and a place where the media and the gallery are both monitored, Wagner added.

A Boon for Masters Advertisers
Companies advertising during the Masters are probably swooning with delight right now, says Wagner, as millions of viewers who don't usually watch golf are expected to tune in. Along with Tiger's fans, he says, you'll have many people "who will watch to see out of curiosity if he's going to succeed or fail."

After last November's sex scandal broke, a herd of companies dropped Woods as a sponsor -- or at least put his advertising on hold. And Wagner predicts that trend won't change soon. "I don't expect to see a Tiger Woods ad for at least a year, if not more," he says. "He was just at the top of the heap, as far as a brand icon goes. Now that brand has been tarnished, just like we saw happen to Toyota, a brand leader who was tarnished badly."

Now, Wagner says, it's time for Woods to rebuild his brand. But the jury's out on whether he will be able to recover successfully, Wagner says, adding that even if Woods is successful, "it's going to be a long road back."

Risk of Ridicule
But what if the unthinkable happens, and the usually unflappable Woods chokes at the Masters?

"Wow," says Wagner, "that would be really something. If he can't come back, it'll be the butt of jokes -- there were a million Tiger jokes going on after the Thanksgiving affair and they'll be even more cruel. But I just don't think that's going to happen."

Woods will likely end up on the leader board when the Master's ends, Wagner expects. "I don't think he would come back...if he didn't think he could compete at a high level," he said. "I think he'd wait longer. My guess is...he's been doing nothing but therapy and golf [since this started.]"

Wagner's especially curious to see if Woods will have any sponsors on his golf bag or clothes next month. "Will it be Nike, a bare bag that says ''Tiger', the [Nike] "swoosh" on his shirt?" he asked. But while he waits to see, he can already guess how Woods' sponsors are reacting to his announced return to play. "I think they're thinking one thing right now," he says. "Win!"

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