Titan Woods' fall rattles fans, sponsors

By Pascal Fletcher

MIAMI (Reuters) - Fans and colleagues of golfer Tiger Woods on Saturday lamented the stunning fall from grace of one of the world's sporting Titans, and commercial sponsor Gillette said it would limit his role in its marketing.

The announcement by Procter & Gamble's Gillette, which had featured the world's No. 1 golfer in its razor ads, was an early sign the sex scandal engulfing Woods was already taking its toll on his marketability as a global sports idol.

Gillette said it respected Woods' surprise announcement on Friday that he would take an "indefinite break" from professional golf. Woods, 33, confessed to "infidelity" in his marriage to his Swedish wife Elin Nordegren as allegations of multiple extra-marital affairs rocked his life and career.

While wishing the best for Woods, who has two small children, Gillette said: "As Tiger takes a break from the public eye, we will support his desire for privacy by limiting his role in our marketing programs."

Other major commercial backers have said they are standing by him, but AT&T, while expressing backing for Woods and his family, has said it is evaluating its relation with him.

Sports business commentator Rick Horrow told CNN golf had "lost a billion-dollar juggernaut". He said Woods had been unable to defend his carefully protected private life from the media-fueled onslaught of sleazy allegations against him.

"It's the most recognizable guy in the world coming up against the Internet age," he said.

Nevertheless, several of Woods' biggest celebrity endorsement sponsors, which include Nike, PepsiCo's Gatorade and Electronic Arts, say they continue to support their commercial icon.

As commentators tried to count the cost of Woods' absence from the PGA Tour and the multibillion-dollar world of golf, reactions from fans poured in to his website, many supportive.

"Tiger, we'll miss you very much. Come back soon!", one supporter wrote. "Tiger, Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday. Enjoy your time off," said another, referring to Woods' upcoming 34th birthday on December 30.

SEA CRUISE OR ESCAPE TO SWEDEN?

Some media outlets speculate that Woods and his family may try to escape the public glare by going on a sea cruise in his luxury motor yacht, ironically called "Privacy", or moving to Sweden, his wife's home country.

While fans and sponsors expressed understanding for Woods' personal predicament, some supporters bitterly questioned the celebrity culture that had built him into a gigantic sporting and social role model, ultimately with feet of clay.

"Hopefully this is a wake-up call," wrote one.

As the world watched open-mouthed, Woods' carefully cultivated image crumbled in the short space of two weeks as a parade of up to 12 women -- from cocktail waitresses to porn stars -- came forward to say they had had flings with the married father of two.

In a statement on his website on Friday, Woods admitted for the first time to "infidelity" after an earlier vague admission of "transgressions". He did not mention specific affairs.

He asked for forgiveness and said he would leave golf for an indefinite period "to focus my attention on being a better husband, father, and person".

WOODS' ABSENCE WILL BE FELT

Sports fans and pundits are asking just how "indefinite" Woods' absence from the golf circuit will be, given big-draw events next year like the San Diego Open in January, the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in June and the British Open at St Andrews in July -- the last two his favorite venues.

Woods' withdrawal from the spotlight is likely to hammer golf broadcasts -- ratings for tournaments dropped nearly 50 percent in the eight months he was absent in 2008-2009 as he recovered from knee surgery.

His fall from grace resounded throughout the golfing world. From Australia, four-times-married U.S. golfer John Daly urged Woods to "Take a break, get it together".

What pierced Woods' larger-than-life persona, propped up by lucrative endorsement deals and polished by the media and adoring fans, was a minor early morning car accident outside his Florida home on November 27.

Speculation that the accident was provoked by a blazing quarrel between Woods and his wife over his affairs rapidly ballooned into a full-fledged sex scandal.

Woods said in his statement: "It may not be possible to repair the damage I've done, but I want to do my best to try."

The Florida Highway Patrol has closed its investigation into his November 27 accident after issuing a ticket to him for careless driving. Woods suffered facial cuts and bruises in the one-car crash, in which he hit a water hydrant and a tree.

He has paid his $164 traffic fine and faces no criminal charges