In Tiger Town, everything was supposed to be first-class.
The stunning, 50-mile views high atop craggy mountains. The luxurious $3 million home sites. Private parkland, walking trails, a helipad. And a golf course designed by none other than Tiger Woods, the man many consider the greatest golfer who ever lived.
Officially it's known as The Cliffs at High Carolina. But for all intents and purposes, when the developers announced in August 2007 that one of the world's most famous sports stars was designing its golf course, Tiger Town was born. And with the acclaimed golfer's name, image and reputation inextricably linked to it, the biggest development ever seen in Buncombe County seemed possessed of enormous economic potential.
Fast-forward to November 2009 and the news that Woods had cracked up his Escalade attempting to flee from an argument with his wife over his supposed affair with another woman. In the ensuing days and weeks, more reports have emerged concerning numerous other alleged affairs. His gold-plated name, once associated with golf excellence and a clean family image, has now been tied to sexual encounters with porn stars and party girls.
Meanwhile, a billboard advertising The Cliffs at High Carolina has morphed into a sardonic setup line. Featuring a giant image of Woods against a backdrop of Western North Carolina mountains, the massive sign urges viewers to "see what inspired me." The punch line? Any of a dozen tabloid photos of women other than his wife who have now been linked to Woods.
As of this writing, Woods has mostly kept silent and out of the spotlight, even as the stories and speculation rage. The world's No. 1 golfer, who ranks second all-time in the number of major tournaments won, has announced that he's taking an indefinite leave from competing on the links to tend to his personal life.
As for corporate sponsors, the global consulting firm Accenture Ltd. announced it was dropping Woods. The golfer's numerous other corporate clients are still standing by their prominent pitchman, though television ads featuring Woods have stopped airing, and analysts are suggesting that most of his larger sponsors will take a wait-and-see approach to see how Woods' personal brand fares in the months to come.
So how will the scandal affect Woods' first golf course, which is right here in Buncombe County? Given the high-end development's massive scale and apparent economic potential, the impact on neighboring communities could be significant. To get a read on the evolving situation, Xpress checked in with assorted local voices.
Too soon to tell
In neighboring Black Mountain, folks appear to be taking a wait-and-see attitude.
"At this point, I think we really don't know," says Mayor Carl Bartlett when asked about the potential local impact of Woods' troubles. For the most part, Swannanoa Valley residents have kept any concerns they might have to themselves, Bartlett reports.
And with the golf course and surrounding development all still under construction, any financial benefits to the area are hard to gauge, he points out. But everyone's aware of the potential. "The golf course could have a huge economic impact, especially if he brings his tournament here," says Bartlett. "It's amazing to imagine what four days of national attention on High Carolinas and our area could do."
It might prove "a lifeline in the future," says the mayor, "and I certainly hope this doesn't harm that."
Bob McMurray, executive director of the Black Mountain/Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce, agrees.
"We're a little concerned, but it's too early to tell," he says. "I'd hope that Black Mountain and Swannanoa are still beautiful enough that people will come here, but Tiger Woods is a big drawing card.
"Hopefully he'll put his personal life behind, and his professional career will still be enough of a draw for The Cliffs to finish their development," McMurray says.
Dean Pistor, a local investor who co-owns Realty World Commercial Marketplace and The Beacon Pub in Swannanoa, says he doubts the current controversy will have much impact on The Cliffs. Due to the economic downturn, he notes, the local real-estate market, particularly for high-end homes, has been sluggish.
Pistor says he's banking more on the jobs The Cliffs will create than on the homeowners it will attract. And over the long haul, he believes Swannanoa will get a boost from the development.
"Will this controversy affect sales? I don't really think so, and honestly, I hope it blows over soon because I feel it's already been blown out of proportion. There are all these women coming forward now just to get their name in the paper. I mean, c'mon. So what?"
So far, the official line from Tiger Town is supportive. In a Dec. 8 statement, Scott Ziegler, president of corporate branding for The Cliffs Communities, wrote: "Our thoughts and prayers are with the Woods family as they deal with this personal and private family matter. Our relationship with Tiger Woods and our commitment to The Cliffs at High Carolina remains unchanged."
But Woods' "family man" image has been a key selling point for The Cliffs. "With a wife and two kids, your perspective in life changes," the golfer says in a video on the development's Web site, as spotlighted by a CNBC reporter.
The video continues: "I want to have my kids experience something like this. I want to be able to bring them up here and feel safe, feel secure — enjoy running the trails and being a part of nature like this. Because your priorities start changing and evolving once you have a family, and I want to come up here as often as I possibly can." Woods also says: "One of the things that has drawn me to this is the fact that I can bring my family here. We'll be here a lot."
As of October, the development had closed on about 30 lots, averaging $1 million apiece, according to The Greenville News. All told, there are 99 lots at the development, which covers some 3,000 acres in Swannanoa and Fairview. Original plans called for more than 1,000 home sites costing $300,000 to $3 million, and custom homes priced from $700,000 to $5 million.
A waiting game
In the meantime, however, the unavoidable link between professional and personal life is problematic for all the companies relying on Woods to help sell their products. The Wall Street Journal reported Dec. 9 that representatives of Nike, Procter & Gamble's Gillette brand, video game maker Electronic Arts, PepsiCo's Gatorade sports drink and laser eye-surgery chain TLC Vision had all reaffirmed their relationships with Woods. Pepsi said its recent decision to drop a Gatorade product named for Woods was not related to the scandal, and NetJets, a rental company, said Dec. 7 that it continued to support the star golfer.
"What's going on right now is that these companies are really holding out and waiting to see what will happen," says Kadence A. Otto, an associate professor at Western Carolina University and director of the college's sport-management program. "But my question is, how long can they hold out? I could see those companies dissolving contracts if he doesn't come out into the public eye."
In the case of The Cliffs, notes Otto, an issue to be aware of is the risks involved in "building an entire facility around a person, because we're all fallible." The public, she maintains, can be fairly forgiving, particularly when a celebrity admits a mistake, but that forgiveness can be tougher to come by as the Woods story grows and he remains silent.
Tell it like it is
Jennifer McLucas, director of account services and public relations for The Goss Agency in Asheville, agrees.
"First and foremost, if you make a mistake, you acknowledge it," she counsels. If she could give Woods any advice, says McLucas, it would be to "come forward with compassion. When you sit back, you appear to be elusive and withholding information, and the public tends to be less sympathetic."
Woods "can be vague," she continues. "He doesn't have to tell the world whatever it was that led him to do what he did. He doesn't have a responsibility to the American public, but he does have a responsibility to golf and the entities who endorse him."
As for The Cliffs, McLucas, too, likes the wait-and-see approach.
"I'm of the opinion that most people make mistakes, and most people warrant a second chance. Which leads me to say that, as far as The Cliffs, I wouldn't necessarily drop everything about Tiger. Let's face it: Tiger is probably the greatest golfer that's ever lived. Having a golf course that's designed by Tiger Woods, one that inspires him — there's something to be said for that."