This March will mark the third straight year in which Tiger Woods is not the sole star on the cover of a video game named Tiger Woods. But that shouldn't suggest that the golfer, winless since an embarrassing marital scandal broke two years ago, is being eased out by EA Sports.
What's more likely, even if they aren't saying as much, is that the label is experimenting to find the best course of action when Woods, who turns 36 in December, is in his 40s and settling into an inevitable decline.
Some may argue he's already there; but even as he battles back from injury, many still believe he'll add to his 14 major championship victories, and that's why Woods remains the world's most dominating golf personality even if he's its No. 55 golfer.
"Tiger is still the masthead of our game," Craig Evans, EA Sports' director of marketing for the Tiger Woods series, told me. "His name's on it, he's still pictured on it. We're also building out an entire feature in the game [meaning Tiger Woods 13] on the legacy of Tiger Woods and the impact he's had on the world of golf."
"It's an amazing departure from what we've done in the past," Evans promised. "It's going to strike you, 'Why didn't they do something like that earlier?' Really, there's no good answer why we didn't do it earlier."
Woods will share the cover with the U.K.'s Rory McIlroy on European (and PAL) versions of the game, and he'll be paired with Rickie Fowler on the North American (NTSC) cover. The decisions were the result of a vote-off similar to ones EA Sports conducted for Madden NFL 12 and NCAA Football 12 also made at the same studio where Tiger Woods PGA Tour is built.
Fowler has one professional victory, and it's not on the PGA Tour. McIlroy registered a dominating performance at this year's U.S. Open but won't appear on the video game cover in the United States. The lack of a dominant American star (meaning no offense to Phil Mickelson) is why Woods, even injured and winless for the past two years, is still a featured name in every tournament in which he appears.
Yet I think EA Sports realized back in 2010, regardless of Woods' personal scandal, that it has to start blending in current golfers, if not to get the year's big winner on the box, then at least to change things up after a dozen editions (1998 to 2009) with the same guy on the box. Not even John Madden, the guy whose name has been on a sports video game box longer, had that kind of cover shot run.
Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy shared the cover in 2010. Woods did not appear on the box shot for the main game last year (but did on the special edition.)
Tiger shared the front with McIlroy in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11, touting the game's new team-play format. Last year, he did not even appear on the main case as Augusta National took top billing. (Though a golfer appearing to be Woods, in the distance, was shown teeing off on Augusta's iconic No. 12. The special edition PS3 cover for 12, however, featured a closeup of Woods.)
Woods has held onto the cover of a video game for longer than he held the world's No. 1 ranking, and as events of the past two years have shown, it's not a title he can lose simply because he's not winning any. John Riccitiello, the chief of all of Electronic Arts, suggested Woods needed to start winning, back in 2010. But there was never any implied threat to his relationship with the publisher, even as other sponsors were parting ways as his affairs with more than a dozen women came to light. EA Sports and Woods stuck together and have weathered the worst.