A decade ago in the Southern California winter, Earl Woods sat in a suite at the La Costa Resort and Spa, speaking of fatherhood and death and the 24-year-old son he had raised, he was sure, better than any other man could have. "Tiger has never been punished," Earl said. "Never been disciplined. Never had a babysitter."
The windows were closed, the lights off. An endless curl of cigarette smoke drifted to the ceiling, and Earl hit full Âlegend-building mode as evening fell. It came as no surprise, really, when he mentioned how his boy Âcouldn't stomach even a hint of Âfalsehood.
"Tiger gets physically ill when he's not telling the truth," Earl said. "He can't sleep, can't eat, his whole body chemistry is upset. I told him: In order for your life to work, you must come from truth—at inner core. One of his pillars of strength is his integrity."
At the time this seemed cartoonish, more apocrypha to fuel Earl's idea of Tiger as social messiah. But Tiger, too, often brought up the notion. "My father has always taught me to come from truth and just trust yourself," he said then. "You'll make the right decisions if you come from truth." He sounded so grounded, so sure, as if volleying the words with Pop were enough to make them real.
That voice is gone now, its odd mix of arrogance and naivetÃ© replaced, over the last four months, by hesitancy, weariness, a self–loathing so fluent it borders on glib. Tiger Woods returns to golf this week a transformed figure, one quickly growing used to flagellating himself in public. In the two hyperÂorchestrated, five–minute TV interviews Woods gave on March 21 to soften up the world for his comeback at the Masters, he described his infamous series of adulterous trysts as "disgusting behavior . . . horrific . . . to stare at yourself and look at the person you've become, you become disgusted. . . . I was living a life of a lie."
Woods didn't let up on Monday at Augusta, either. In his first open Q and A since the Thanksgiving car crash outside his home at the Isleworth development in Florida touched off lingering Âquestions—about his Âprescription-drug use and impaired driving; possible domestic violence by his wife of five years, Elin; his kid-glove treatment by law enforcement; and the glaring inconsistencies in a subsequent Âinvestigation—Woods peppered the 30–minute parry and thrust with the media with enough vaguely brutal self–criticism to satisfy a Maoist show trial.
"All I know is I acted just terribly, poorly, made incredibly bad decisions, and decisions that have hurt so many people close to me," Woods said. "That's enough."
Still, most of it came from a cool, almost clinical remove, insulated by Âtherapy-speak about "denial and rationalization." For anyone wondering what the days surrounding the crash had been like for Woods—how he'd responded as his car and life veered out of Âcontrol—the truth was lost. Woods and his handlers want it lost, and in his flat affect and repeated stonewalls Woods has shown how intent he is on locking that night and its messiness into some untouchable box.
But the story remains messy. The Woods camp has left details unconfirmed, undenied, dangling in a hurricane of tabloid assertions and leaked text messages and e-mails linking the world's No. 1 golfer to more than a dozen waitresses, party girls and porn actresses. Woods has admitted his involvement in unspecified affairs, admitted to undergoing unspecified therapy, but he has never admitted that as his marriage began to unravel, he became in private what he had never been in public: desperate, unnerved, trapped by his own—often Âelectronic—devices.
Each celebrity scandal has its tipping point at which a famous person loses all credibility. For Woods it came five days after the crash, when a magazine website released a precrash recording of a quavery voice mail left for the perfectly named Jaimee Grubbs. "Hey, it's Tiger. I need you to do me a huge favor," said the voice, a bit rushed, but still bearing that nasally suburban tone that always left Woods—Âdespite 20 pounds of weight-room padding, 14 major titles and a near-billion-dollar net worth—sounding one pocket protector away from geekdom.
"Um, can you please, uh, take your name off your phone?" he went on, and now nothing sounded familiar. Tiger wasn't Earl's Jesus, not anymore; he was just another panicky schmuck burned by the Vegas fantasy: Why not hit on that cocktail waitress? "My wife went through my phone and may be calling you," he said. "So if you can, please take your name off that. And, um, whatdoyoucallit: Just have it as a number on the voice mail. Just have it as your telephone number; that's it. O.K.? You got to do this for me. Huge. Quickly. All right. Bye."
He sounded scared, like a little boy caught clutching a spent book of matches. Woods could feel it coming. For the first time in his life, he was going to be punished.
From the moment he joined the pro tour, in 1996, Woods ran his career with none of the approachability of forebears Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. His camp was always the most self–contained, operating with the sense that what the public wanted most from Tiger was a chance to bear witness. With shirts tightly buttoned and snug ball caps hiding his receding hairline, with his caddie snarling at photographers and his agent reducing the game's long–relaxed idea of access to nothing, with his own cursing and hurling of clubs over shots that dared defy his idea of perfection, Woods's on-course demeanor matched his off-course grip.
That's why, even with the sordid details to come, even with the vision of Health Central Hospital in Ocoee so swamped by Âmedia—Âreporters faking injuries to get admitted, phones jangling in every patient's room—Âduring Woods's eight-hour stay that administrators had to change his alias five times and move him 10, the most jarring scene remains the first. According to the Florida Highway Patrol report released in March and the FHP's sworn interviews with Woods's neighbors, sometime after 2 a.m. on Nov. 27 Woods left his home in an addled rush. Temperatures were in the low 50s. He wore khaki shorts, a blue shirt and no shoes.
Woods climbed into a black 2009 Cadillac Escalade and careered out of his driveway. He hopped a curb onto a grass median, swerved left, crossed the street and hopped another curb, clipping a row of hedges with his right fender. He then crossed to the opposite side of the street, hopped a third curb and, now traveling 30 mph, flattened a fire hydrant before colliding with a tree in the front lawn of his neighbors the Adams family.
By 2:25 a.m., 27-year-old auto detailer Jarius Adams had been alerted to the car on the lawn by his sister, Kimberly Harris. Adams ran outside to find the car and a golf cart with a four-iron and a seven-iron in the seat. He didn't see that the two rear side windows of the Escalade had been shattered. "Could you please help me?" asked Elin. She and Adams had never met. Her husband was lying on his back on the dark, dry street.
Woods didn't speak. His lips were bloodied. "He was actually snoring," Adams said later.
Adams called 911. He and his sister wrapped Woods tightly in a blanket. Elin sat silent, "kind of in shock," Adams told police. For a few moments the street, Deacon Circle, was empty and still.
Yet Woods's wild ride was just beginning, and it already had its first, perhaps most enduring mystery. If, when hurrying into the car, he was trying to escape wife or home or the dawning sense that his carefully crafted world was splintering like some matchstick model, how far did Tiger Woods think he could possibly run?
Earl Woods died of cancer four years ago at 74. It's an article of faith among Tiger watchers that with his father's passing, Tiger lost his foundation stone, the one man who could banter, "You ain't s---" to the king of golf and have Tiger laugh and agree that Dad was right and wrong about that, all at the same time.
"I miss his guidance," Tiger said in one of his March TV interviews, "wish I could have had his guidance through all this to have him help straighten me up. I know he would've done it."
Of course Earl himself was never the perfect husband. His first marriage ended in divorce, and he married Tiger's future mother, Kultida, in 1969. Ultimately that marriage, too, fractured, with Earl and Tida living separate lives in separate homes. Yet Earl never backed off his criticism of other Âparents, and he was widely lauded as a wonderful dad.
"I knew my actions were wrong," Woods said during his stilted, 13-minute February confessional. "But I convinced myself that normal rules didn't apply."
Normal rules rarely did. After all, Woods earned more than $40 million in endorsements before his first tournament as a pro; TV ratings doubled when he played. By age 21 he had the game's whip hand, and he wielded it ever more forcefully. Why not? Hadn't he bullied his competitors into loving second place? Hadn't he even, in a sense, beaten golf itself? No one in history had caused so many courses, even Augusta ÂNational, to be toughened to provide more of a challenge. No one—not even his hero, Nicklaus—was always in contention; no one took advantage of his big-dog aura more.
"He arrives on Tour and says, 'I want a dozen police guards with me'—right from Day One," says Nick Faldo, winner of six majors. "Jack, Arnold, Gary Player, Lee Trevino never had this; maybe one copper would walk with them for fun. Tiger? Whether it was intentional? I believe it partly was, simply to make everybody believe he's something different, something special."
It's no wonder Woods thought he could become a huge celebrity without paying the usual price. Three years ago the National Enquirer reportedly killed an article about Tiger's philandering in return for his cooperation on a rare cover story for its sister publication Men's Fitness (the Enquirer denies this), and a just released piece in Vanity Fair asserts that Woods's agent, Mark Steinberg of IMG, quietly spearheaded that effort to cover it up. Steinberg last week declined to comment on the charge, but if true it helps explain the strategy of silence by Woods's Âpublic-relations team after the crash. Quiet damage control worked once. Why change course now?
On the night of the crash, as the hospital fended off all manner of media, including Al Jazeera, Steinberg and Woods's spokesman, Glenn Greenspan, remained silent. Woods checked out by 11 a.m., even as reports remained focused on his reportedly "serious condition," and deep into the afternoon, in the vacuum left by Woods's camp, hospital officials and the mayor and police chief of Windermere (pop. 2,567) provided the only official response. A three–sentence statement appeared on Woods's website 13 hours after the crash, the first hint that the Tiger machine would be operating in standard mode. No one should expect anything but the bare minimum.
"This was a wound that was festering—growingÂ and growing," says Windermere mayor Gary Bruhn. "Here's a man with some of the greatest spin doctors, p.r. people: Why would you let this thing grow? Why didn't the agent come out at nine o'clock in the morning and say, 'Mr. Woods was involved in a minor traffic accident coming out of his driveway, he accidently hit a tree and a hydrant, and he's got a cut lip but doing fine: end of story'?" Maybe because it wasn't.
When asked during his March TV interviews what happened on the night of the crash, Woods didn't hesitate. "It's all in the police report," he said. It's a clever dodge: The FHP's 34-page report, complete with crash diagrams and interview notes, is about as illuminating as a bucket of sludge. Riddled with inconsistencies, it says nothing about the jurisdictional snafus and unpursued leads. Nor does it mention how the presence of a rich and famous man like Tiger Woods, even semiconscious, could intimidate law enforcement officers.
In the days after the crash—as Woods agreed to and then called off three interviews with Florida Highway Patrol Âinvestigators—the FHP was deluged with e-mails charging that Woods's celebrity had cowed police. The highway patrol closed the case on Dec. 1, citing Woods for careless driving and fining him $164. When a week later the FHP made public that an investigating trooper had been denied a subpoena to acquire Woods's medical blood results—after being told by Elin that Woods had consumed alcohol earlier in the day and was on prescriptions for Ambien and ÂVicodin—it appeared Woods's fame had trumped the system.
But under Florida law, in a traffic accident Woods had no obligation to speak to police; he was only required to provide his driver's license, registration and proof of insurance. The fact that Woods's attorney, Mark NeJame, first agreed, then declined, to turn over to police any of the Woods household's surveillance videotape from the night of the crash because no one "could figure out how to get the video" might seem suspicious, but it didn't matter.
"You can't force a private citizen to turn over their own private information," says FHP spokesperson Kim Montes. "We asked as a courtesy for them to provide that to us, and they, for whatever reason, did not. They're not required." Throughout, Woods exercised his rights, as he said on Monday, "to the letter of the law."
As for the FHP's request for Woods's blood work, three lawyers versed in Florida law agree that assistant state attorney Steve Foster acted correctly in denying it. After all, no law enforcement official saw Woods behind the wheel. The FHP, the lead investigator, arrived on the scene at 3:01 a.m.—12 minutes after Woods had been taken to the Âhospital—and no police accompanied the ambulance. Any subsequent blood work could have been compromised and the results likely thrown out in court.
"Their investigation was doomed from the get-go, as far as proving a DUI," says Miami defense attorney Jeffrey S. Weiner. "He left, and they don't know if he took a drink, if he took mouthwash, if he took a pill to calm down. With a good lawyer he wouldn't say anything. So their case is essentially dead before it begins."
There was no way for Woods to know this when he moved to Isleworth in 1996, but he picked perhaps the best neighborhood possible in which to smash into a tree. Though located essentially across the street from Windermere, the tony enclave is considered a part of unincorporated Orange County and thus is policed by the Orange County Sheriff's Office. The Windermere police arrived first on the scene that night, but under a "mutual-aid" agreement with the county had no power to investigate. The case belonged to the Orange Country sheriff—except for one wrinkle. As a matter of policy Orange ÂCounty does not investigate traffic accidents. The FHP does. An Orange County deputy could have trailed the ambulance, but "it was not our investigation," says sheriff's office spokesman Jim Solomons.
In a Nov. 27 interview Windermere police chief Daniel Saylor noted Elin's account of smashing the Escalade's rear windows with golf clubs and dragging Woods out; he also described Woods at the scene as incoherent. But Orange County handed the case over to the FHP as a mere traffic Âaccident.
There is no indication of anyone aggressively investigating a violence issue in the Woods home. Woods has since denied "that Elin somehow hurt or attacked me on Thanksgiving night. . . . Elin never hit me that night or any other night. There has never been an episode of domestic violence in our marriage, ever."
Yet Windermere officers Jason Sipos and Brandon ÂMcDonÂnell told investigators that, as Woods was being put in the ambulance, they were informed by one of the medical crew that "the wife could not ride with them because it was a domestic incident." Both officers stated that they had not seen anything to warrant Âdomestic–assault suspicion, and neither asked the paramedic to explain. Nor did they inform the county officer on the scene specifically of the paramedic's Âstatement.
The one certainty was that the case was sure to be scrutinized. Celebrity seemed to be the finger on the scale when it came time to decide whether to trail the ambulance, to try to interview Elin about a possible argument, to push hard to see what the scene would yield. As a Windermere source close to the investigation put it, "They saw it was Tiger, and no one wanted to do their job."
There had never been anything quite like it in sports, or public life for that matter, but Woods's televised statement in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., on Feb. 19 was hardly unfamiliar. Woods stood like a man before a funeral audience, stiff and somber, eulogizing the precious one lost. "I am so sorry," he said. "I am the only person to blame." He took no questions, left the stage at the end to wrap his mother in a long and awkward hug. He barely seemed able to breathe.
It was an awful thing to watch. Starting with his first win at Augusta in 1997, Woods had made golf cool. He had dragged the game out of its cozy niche and into the 24-hour, talk-radio mainstream—and now he was drowning in it.
This week Woods will be transforming golf all over again. Monstrous TV ratings are predicted for the Masters, but for the wrong reasons: Three of Woods's major Âsponsors (with deals worth an estimated $30 million to $40 million annually) have fled. His relationship with Canadian doctor Anthony Galea has raised questions about Âperformance–enhancing drugs on Tour. (On Monday, Woods denied ever having taken PEDs but said federal authorities investigating Galea have been in touch with Steinberg.) The enabling roles played by former NBA stars Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, who are said to have gambled with Woods at the Mansion, the top-end gambling enclave at Las Vegas's MGM Grand, have—along with mistress payoffs and porn-star texts—become part of the sport's conversation.
Last week even Woods's kindergarten teacher got into the mix, denouncing as false an oft-retailed tale about young Tiger's being subjected to a horrific racial incident on his first day of school. Once play begins, such matters won't gain much traction at Augusta because tournament and man both thrive on control. But the galleries will be buzzing.
Woods, it's now clear, is going to do this comeback his way. He has hunkered down, forgoing the warmup tournament, the confessional with Oprah. The statement announcing his return contained only the most obvious Âadmission: "I still have a lot of work to do on my personal life." Asked by e-mail whether he would discuss what went into Woods's decision to return at the Masters, Steinberg replied, "I think the release says everything."
For the moment the old crew seems Âfirmly—and stunningly—entrenched: Steinberg, Greenspan, caddie Steve Williams and boyhood buddy Bryon Bell, the president of Tiger Woods Design. Despite Woods's insistence that "it was all me," some, it would seem, had an idea of their boss's behavior; one porn star has released e-mails from Bell arranging her travel, and in the Vanity Fair piece another reported mistress, Jamie Jungers, details how Bell facilitated their affair. You'd expect a head or two to roll, but none has.
On the surface, then, it will look eerily like the same Tiger Woods teeing it up on Thursday, and until they see different, his competition expects the same old player. "One thing Tiger's not is vulnerable," says John Daly. "It could be worse for us, I think. I think he's going to come out and just kick everybody's ass."
Woods knows that only winning can begin to dilute the sewage surrounding his name. Playing, though, will be the easy part. Tiger has never shown much ability to laugh at himself, and he is now a global joke. It's unclear how, aura dissolved, he'll react to the thousands of faces staring, to the once–ignored crowd that now knows him, in a twisted way, better than his wife ever did.
After 15 years in the cultural firmament Woods has become three–dimensional at last: The crash and the stint in therapy, his February statement of remorse and his self–immolating critiques revealed a champion at war with himself. To have him detonate the biggest Âpublic–relations bomb in the history of sports feels almost tragic, until you recall that his marriage and career still draw breath. Nothing died but an image.
After marrying Nordegren, Woods won six majors and remained atop the rankings; whenever he started cheating, it didn't affect his play. According to a source familiar with the Mansion's operations, by 2009 Woods had a standing relationship with the Tuscan-themed hideaway, where high-rolling "whales" begin by depositing $1 million in the casino's bank, and personal butlers are prized for their discretion. Woods was known as a late-night gambler and a poor tipper who cavorted with numerous women there—none of whom was Nordegren.
Now, if he is true to his stated aim to rebuild his home life, Woods must remove the secret life that had become a part of his successful routine. "He's now got to do a complete 180; he's gone to Elin and said, 'You're the only girl in my life,' " Faldo says. "It's going to be a different winning formula.
"The real biggest change is whether he can, emotionally, look at Elin and say, 'You and the family—that's it—are my big kick. When I come off and I've won the tournament, pumped up full of adrenaline, I can come home and be a family man.'"
A decade ago in the Southern California winter Tida Woods sat outside the clubhouse at La Costa, grinning as she gave a tougher, less starry-eyed view of child rearing than Earl's. "You will never, never ruin my reputation as a parent," she said she always told young Tiger, "because I will beat you." That threat, from the dominant woman in his life then, didn't take. Tida's face during Woods's public apology was a mask of anguish.
She also told Tiger something else growing up. "Nobody's perfect except God, but learn from your mistakes," Tida said that day outside the clubhouse. "If you don't learn from your mistakes, you're so damn dumb."
Reputation trashed, marriage crumbling, what other choice does he have? If only for his son and his daughter, Woods needs to do himself a favor; this time, against all impulse, he should start by listening to Mom: Quickly. Huge.