There is one thing and only one thing that we know for certain: It was not a happy Thanksgiving for Tiger Woods.
When Woods was involved in a late-night, one-car accident near the driveway of his home in the wealthy gated community of Isleworth in Windermere, Fla., it took 13 hours for news of it to become public. But when the news did break, it proved that there is no such thing as a "minor accident" (as Tiger's official website described it) when you are arguably the most famous sportsman on the planet. The incident promptly snowballed into a you-know-what-storm, fueled by the twenty-first century dynamic duo of the Internet and 24-hour cable news networks.
Woods, 33, is famous for zealously guarding his privacy. Associates who break the code of silence are exiled from Camp Tiger, a list that includes former friends and his first caddie. He even named his big-honking yacht "Privacy" in honor of the one thing he values most. Some of his barriers are holding firm, for now. His wife's parents, reached in Sweden by the Associated Press, declined to comment on the incident. But not even Woods can hide from this news cycle, whether his accident turns out to be a mere fender-bending embarrassment or a larger image-denting, marriage-threatening scandal.
One little traffic accident may cause his carefully constructed circle of privacy to crumble like the Berlin Wall.
The timing couldn't be much worse. The fact that it happened on a holiday weekend is inconsequential. In a few days Woods is scheduled to host his own post-season tournament in southern California, the Chevron World Challenge, which raises money for his charitable foundation. Can he blow off his own event and avoid the inevitable media frenzy? Perhaps, but he can't dodge it indefinitely.
Stonewalling is a bad option. Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez can testify to that. What Woods should do is take control of the story and explain what happened good, bad or otherwise. Get it over with and let the ever-impatient news cycle find its fresh meat elsewhere. The alternative is weeks spent picking away at the many unexplained details of his crash. At best, the incident will be a minor glitch that is quickly forgotten. At worst, it could damage his carefully crafted public image.
Almost daily we see the dark side of the New Age Media, from Octo-Mom to Balloon Boy to Jon and Kate and everything Britney. Now it may be Tiger's turn, even if this turns out to be just a simple traffic mishap. You know things are spinning out of control when the jokes are already starting to bubble up. I heard this one Saturday morning from a fellow golf writer: What's the difference between Tiger Woods hitting a wedge shot and Tiger Woods driving a Cadillac Escalade? Tiger can back up a wedge shot with no problem.
Team Tiger likes being in control. That's why they sued an artist who was selling paintings of Tiger, saying they owned his image. That's why they sued (and won) when an Irish magazine published faked nude photos of his wife, Elin. That's why they sued (again, successfully) his yacht builder for using Tiger's name and photos of his boat in promotional material. But this latest episode isn't contained to little-read Irish tabloids or brochures from boat builders. In the age of blogging and Twitter, innuendo can make its way around the world before Tiger's lawyers pull their spikes on. The story is already threatening to race well beyond their control.
So what's the big deal about a little car crash? A one-car accident in the middle of the night often raises eyebrows, if only among the neighbors. In this high-profile case, local cops said quickly that they didn't believe alcohol was involved and that it was being treated as a traffic crash, not a domestic issue. The problem for Team Tiger is that there remain plenty of tantalizing questions, and precious few answers.
Where was Tiger going in his car at 2:25 in the morning? On a diaper run? To 7-Eleven for a Slurpee? The drive-through window at Wendy's? And why did he crash? Most accidents occur within 25 miles of home, but Tiger's was within 50 feet of his driveway. What caused him to go off-road so quickly and lose a game of pinball to a fire hydrant first and then a tree? We don't know.
How badly was he really injured? Initial reports listed him in serious condition, but that is standard procedure for any patient who is hospitalized. Woods, who was reportedly unconscious for up to six minutes after the accident, was treated and released with nothing more serious reported than facial lacerations. Was he wearing a seat belt? We don't know.
Why did Elin allegedly smash the back window of the SUV with a golf club to help her husband get out? Initial reports stated that she heard the crash from inside the house and went outside to see what happened. Wouldn't it have been easier to grab a spare key or remote-entry device to unlock the doors, or at least smash in a smaller passenger side window?
And what about the rumors? A National Enquirer story leaked two days before the accident linked Woods to a New York hostess and reported that she was in Melbourne with him (and allegedly staying at the same hotel) while he played in the Australian Masters two weeks ago. The Associated Press took the claim seriously enough to contact the woman, Rachel Uchitel, who strenuously denied that she has been having an affair with Woods.
It's this salacious side story that has fueled much of the coverage. At least one major entertainment website, TMZ.com, claims Elin Woods gave different versions of the accident to the Windermere Police and the Florida Highway Patrol. The site has also published stories, based on anonymous sourcing, that a domestic incident was behind the crash.
Until Woods decides to talk publicly himself, his fans will be left to ponder for themselves possible answers to these many questions. And that leaves many of them getting their information from media that specialize in entertainment, not news gathering, outlets like the National Enquirer and the many celebrity websites. Even legitimate news organizations have joined in past rushes to judgment that went very wrong, notably the Olympic bombing in Atlanta and the Duke lacrosse rape story. But as long as Team Tiger remains silent on what happened, the playing field is being turned over to gossip-focused media that often publish first and apologize (in very small print) later.
More than 24 hours into the news cycle, we still don't know what really happened to Tiger Woods. All we know is that his Thanksgiving weekend was not good. Not good at all.