Tiger Woods lived a double life, but does it give us the right to spy on him?

Tiger Woods lived a double life, but does it give us the right to spy on him?

Tiger Woods hasn't been seen in public since his car accident in November.
Fred Vuich/SI

Give the man some credit. Tiger Woods left a hospital in suburban Orlando, posted a plea for privacy on his website and went into hiding. The reporters and photographers looking for him, many of them happy to pay tipsters, have come up empty. (He must love that.) Christmas has come and gone and now it’s one month and counting since Woods has been seen in any sort of public setting. Woods has taken a page from another good golfer, even richer than he: Howard Hughes.

As we go into the new year, all bets are off. Everything’s different. On the golf front, certainly. And more significantly, on the media front.

Let’s go way back in time, to … November, when the National Enquirer was acting on a tip that Tiger supposedly had a girlfriend. In an effort to confirm the story — that a famous, wealthy, married athlete was having an affair — the Enquirer started spying on the alleged girlfriend, Rachel Uchitel of New York. The executive editor, Barry Levine, had a reporter watch Uchitel leave her Manhattan apartment to head to the airport on her way to an alleged rendezvous with Woods in Melbourne, Australia, where Woods was playing in the Australian Masters.

Levine had a photographer in position in the lobby of the Crown Towers hotel to get pictures of Uchitel checking in. Levine had a European stringer named Richard Shears in the elevator with Uchitel when she went to the hotel’s 34th floor, the same floor where Woods was staying. “It was very exciting,” Levine said in a recent interview. Shears did not confront Uchitel. “I didn’t want to expose any of my reporters to her,” Levine said. Levine himself subsequently reached Uchitel by phone. She gave him, Levine said, conflicting stories of why she was in Australia. He commended Shears’s “excellent reporting on this story.”

Here’s another view (mine): the National Enquirer story that launched the whole thing represents an abuse of our rights to a free press. Tiger brought this on himself, by leading a double life, but the Enquirer brought it to OUR homes. I think Jack Nicklaus was being reasonable when he was asked about Woods’s situation and said, “It’s none of my business.”

Yes, there was a chasm between the Woods we thought we knew and Woods as he actually is. Yes, by taking hundreds of millions of dollars in endorsement money, he lost some of his right to privacy. But does that give us the right to spy on the guy and write up what we find? I don’t think so.

Woods is paying now for the way he sold himself over the course of his 14-year professional career. He was manipulative from the start, including his first words in his first press conference as a professional in 1996. He leaned into a microphone and said, “Well, I guess, hello world.” Cute, right? It turned out to be the charmless words of a Nike campaign. But marketing is by its nature manipulative, and if you believed Woods when he said he drove Buicks because of their superior safety record, there’s a bridge in Brooklyn with your name on it.

He is paying now for the fact that he never let any writer or interviewer, not even Ed Bradley from “60 Minutes,” get to know him in any significant way. Woods has always tried to bypass the mainstream media. When he was SI’s Sportsman of the Year in 2000, he gave the story’s writer (me) 40 minutes, over the phone, in which he said close to nothing.

I got more from Earl Woods and Butch Harmon. Harmon said that when Woods was reworking his swing in ’99, the swing coach told the golfer that he would have to become stronger to make the new swing they both wanted him to make. Woods got himself stronger. Earl told me that he and his son didn’t talk much over the course of Woods’s remarkable year in 2000 because, Earl said, his work with Tiger was done. Along with many other reporters, I’d like to know exactly how Woods got so strong. I wonder if there’s more to why Earl stepped into the shadows. In my view, those areas, even though they’re off-course, are smack-dab in the middle of where a reporter should be.

People, reasonably, want the answer to the age-old question: what is he really like? With Woods, for a long time, very few people could answer that question. He’s been in hiding for years. You could say that the National Enquirer helped provide an answer.

Still: Should reporters be in an athlete’s bedroom? Policing his wedding vows? I don’t think so.

Barry Levine feels differently. So do the editors at TMZ.com and Radaronline and News of the World. I asked Levine the other day if he thought the National Enquirer was doing Elin a favor, telling her things about her husband. He said, “My only concern is that we get the facts right in the story, and that we report it first.” He said the private lives of the rich and the famous are why people buy the National Enquirer.

Levine predicted that Woods’s marriage and affairs would have a pretty short shelf-life for his readers. The new year will bring new stories, and attention spans are shorter now than ever. Levine was pining for the old days, of O.J. Simpson and JonBenet Ramsey. Maybe the lesson is that unexplained murder has longer legs than sexcapades. In any event, the new year will bring us a new website, TMZSports.com.

Every day, the ink-and-paper edition of The New York Times is published, and every day, on the front page, in the upper left-hand corner, is a small box with the paper’s famous slogan: “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” The truth is, every media outlet has its own definition of what constitutes fit.

It’s a brand new day and a brave new world. Tell us more, tell us more, tell us more. If it’s fair game to spy on Tiger Woods, who’s next?