This article originally appeared in the Sept. 14, 2004 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Golf is a lonely game — except at the Ryder Cup. There every player has 11 teammates and a captain rooting for him, and that is only part of the support group. At this year’s Cup, U.S. caddies will be welcomed into the team room for the first time for meetings and meals, an acknowledgment of their importance by captain Hal Sutton. The loopers will sit elbow to elbow with the players’ significant others, who have long been treated as integral members of the team.
The Ryder Cup is the only tournament in golf in which wives (and fiancees and girlfriends) are allowed inside the ropes, and the American women are always turned out in matching outfits, an affectation that draws snickers from their European counterparts, who wouldn’t be caught dead in a team uniform. The American women are such a part of the action that in 1999 a handful of them joined the players in dancing across the 17th green at the Country Club — infuriating the Europeans — after Justin Leonard holed his famous putt.
Asked how important spouses are to the American effort, Sutton said, “I think some women make a difference. They say things that are important to their husbands. They might say the one thing that makes a difference in the half point that wins this thing.”
At Oakland Hills no woman will be as closely watched as Elin Nordegren, Tiger Woods’s fiancee. She was on his arm at the Belfry for the 2002 Ryder Cup, but their romance had been public for only six months then, and it was not clear what the future held for the former swimsuit model. Now Nordegren and Woods are engaged, their secretive wedding plans a subject of keen interest on both sides of the Atlantic.
Nordegren may have been born and raised in Sweden, but she’ll be wearing red, white and blue next week, and there’s no question where her allegiance lies. “Of course she’s going to root for the Americans,” says Jesper Parnevik’s wife, Mia, who hired Nordegren in 2001 to work as one of her nannies and later served as something of a matchmaker for Woods and Nordegren. “You always root for your man. Bernhard Langer’s wife is from Louisiana, but who do you think she’ll be rooting for?”
Nordegren may wear the flag on her sleeve at Oakland Hills, but she is sure to reveal little else. Even in the insular world of the PGA Tour she is a shadowy figure, talked about by everyone but close to very few. “She’s become like Greta Garbo,” says a member of the Tour’s Scandinavian clique. “When she started dating Tiger, it was like there was an unwritten agreement she wouldn’t say anything to anyone. She’s still nice, but when you talk to her, you don’t get anything out of her.” One week of forced camaraderie at the Ryder Cup is unlikely to change that.
Woods keeps a famously tight circle, and he has a history of bloodlessly excommunicating any intimate who crosses him. Nordegren knows what is expected of her. Approached for an interview at last month’s PGA Championship, she smiled sweetly and said with a light accent, “I’d rather not answer any questions. Thank you.”
Whether the Americans win or lose at the Ryder Cup, the cameras will find Nordegren, as they always do. But even the spotlight of golf’s marquee event will do little to reveal golf’s enduring mystery: Who, exactly, is the woman engaged to the world’s most famous athlete?
Elin Maria Pernilla Nordegren was born on New Year’s Day in 1980, 10 minutes ahead of her identical twin, Josefine. They joined older brother, Axel, in the family home in Vaxholm, a small town 50 miles north of Stockholm. Their parents, Thomas Nordegren and Barbro Holmberg, divorced when Elin was six years old, and they have both gone on to lead extraordinary lives. A university-trained social worker, Holmberg has enjoyed a long career in Swedish government and last October was appointed Minister for Migration, a cabinet-level position that has made her a prominent voice among the country’s Social Democrats. For two decades Thomas Nordegren has been one of Sweden’s leading journalists, and presently he is based in Washington, D.C., as a correspondent for the influential Swedish Broadcasting, for whom his responsibilities include covering the White House.
Elin and her siblings grew up in an environment crackling with intellectual pursuits. “Ideas have always been important to us,” Thomas Nordegren recently told SI. In 1997, when Thomas took a position with the Berlin bureau of Swedish Broadcasting, Elin and her twin enrolled at the city’s prestigious John F. Kennedy School.
Other than that year, Elin and Josefine spent their time in Stockholm with their mother, who has an apartment in the picturesque Gamla Stan (Old City). Though their parents were rich in accomplishments, the girls did not lead a life of luxury. “Elin and Josefine had to find jobs every summer to buy what they wanted,” Thomas told Britain’s Sunday Mirror in 2002. “They worked as cashiers in the supermarket to finance their studies, and [held] other odd jobs.”
Near the end of 1999 a different kind of work presented itself to Elin. One of Sweden’s leading fashion photographers, the wonderfully named Bingo Rimer, happened upon a candid photo of her and immediately recognized her star quality. Rimer looked up Nordegren’s phone number and talked her into a couple of photo shoots, which took place in early 2000. “She is magnificent — Swedish high quality,” says Rimer, who is a regular contributor to Scandinavian Playboy. “To be a top model, both men and women have to love you. Elin is very sexy, but it’s a fresh, natural, sporty look, and girls like that too. She is not the big-boobed, blonde-bimbo type that only guys like.”
A Rimer photo of a bikini-clad Nordegren landed on the cover of Cafe Sport magazine in the summer of 2000, yet she did little to capitalize on this development in her career. Rimer was frustrated, and impressed, by her apathy. “Elin doesn’t care about modeling,” says Rimer, who remains a friend and confidant of Nordegren’s. “She never has. Even the few things I got her to do, I had to drag her into the studio. Being famous, the whole celebrity thing, she really and truly does not care about that.”
Instead of pursuing modeling full time, Elin (and Josefine) enrolled at Lund University, one of the top colleges in Sweden. Josefine studied law — she has one year left to finish her degree — while Elin’s course load reflected her longstanding dream of becoming a child psychologist. But Elin’s life took an unexpected turn in the summer after her freshman year.
She was working at the clothing boutique Champagne, in Stockholm, when noted shopaholic Mia Parnevik blew in. The Parneviks have four young children and employ two full-time nannies, preferably twentysomething Swedish women whom Mia brings over to the family home in Jupiter, Fla., for several months at a time. After chatting with Nordegren at Champagne, Mia all but offered her the job. “I’m really into a person’s energy,” she says, by way of explanation. “Elin was smart, she was down to earth, and I could tell immediately that she was great with kids.” Nordegren officially signed on after further impressing Mia during a more formal interview.
In July 2001 Nordegren settled in at the Parneviks’ 3,000-square-foot guesthouse, which she shared with another nanny. It was a comfortable life, Mia says, with “good pay” and two days off a week. The nannies’ only responsibility was to look after the kids; they didn’t have to cook or clean, as the Parneviks also employ housekeepers. “[The nannies] are not employees, they are part of the family,” says Mia. Of course, Nordegren’s arrival begs the question: Since she is such an attractive young woman…. “Did I worry my husband was going to screw the nanny?” Parnevik says. “Is that what you’re asking? Of course not. My marriage has a lot more trust than that.”
Actually, the question was going to be, Since Elin is such an attractive young woman, did you anticipate that she would attract attention from the eligible bachelors on Tour?
“No, because she had no interest in golf or golfers,” says Mia. “She thought they were so silly and was always making fun of them.” Another deterrent was that Nordegren still had a serious boyfriend back in Sweden, a young man who worked in real estate.
It was while working at her first tournament, the 2001 British Open, that Nordegren met her future fiance, a quick introduction that nevertheless made a lasting impression on Woods, whose taste for blondes has been well documented. As ’01 wore on, Nordegren’s boyfriend exited the picture and Woods became a more persistent suitor, even though he lived in Orlando, about 150 miles from the Parnevik compound. Says Mia, “He would call. A lot. I would give him a hard time, and we would have a laugh, but when Jesper answered, Tiger was more nervous, and of course Jesper loved that. He would really make Tiger sweat.”
The p.r. machinery of various multinational corporations has given Woods a superstar sheen, but don’t forget that his teammates at Stanford nicknamed him Urkel, after the famously nerdy character in the coming-of-age TV comedy Family Matters. When he finally felt ready to ask Nordegren out for the first time, Woods displayed all the confidence of a member of the chess club approaching the head cheerleader. According to a close friend of the Parneviks, Woods had an intermediary ask Nordegren for that first date. “Her reaction was, ‘What the hell was that?'” says the Parneviks’ friend. “She thought it was so weird and pathetic. Of course she said no.”
It wasn’t just the clumsiness of Woods’s approach that gave Elin pause. “One of the reasons she didn’t date him right away was because she didn’t want to be just a celebrity girlfriend,” says Rimer. “She knows how it looks. People see her — so young, so beautiful — and they assume she is just a gold digger. That’s how it is in the States, right? All those girls who would do anything to date a famous athlete? Elin is not like that. She is a smart girl, raised in a family of intellectuals. She has dreams. She didn’t want to be seen just as a decoration on Tiger’s arm.”
Eventually Nordegren became more receptive to Woods’s advances, and when she returned to Stockholm for the holidays in December 2001, she visited Rimer to tell him of the burgeoning romance. Displaying a feel for image management reminiscent of Jackie Kennedy’s, she insisted that they go through his stockpile of photos. “The deal was that I could only release the ones that she approved,” says Rimer. “I was naive. I didn’t think there would be much interest when the relationship became public. But she knew better.”
The world discovered Nordegren in March 2002, when she was very visibly by Woods’s side at the Bay Hill Invitational in his hometown of Orlando. Almost instantly the Internet was flooded with Rimer’s preapproved glamour shots of Nordegren, but controlling her image would prove more difficult. In August ’02 the Web was abuzz over a series of photos of a buxom blonde wearing only a smile who was identified as Nordegren. In a posting on tigerwoods.com her boyfriend claimed the pictures were not of Nordegren, who, he wrote, had never posed for any nude photographs. “Nor does she have any intent to do so,” he added. Rimer backs up Woods on that point. “She’s never done anything like that,” says Rimer, who claims the woman in the photos was someone else. “She’s not that kind of girl. I have pictures of her standing topless, but she’s covering herself with her hands. She wouldn’t do any nudity, and you know I asked.”
As unpleasant as it was, the dustup over the nude pictures was just part of the media frenzy spawned by the coupling of Woods and Nordegren. “The Swedish tabloids have printed some outrageous things,” says Thomas. “They have done some crazy things.”
For Christmas in 2002, Elin persuaded Tiger to visit Sweden for the first time. They stayed in the village of Parlstrom, where Holmberg owns her father’s childhood home, painted red with white window frames in the typical Swedish style. Paparazzi camped outside the house for three days, even though temperatures plunged below -20°. (It was on that trip that Woods, a Southern California kid, saw falling snow for the first time.)
In the face of such intrusiveness, Nordegren’s family has retreated behind a wall of silence. Older brother Axel, who holds a degree from the Stockholm School of Economics, recently began working in Shanghai for the Swedish Export Council. Reached in his office, he giggled at a reporter’s introductory greeting. “You’re the first one who has found me here,” he said. “I’m impressed. But I decided long ago that I will not answer any questions about Elin. I understand the interest, but she has so little privacy left, and I want to preserve it. However, I wish you good luck on your report.” Holmberg also declined to be interviewed for this story, her press secretary citing “family privacy.”
For Thomas Nordegren, blowing off reporters is a little harder to do. After all, he’s a member of the media, too. As for the awkward intersection of his job as a news gatherer and the developments in his daughter’s love life, he says, “The only concession is that I don’t report on men’s golf. Our correspondent in New York handles that.”
But when Elin marries Tiger it will be international news — surely he will be compelled to break the story, right? “Celebrities and weddings and such is not part of the programs I work on,” he says soberly. “We don’t do that type of journalism.”
The Swedish tabloids do, of course, and they were atwitter in July when Woods’s mother, Tida, visited Stockholm the week before the British Open at Royal Troon. One of the local dailies, Aftonbladet, ran a picture of Tida, Elin and her mother strolling through the city, under the headline ELIN AND TIGER’S WEDDING IN SWEDEN. The story went on to say, “According to unconfirmed information, it may be today.”
It wasn’t, and it still hasn’t happened. Nordegren’s best friend in golf is still Mia Parnevik, who says, “I swear to God, I don’t know when the wedding will be, and I don’t want to know, because everybody asks me 10 times a day, and if I knew, it probably wouldn’t be a secret for long. Nobody knows when or where it’s going to happen, and I think that’s really cool. It’s nice they have some small thing that is all their own.”
What is life like for the future Mr. and Mrs. Woods? “They’re cute together,” Parnevik says. “It’s young love.” Though they come from disparate backgrounds, Nordegren shares Woods’s strong athletic jones. She was a competitive soccer player well into her teens, and, according to her father, Elin’s aggressive style led to innumerable bloody knees and even a broken leg during a tournament. Now she has acquired Woods’s love of scuba diving — he recently purchased a 155-foot yacht to help them get away from it all, and Nordegren has visited the shipyard vessel in Vancouver, Wash., at least three times to oversee the details of its interior design. The happy couple has also been spotted on the driving range at Isleworth Country Club, where Woods is giving his fiancee her first golf lessons. Though he is suffering through his worst season since 1998, Woods has been saying of late that he has never been happier, and it’s easy to believe him.
One of the few people to get inside the couple’s protective bubble is Charles Howell; he and his wife, Heather, vacationed with Woods and Nordegren before last year’s Presidents Cup in South Africa, staying at a hotel on the beach in Cape Town. (The week after the Presidents Cup, Woods proposed to Nordegren while they were holed up on a private game reserve in South Africa.) “We did a whole lot of nothing,” Howell says. “They were both very relaxed, very easygoing. She’s a great person. It’s too bad the world will never get to know her, just as very few people will ever see Tiger’s private side.” Most of the evenings were spent with the couples engaged in cutthroat games of cards, in which Nordegren showed a killer instinct that must have pleased her future husband. “She’s a very competitive person, in a good way,” says Howell. “She likes to win, and she usually did.”
Having won the heart of golf’s most eligible bachelor — whose fortune runs into nine figures — it is tempting to say that Nordegren is living a fairy-tale life. But the woman who knows the couple best has a very different take. “People think it’s like a Cinderella story for her, but Tiger is the one who got the catch,” says Mia Parnevik. “With the weird lifestyle he leads, he might never have met a nice girl. He’s lucky he found Elin. I mean, can you imagine how empty his life was before she came along, just hitting golf balls all day long?”