More than 13 years ago, in August 1996, Tiger Woods turned pro at a news conference in Milwaukee, armed with a phenomenal amateur record, lucrative endorsements and endless hype. He introduced himself to sports fans with two carefully orchestrated words: “Hello, world!”
Woods promptly went to work creating his own insular world. He churned out major championship titles, crafted moment after memorable moment on the golf course and offered few glimpses into his personal life. He became a rare creature – one of the most famous people on Earth, without a whiff of scandal in his wake.
Then came Friday morning, a fire hydrant and a tree.
Woods’ mysterious one-car accident outside his Florida home marked an end to his remarkable run – really, 13 years and three months without a chink in his armor. No police reports. No strip-club incidents. No steroid accusations. No skeletons slithering out of his closet, as they have with so many other sports superstars.
He still serves, in many ways, as an example of how athletes should conduct themselves when they reach the mountaintop.
Sure, Woods could use his fame and wealth to make more of an impact on matters of public interest (the next stand he takes will be his first). Yes, he could show some of the personality his friends and fellow players insist he has (a timely, lighthearted joke wouldn’t hurt).
And, absolutely, Woods needs to corral his temper on the course. He often appears petulant, unleashing profanities after poor shots or, as he did during one PGA Tour event this year, flinging his club in frustration. That’s a bad look for the world’s best player.
Even so, the criticisms count as relatively mild in the big picture. As athletes in other sports ran afoul of the law over the years or were exposed as drug cheats, the most you could hang on Woods was he sometimes talks like a truck driver and acts like a child.
So will his mostly polished image absorb a more serious blow after this strange accident? Not necessarily, but it depends on how Woods copes with the aftermath.
Friday’s incident raises an avalanche of questions, starting with the obvious: Where was he going at 2:25 a.m.? Why couldn’t he navigate his SUV around the same fire hydrant and tree he’s avoided many times in all his years living in Isleworth? Did he and his wife, Elin Nordegren, argue in the moments before the accident, as TMZ.com reported? Did she confront Woods over tabloid reports of an extramarital affair, as the Web site also reported, and actually cause his facial lacerations by scratching him when the argument got heated?
It’s unfortunate Woods should hear these questions in public – he has fiercely protected his privacy these past 13-plus years, as is his prerogative. But, fair or not, the equation changed when police were summoned in the middle of the night and found Woods lying in the street, bleeding and disoriented.
The image offers a striking contrast to the scene at Stanford Stadium the previous Saturday, about 90 minutes before the Big Game. Woods – wearing dark sunglasses, a red Stanford hat and red, hooded Stanford sweatshirt – stepped into an elevator with his 2-year-old daughter, Sam, squirming in his arms. Elin stood nearby, holding their 9-month old son, Charlie. Woods’ mom, Tida, cooed over the kids like any doting grandma would.
This sweet picture now must give way to Woods facing that avalanche of questions. Let’s hope he abandons his longtime habit of saying as little as possible, because this time it would help him to come clean and stop the speculation.
The worst consequence to that? We discover he’s human, after all.