Tiger’s fall from glory

FULL STORY: How a car crash exposed the strange and embarrassing life of the world’s greatest athlete

When Elin Nordegren began dating Tiger Woods in March 2002, the golfing world greeted her as a country-club Cinderella. Sure, the 21-year-old had come from a respectable background—her father a prominent Swedish journalist, her mother a former cabinet minister. But this was Tiger Woods, the crown prince of golf and, financially speaking, the hands-down catch of the century. His winnings and endorsements would soon surpass $1 billion, making him the most monied athlete in history; his public image was as pristine as a Titleist fresh from the box. As courtship became engagement, speculation mounted among PGA Tour members and their spouses about whether the stunning blond who shrank from the public glare was up to the most important role that, in their charmed world, a woman could have: Mrs. Tiger Woods.
Not so Jesper Parnevik, a Swedish golfer as well-known for his candour as his flamboyant course wear. He and his wife, Mia, had employed Nordegren as a nanny during the previous year, and when Jesper’s travels brought her into contact with Woods during the 2001 British Open, attracting the young phenom’s attention, he appeared to feel some parental responsibility. “I think she’s a bit too good for him,” Parnevik remarked, and he seemed to be only half joking. Nordegren, it later became clear, was worlds removed from the groupies tour members sometimes refer to as “rope-hopers.” Winsome, intelligent and coolly self-possessed, she rebuffed Woods’s first advance because he made it through a third party. Another 20 months would pass before the couple became engaged, and even then the Parneviks remained ambivalent. “Tiger is the one who got the catch,” Mia told Sports Illustrated. “With the weird lifestyle he leads, he might never have met a nice girl. He’s lucky he found Elin.”

The Parneviks, it turns out, knew whereof they spoke. In the past two weeks, Woods’s reputation as a faithful husband, an apostle of discipline and an upstanding citizen of his sport has blown apart amid tabloid reports of serial infidelity—touched off last week by a bizarre, low-speed car crash outside Woods’s mini-estate in Windermere, Fla. As of this writing, nine women had been identified as his sexual partners past and present, and the story careens onward, jet-fuelled by gossip blogs and the websites of mainstream media. One woman bolstered her allegations with phone and text messages showing the 33-year-old superstar frantically trying to cover his tracks. Another recounted her assignations with Woods in cringe-worthy detail to a British tabloid, claiming the golfer repeatedly sneaked her into the family mansion for rough sex. Woods has gone from answering the whole scandal with denials to issuing a feeble admission of unspecified “transgressions” to, finally, leaking word he and Nordegren were engaged in “intensive” marriage counselling.

As reports of Woods’s sleazy habits multiplied, those talks looked increasingly like a long shot. The most damning allegation emerged Monday, when two of the women said Woods never used protection when having sex with them, suggesting he had endangered the health of his wife and, by extension, the two children she carried to term. Still, Woods and his handlers seemed determined to rescue the marriage. Late last week, they leaked word through reputable websites and newspapers that the couple’s prenuptial agreement was under renegotiation, with Nordegren set to receive $5 million immediately, plus $75 million over the next seven years, if she spared her husband a divorce.

If the salvage operation succeeds, the effect will be to thrust the great partnership of sport and commerce into uncharted territory. The union, it is safe to assume, would be something a lot less like a marriage than one of Woods’s endorsement deals—a loveless contract governed by waivers, riders and bonuses for longevity or public appearances. Nordegren, meanwhile, would become another employee of Tiger Woods Inc., while pulling down a salary on par with starting quarterbacks in the National Football League. Yes, the marriage of Tiger and Elin has been described as a match made in marketing heaven—the perfect synthesis of beauty and accomplishment, a pairing that bridged both continents and a racial divide. But saving it will require more than a confession on Oprah’s couch, or some flummery about sexual addiction. It will require so much money—and cynical negotiation—one is left to wonder whether it is worth the price.

By the time Woods met Nordegren in 2001, his every public move was carefully scripted, foremost by his legendary father Earl, who told his son from an early age he was “the Chosen One,” but also by his handlers at the sports agency International Management Group. More than a magnificent golfer, he was packaged as the first African-American to win a major, a barrier-breaker who would shatter WASP hegemony and even potentially pave the way for the first black president. Suffice to say, no one wanted a repeat of the disastrous 1997 GQ profile the year Woods turned pro in which the 21-year-old was quoted telling puerile racist and sexist jokes, then expressing shock that writer Charles Pierce was taking notes. The story also flicked at Woods’s rampant womanizing on tour, but without any specifics.

Not that there was a shortage of stories. Woods’s hound-dogging was one of the worst-kept secrets on the PGA Tour. A sports press concerned about losing access to the world’s best golfer was content to ignore such gossip, just as it chalked up Woods’s club-throwing and profane outbursts on the course to his “perfectionism.” A tight inner circle provided a protective buffer from the world. Woods fired his first caddy, PGA Tour veteran Mike “Fluff” Cowan, for being too friendly with the press, and began a long-standing relationship with Steve Williams, known to harass any spectator who dared disrupt his concentration. Indeed, Woods’s persona, as portrayed, was so dull as to be numbing. “The blandness is so complete,” Simon Barnes wrote of him in the London Times in 2002, “there is something mystical about it.”

One wonders, given the foregoing, what Nordegren saw in him, or whether Tiger should have married in the first place. “If he wanted to take the Derek Jeter approach to his lifestyle, there would have been nothing wrong with that,” says Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Center for Sports Marketing at the University of Oregon, referring to the enthusiastically single shortstop for the New York Yankees. Woods’s father Earl certainly opposed the idea, saying he believed marriage would sidetrack his son’s career. “Let’s face it, a wife can sometimes be a deterrent to a good game of golf,” he told TV Guide in 2001. “The level he’s at, the finite little problems like that would destroy him.”

But from a marketing point of view, a handsome wife and happy family were the only elements missing from Woods’s image—assets that would broaden his appeal from avid golf fans to women and kids. For those purposes, Nordegren appeared the perfect partner, a beauty who radiated substance. Friends and family noted her dreams of attending college and becoming a child psychologist, and she remained ambivalent toward celebrity. But this too played to Woods’s value as a product pitchman, adding to his aura of class.

From the beginning, Nordegren played her part impeccably, becoming a fixture on the PGA Tour from 2003 until 2007, when she gave birth to their daughter Sam. During this period, she walked the line between publicity and privacy with impressive savvy. She never did an interview, and was so guarded with acquaintances they invoked comparisons to Greta Garbo. (“She’s still nice,” one person on the tour was quoted as saying in 2004, “but when you talk to her you don’t get anything out of her.”) Yet Nordegren made herself visible enough to please both the viewing audience and Woods’s sponsors, appearing at tournaments in Nike wear, smiling for the cameras at just the right moments.

Behind the scenes, however, she was said to possess a formidable will and was not afraid to flex it. Early into their courtship, it was rumoured Nordegren found out Woods paid law school tuition and bought a house for his former long-term girlfriend Joanna Jagoda after their relationship ended. Nordegren is said to have issued Woods an ultimatum: stay away from Jagoda or this new, more glamorous lover would return to Scandinavia. Woods, set on marrying Nordegren, complied.

The burden of the media glare would grow, however, as Woods became richer and racked up more titles. Shortly after they began dating, a photo of a naked blond woman wrongly identified as Nordegren hit the tabloids. (“I told her, ‘I’m sorry it has to be this way, but it kind of comes along with what I do,’ ” Woods said at the time.) And when details of his 2003 proposal to Nordegren at South Africa’s Shamwari Game Reserve leaked out, Woods lashed out, accusing the resort’s owner of alerting newspapers and inviting the mayor and local schoolchildren to the airport, where the couple was forced to pose for pictures. “I’m disgusted about the way he handled things,” he wrote in a letter to fans. The owner retaliated, saying it was “naive” for Woods to think the engagement wouldn’t become public.

No surprise, then, that the couple’s 2004 nuptials provided a template for their marriage—obsessive privacy on a grandiose scale. Woods booked the entire Sandy Lane Golf Resort in Barbados for a week and bought out the island’s helicopter charter company to defeat paparazzi keen for photos of the couple taking vows before 150 guests, among them Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Bill Gates. Their honeymoon was spent cloistered aboard Woods’s 155-foot yacht Privacy, sailing the Caribbean.

The couple set up residence in a 6,692-sq.-foot mansion in Windermere, and from time to time gossip made its way into the press. Elin was reported to have “freaked out” when Woods’s mother Tida demanded he build a house for her next to theirs; she insisted the two houses be separated by a stretch of water. And there was no denying the sacrifices Nordegren was making for Woods’s career. In June 2007, while Tiger played the final rounds of the U.S. Open, she went into labour with Sam. There were complications, yet Nordegren urged Woods to stay in the tournament, and he wound up finishing second.

Still, the few glimpses the public did get of the couple pointed to a storybook existence. Last February, a week after the birth of the couple’s second child, Charlie, the family agreed to a photo shoot at home. While Nordegren looked every bit the weary-yet-loving mother, the star of the spread was Woods, laughing as the family dog Taz licked his face, placing a blissful kiss on the forehead of their infant son. The secrets that would tear apart the household, and bring down the greatest golfer ever to pick up a club, were not yet visible to the naked eye.

A nd they may have remained so had Woods not rammed his Cadillac Escalade into a fire hydrant and a tree in the early morning of Nov. 27. Though it was initially reported that Woods was in “serious” condition following the single-car crash outside his Florida home, it was later revealed that he only suffered scratches to his face. The official line from the Woods camp was that Elin had broken the SUV’s window with a golf club to help her husband get out of the car. But there were soon suggestions in the tabloids that the shattered glass may have had more to do with an alleged dispute over a story that appeared a couple of days earlier in the National Enquirer, linking Woods with Rachel Uchitel, a New York nightclub hostess. (A police report released this week noted that a woman at the crash scene—reportedly his wife—said he’d taken prescription drugs. One of them, Ambien, is a sleep aid, the other, Vicodin, is a painkiller often given to athletes recovering from injury.)

The smash-up set off a media frenzy. Us Weekly reported that Jaimee Grubbs, a Vegas cocktail waitress, claimed to have had a 31-month affair with Woods starting in 2007. And Grubbs said she had 300 text messages to prove it; Uchitel was said to have an especially embarrassing email from Woods describing a dream in which he walks in on a threesome involving her, Derek Jeter and actor David Boreanaz. Us Weekly also released a voice mail left on Grubbs’s phone from a man, allegedly Woods, asking her to remove her name from the voice mail message “quickly” because his wife may be calling to check up on him. Kalika Moquin, a Vegas marketing manager, was also linked to Woods, but says the allegations are “completely untrue.” Uchitel has also denied published reports, but raised suspicions when she cancelled a press conference last week due to, according to her lawyer, “unforeseen circumstances.”

Oprah is said to have called to offer Tiger and Elin a spot on her couch. But so far, aside from a couple of posts on his website, including the one in which he apologizes to his family and fans for “transgressions,” Woods has remained silent—a PR strategy that has only fuelled speculation. Citing injuries from the crash, he backed out of last week’s Chevron World Challenge. In the days following the accident, Florida Highway Patrol officers were turned away three times when trying to gather information from him. Eventually, Woods was issued a traffic citation for careless driving, and a $164 ticket. No criminal charges were laid. But as far as the celebrity gossip sites were concerned—and the millions around the world who couldn’t help themselves from clicking—the case was far from closed.

In predictable tabloid fashion, the number of woman who allegedly bedded Woods swelled to nine by last weekend, and included a porn star, and Mindy Lawton, who was earning $8 an hour as a waitress at a Perkins restaurant in Orlando. Lawton, who alleges to have began an affair with Woods in 2006, claims she and Woods regularly had sex at his home, in the back seat of his car, in a church parking lot. Last week, the New York Post revealed that it was Lawton who an Enquirer photographer caught with Woods in his SUV in 2007. To preserve Woods’s image at that point, a deal was allegedly struck with American Media, which owns the Enquirer. In exchange for killing the story, reported the Post, the golf star agreed to a cover story with Men’s Fitness, which is also owned by American Media (the company’s CEO says the allegations of a cover-up are “absolutely not true”).

It must have been difficult, juggling all those Tigers. One week, he was the doting dad, prying time from his calling as history’s most monied athlete to prepare for the arrival of his second child. “That takes precedence over anything I do golf-wise,” Woods told his army of admirers in a blog posting written last February just days before the birth of his son. Elin and daughter Sam were “very excited for the new baby to arrive,” Woods reported, “although that’s when the real lack of sleep begins.” That same week, Woods was completing rehabilitation from off-season surgery. Yet neither golf nor family, claims Grubbs, had kept him from a planned tryst with her in Las Vegas the very weekend his son was born. He called it off at the last minute, she said, citing “family issues.”

Now, the marriage is in professional hands as marriage counsellors, agents and lawyers attempt to determine its real value. “Having lived through these situations, there are negotiations going on,” says New York-based divorce lawyer Raoul Felder, whose clients include Rudy Giuliani, Robin Givens and the former wife of basketball’s Patrick Ewing. Woods is an enterprise and his wife is part of that, says Felder, who calls the couple’s original pre-nup, reported to give Nordegren US$20 million after 10 years, “ungenerous.”

But given the squalid, humiliating and serial nature of the revelations, there are doubts whether the marriage makes sense from a business perspective. Though family has been a major part of Woods’s perfectly crafted image from the outset, his core audience, say experts, is not as invested in Elin as his handlers might think. “If you asked the regular consumer two weeks ago what comes to mind when they think about Tiger and family,” says Swangard, “they would have talked about his father, not his wife.”

Those doubts are bound to grow as details of the negotiations leak out. “Why would anyone look positively on a marriage that stays together to limit damage?” says Steven Levitt, president of Marketing Evaluations Inc., a Manhasset, N.Y.-based company that measures celebrities’ appeal with consumers. “The public isn’t that stupid.” Elin could do a lot more damage to her husband, he adds, by leaving him and saying: “Keep your damn money.” “That would hurt him more than 12 other woman coming forward.”

How badly the scandal will burn the golfer in financial terms remains to be seen. While some toy stores reportedly slashed the price of Tiger Woods action figures, and TV commercials featuring Woods have not been on prime time TV since Nov. 29, many of the superstar’s sponsors—including Nike and Gillette—are standing by their man. Gatorade announced this week they are discontinuing the Gatorade Tiger Focus drink, but claimed it was a decision made “several months ago.” Levitt anticipates a dramatic shift next year in Woods’s Q Score—his company’s measure of a celebrity’s likeability—reflecting a decline in appeal among female consumers. (Michael Jordan is the only athlete to score higher than Woods in recent years.) Still, Levitt says, the core Tiger brand consumers remain middle- and upper-class men who are not “going to give up buying a set of clubs just because Tiger Woods got caught.”

Where Woods is likely to suffer the most is in attracting new endorsements, at least for the next couple of years. “Nobody is going to step forward now who hasn’t been a sponsor and say, ‘Well, he’s probably cheaper now, so why don’t we start talking,’ ” says Levitt. “It’s really a matter of what he can retain, not what he can attract.” Felder doubts Woods will keep his coveted deals—at least, not without a miraculous restoration of his image. “The problem is the shareholders,” he explains. “You’ll get people screaming, ‘You’re giving money to this boorish pig and he’s no longer a role model for young American men.’ ”

As such, concludes Felder, there doesn’t seem much point in trying to contain Woods’s infidelity. “Based on my experience, this sort of adultery always continues,” he says. “They never stop.” It’s the sort of non-confidence Woods had better get used to. By the middle of this week, everyone from feminists to late-night comics were condemning him, but the most damning verdict of all came from Jesper Parnevik, the golfer who eight years ago had couched his qualms in semi-quips. “I have lost all respect for him, primarily as a man and a father,” Parnevik told a Swedish reporter. “It doesn’t even feel like it matters what he has done on the golf course. We thought better of him, but he is not the one we thought he was.”

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