Tiger Woods’ charmed life may be feeling the squeeze


Of all of the world’s sports superstars, Tiger Woods has been blessed with one of the more idyllic lives -- a gorgeous wife, two adorable children, multiple millions in the bank, and an image of purity and excellence that transcends the sport he dominates.

But the image, and with it one of the sporting world’s premium brands, was under threat Sunday as the mystery surrounding his one-car accident, just a few steps from his Florida mansion on Friday, deepened and as he continued to refuse to talk to authorities.

Woods, 33, broke a third day of silence Sunday with a statement on his website, in which he called the accident “embarrassing to my family and me” and pleaded for privacy.

“I’m human and I’m not perfect,” he said. But, he added, “this is a private matter and I want to keep it that way.”

His five-paragraph statement didn’t fully answer many of the questions being raised about the accident. And Florida Highway Patrol troopers hoping to question Woods and his wife, Elin Nordegren, were told by Mark NeJame, a prominent Orlando criminal defense attorney, that neither would be available to be interviewed at the couple’s $2.4-million home on Sunday. NeJame has also represented basketball star Shaquille O’Neal.

The accident that touched off the pressure on professional golf’s No. 1 player began at 2:25 a.m. on Friday, when Woods backed his black Cadillac Escalade out of his driveway and then ran over a fire hydrant before hitting a tree on a neighbor’s property. The car’s front end was badly damaged and, according to police, Woods’ wife said she used a golf club to break through a back window to remove him from the vehicle.

The transcript of a 911 call, made by an unidentified neighbor, said Woods was on the ground, unconscious but breathing. A private hospital ambulance arrived and took him to a hospital; he was released later that morning. His injuries included cuts on his face, authorities said, and the initial police report said alcohol was not a factor.

It remains unclear where Woods was going at that hour -- and why he has declined to speak with state troopers for three straight days.

Those questions have led to unrestrained speculation in a supermarket tabloid and on numerous Internet sites, where the claims have included suggestions that Woods was having an affair and that he and his wife might have been arguing over that. The National Enquirer published a story a few days before the accident alleging that he was seeing a New York night club hostess -- though according to the Associated Press, the woman denied having an affair.

Woods seemed to allude to that speculation in his statement Sunday, saying he was solely responsible for the accident and “my wife, Elin, acted courageously when she saw I was hurt and in trouble. She was the first person to help me. Any other assertion is absolutely false.” He added: “I deserve some privacy no matter how intrusive some people can be.”

In a Q&A on his website last month, a fan asked Woods why she rarely saw photos of the couple in the gossip magazines. Woods replied that they have “avoided a lot of media attention because we’re kind of boring,” and he described a home life that included watching rented videos and playing video games with friends.

Some of the frenzy was fed by first-day reports that Woods had suffered “serious” injuries in the crash, though authorities said later that they classify all injuries as serious when an accident victim is transported by ambulance to the hospital.

But it has been the slow-footed response to questions about the accident itself that has fed a public relations ordeal for the golfer. According to a police representative, Woods does not have to talk to investigators, only produce his car registration, proof of insurance and driver’s license.

Woods became the first athlete to earn more than $1 billion after getting a $10-million bonus for winning this year’s FedEx Cup, golf’s season-long championship. The bulk of that money comes from endorsements, including a $30-million-a-year deal with Nike for being the front man for its line of golf clothes and equipment. He also has deals with Gatorade, Gillette, video game maker EA Sports and AT&T.

A week ago, Woods, his wife, their two children and his mother were feted at Stanford University, where he was inducted into the school’s athletics hall of fame. When he was introduced at the school’s football game against UC Berkeley wearing a Stanford sweat shirt, the Cal crowd good-naturedly booed him.

If Woods were to contest reports in the Enquirer, it would not be his first challenge of a tabloid story. In 2007, his wife sued an Irish magazine for publishing fake nude photos of her, which appeared during the 2006 Ryder Cup, which pits European players against U.S. players. The magazine apologized and paid damages believed to be about $180,000.

Sports marketing experts said Sunday that though Woods’ private life deserves to be respected, he is likely to be dogged by questions about the accident until he provides at least a few more details.

But several also said his image as a gracious competitor and beloved figure is unlikely to suffer permanent damage.

“I suspect he is relatively bullet-proof at this point,” said Larry McCarthy, an associate professor of sports marketing at Seton Hall University’s Center for Sport Management. “And even if he has been involved in something, we tend to forgive and forget when it comes to the behavior of athletes.”

But McCarthy added that Woods’ refusal to meet with the authorities may not be the best strategy. “The more you stonewall these things, the longer they tend to drag on,” he said.

Mark Steinberg, Woods’ agent at IMG, attempted to downplay that, noting that the highway patrol had said a discussion was “both voluntary and optional.”

“Although Tiger realizes that there is a great deal of public curiosity,” Steinberg told AP, the troopers have been told that he has nothing more to add.

David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at USC, said it’s too early to predict any long-term effect on Woods’ marketing power.

But he noted that the line between athletes’ private and public lives often blurs when they trade on their emotional connection to fans by endorsing products and services.

“Athletes know that the currency they trade in is their own personality as well as their own performance,” Carter said.

Leigh Steinberg, the agent who has represented NFL quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Ben Roethlisberger, said Woods must ensure he has “a complete grasp of what the facts are” before he takes his account public.

“One of the biggest errors is to leave out details that can be challenged by investigative journalism -- so nothing comes out making it appear there was a cover-up,” he said.

Steinberg said an athlete is best served by getting out in front of the news.

Before the accident, Woods had been scheduled to host and play in this week’s Chevron World Challenge at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks.

Woods had planned to appear at a pre-tournament news conference Tuesday.

Tournament officials said in a statement Sunday that they didn’t yet know whether Woods still planned to compete or attend.

Times staff writers Jim Peltz, Alex Pham, David Wharton, Lance Pugmire and researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.