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Pro Golf Enters the Twilight Zone
We hadn't even started our Thanksgiving leftovers when the news broke that would become golf's rejoinder to the Kennedy assassination. We will always remember where we were, and what we were doing at 2:30 p.m. on Friday November 27, 2009, when we heard the news or saw the Internet headline: "Tiger Woods in Serious Condition after Car Accident." Mere yards from his driveway, Tiger had crashed his 2009 Cadillac SUV into a fire hydrant and a tree.
But the shock of Tiger possibly being gravely hurt was coupled with even more puzzling news: it was a one-car crash which occurred at 2:15 in the morning, hours after Thanksgiving, as he was leaving his house. Although his status was quickly upgraded to "good condition" and we heard he was back home, concern for Tiger was tempered with a gnawing fear: what was he doing leaving the house at that hour? As sportswriter Phil Mushnick once humorously asked, "When do you ever hear about good erupting at 2 a.m.?"
But while the general public was perplexed, perhaps fearful for what they might hear, a handful of well-connected golf writers knew the answer. They were aware of another story about Tiger and, already afraid of the ramifications of what they knew privately, their alarm grew to terror with the accident report. The watershed story for pro golf in the 21st Century thus far was not the accident of Tiger Woods, but a story filed a day earlier on the website of the National Enquirer: Woods and New York City event planner and party hostess Rachel Uchitel were allegedly having an affair, connecting with one another in Australia, Las Vegas, and New York. The story was also referenced on-line by "athlebrity" gossip site SportsbyBrooks.com, and The Huffington Post.
And for those three hours, from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m., sportswriters across the country waited to see if someone in the mainstream media or sports-writing world would connect the two stories.
Finally it was Jason Whitlock of FoxSports.com and the Kansas City Star who updated his Twitter account at around 5:30 with a query as to whether Tiger's crash could have followed a late-night argument with his wife Elin over the Enquirer's allegations of infidelity. That did it; the floodgates opened and the story of the Enquirer reporting a possible affair went across the Internet sites of the major news networks and on every major television network. It wasn't a sports story any longer, it was major news, sometimes leading broadcasts around the world.
The news that Tiger had been released from the hospital and was back at home suddenly took a backseat to a firestorm of questions and speculation.
Almost contemporaneously with Whitlock's Tweet, Doug Ferguson, the Associated Press's golf-beat writer, reported on some further details of the crash. Ferguson was told that, upon hearing the crash, Woods's wife Elin raced out of the house and broke the windows of the Escalade to gain entrance to the vehicle, pulled Woods out of the wreckage and stayed there until police and paramedics arrived.
But that story didn't seem to jive with some facts as reported in the accident report; in fact, it appeared at right angles to reality. The rear windows on both sides of the Escalade were shattered. Why were there golf clubs at the scene? And how did a golf cart mysteriously park itself at a strange angle to the accident scene? Additionally, Tiger's injuries did not appear to be consistent with banging his face on a steering wheel. Dark murmurs were circulating that Elin may have chased Tiger out of the house and crashed in his haste to escape his wife's wrath. With the face of golf under this pall of alleged infidelity and domestic violence, every sports fan went to bed that night more afraid and worried than before.
Later, Uchitel lodged a flaming protest with the New York Daily News, the New York Post, and two resourceful golf bloggers who ferreted out her phone number and e-mail, and the world awoke to what they hoped would be just a messy he-said-she-said scandal that would blow away like a Titleist sliced into the Atlantic in a gale off Ballybunion.
It almost played out that way. The night of November 28th, the Enquirer filed a damaging report in response to Uchitel's denials, alleging on television and in print that the story was the result of months of deep investigation with numerous witnesses, all of whom had passed polygraphs. The National Enquirer executive editor, Barry Levine, spoke on "Geraldo at Large," calling it "a scandal of global proportions."
Still, there was wiggle room. The general public still had no concrete proof of anything, just conjecture, innuendo. Even though Woods hired a high-octane attorney who deflected police inquiry - for a third day Woods refused to meet with Windermere police regarding his Thanksgiving night car accident - and although his statement on www.tigerwoods.com that day was cryptic. "This is a private matter and I want to keep it that way. Although I understand there is curiosity, the many false, unfounded and malicious rumors that are currently circulating about my family and me are irresponsible." This didn't seem to be so sinister as to seriously damage Tiger's image badly.
After being rebuffed by Elin, Mark Steinberg and Tiger's attorneys in the late afternoon on Tuesday December 1st, police decided to merely issue Woods a $164 traffic ticket for careless driving. Woods issued a brief statement on his website that he would be unable to attend the Chevron World Challenge either as a player or host, and it seemed just a tempest in a teapot. At worst, maybe his image would deflect a glancing blow. Maybe he fooled around a little, maybe got caught, but so what? There's nothing to see here; move along, these aren't the droids you're looking for. But then the story turned on a dime and golf would never be the same.
A second mistress, this one apparently jilted, came forward to US Weekly magazine with text messages and, worst of all, a damning voice mail from Tiger. First we saw him ask cocktail waitress Jaimee Grubbs, also a reality television personality, to "do something very naughty . . . go to the bathroom and [take a picture]." Then we heard his inimitable voice implore her to take her name off her cell phone because Elin went through his cell phone and may be calling her.
And no one could look at the story the same way again. The last piece of the puzzle fell audibly into place to the sound of Tiger's plea. Three hours after the voice mail hit the Internet, Woods published a second statement, under the cryptic title, "Tiger Comments on Current events." In five paragraphs, he apologized for unexplained "transgressions," but he still stubbornly clung to privacy like a life raft, stating, "Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn't have to mean public confessions."
But as Tim Dahlberg of the Associated Press wrote in response, "By now, events were clearly spiraling far beyond anything Woods could have ever imagined. In less than a week he had gone from being one of the most admired people in the world to a punchline to jokes flowing freely in offices everywhere and on late-night television."
The next 11 days were a swooning horror for everyone: fans, the PGA Tour, and especially Team Tiger and the Woods family. Paparazzi swarmed like piranha, descending upon anyone connected with the story, and tabloids outed one potential paramour after another with ruthless efficiency. Women materialized out of nowhere. First Kalika Moquin, another event planner, this time from Vegas was named, although her meetings with Woods may or may not have been romantic. Then came Jamie Jungers, first described as a model, but fingered by an infamous madam as a prostitute. Other alleged lovers were lining up to tell their stories and put out their hands for alleged paydays for telling their stories, or allegedly from Team Tiger to keep silent.
On Sunday December 6th came one of the worst revelations: Back in 2007, Tiger not only had sex with Perkins restaurant waitress Mindy Lawton, but they were photographed in a church parking lot, and the Woods camp traded a "Men's Fitness" interview and photo spread in exchange for silence about the incident.
The golf world groaned under the collective weight of the story. As the week progressed, two porn stars and a nude Penthouse Club dancer were added to the growing list of alleged lovers. At one point, Woods's mother-in-law collapsed and was rushed to the hospital at 2:30 a.m., almost the exact same time when, a week earlier, Tiger crashed his Escalade. At another, Jesper Parnevik, the man responsible for bringing Elin and Tiger together, lambasted Woods. "We probably thought he was a better guy than he is . . . I would probably need to apologize to her and hope she uses a driver next time instead of a 3-iron."
Finally, with Woods silent throughout, his image in tatters and rumors that nude photos or videos could be next, the whispers among the golf writers slowly began to appear in print: maybe the Tour needed to suspend Tiger for conduct unbecoming a professional. Hank Gola of the New York Daily News summed it up best: "As the most revered athlete of his generation, Woods has been toppled from his pedestal like Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad. He's become a laughingstock, lampooned on 'SNL' and the subject of a new Internet gag every day."
Finally, after Jungers went on the Today Show and bared everything except herself, Woods announced on December 11th that he will be taking significant time off away from golf to be with his family. With the subsequent announcements that AT&T and Gillette are either dropping their ad campaigns or exploring their options, for now there is nothing left of Tiger's life except flotsam and jetsam.
Some speculate that the PGA Tour will suffer tremendously. One fan wrote to me, "I continue to be floored by the surreal nature of this story. Tim Finchem and the Tour fathers had their opportunity to bring other players into the public eye when Tiger was injured, and they didn't succeed. Now it's anybody's guess whether professional golf will ever return to the halcyon Tiger days."
I don't agree. When I covered the 2008 PGA Championship at Oakland Hills, which Tiger missed recovering from knee surgery, the sentiment among young and old, journalists and fans, casual fans and ardent golfers alike ran wild throughout Oakland Hills: "No Tiger? No problem!"
Impossible? Unthinkable? Blasphemy? Guess again. Although Woods was undoubtedly the Tour's rock star and top draw there are plenty of fascinating stories, plenty of sublimely talented players, and plenty of great role models for our golf heroes come Sundays, and the fans have spoken: We want to see more of them.
There's much that the PGA and golf in general can be proud of and market. Both the Tour and the networks do the game a disservice by making the game about one man. Yes, Woods brings in a little more money. But the PGA Tour was flush with cash long before Woods. And with careful, thoughtful stewardship, the money will continue to roll in after Woods sails off into the sunset in a yacht called "Privacy."
When that happens, golf will not die, linger on life support or even lose stature simply because one great player hangs up his spikes. It survived the retirement of Harry Vardon, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus and every other golfer in recorded history. At the end of the day, Woods is just a man, but golf is an institution.
Golf was great for centuries before Earl Woods ever met Kutilda, and golf will be golf long after Sam Alexis retires from the LPGA. With great people like Phil Mickelson, Ben Curtis, Jim Furyk, Justin Rose and Zach Johnson, with young guns blazing away fearlessly like Aaron Baddeley and Bubba Watson, with colorful, affable quote machines like Boo Weekley and Anthony Kim, and with gritty, bold champions like Padraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia, you know what?
Golf will be just fine. In fact, it'll be as great as it ever was, which is more than Tiger Woods will be for the immediate future.
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.