When Tiger Woods got in the car just before 2:25 a.m. Friday, he didn’t just crash into a fire hydrant. He had a head-on collision with another object: the invisible bowels of the bad-publicity machine, which in more than a 13 years of professional golf, he’d been able to avoid.
As a college athlete in the mid-to-late 1990s, my circle overlapped with Woods’ from time to time, and I can attest that there are plenty of stories about a slightly awkward Stanford golf prodigy that could be filed under “typical college kid behavior,” or twisted into tabloid fodder.
As a fledgling journalist at Golf World magazine in the early 2000s, I can attest to the similar stories of the youngest golfer to achieve a career grand slam behaving in a way that might have looked bad on paper.
But these stories never really materialized. Thrown clubs and the errant F-bombs were chalked up to pressures of the sport and apologies followed. So why has an accident in the driveway turned into a full-blown train wreck? Because much like a guy named David Letterman, up until now Woods’ public life and private persona have had few intersections, and the former has been for the most part, unimpeachable.
And when that’s the case, we tend to want to believe the best in our celebrities. In the early iterations of crash-gate, there were facts that allowed us to do so. Instead of focusing on why Woods was leaving his house at 2:25 a.m., we focused on his wife of five years, Elin Nordegren, extracting him from the car with a 7-iron.
Only later did the question arise of whether she might have also chased him out of the house with it. And when the Woods camp made a statement about his “minor accident,” we focused on the fact that it stated Woods was in good condition.
It’s nicer to think his putting game wouldn’t be affected than to wonder why it took the Woods team 13 hours to come up with it, or it was a coincidence the crash happened just days after the National Enquirer alleged Woods was having an affair.
Which brings us to the woman at the center of that story, Rachel Uchitel. She didn’t waste as much time as the Woods camp did in getting a statement out, relatively speaking. Of the Enquirer story, she told the AP, “I resent my reputation is getting completely blasted in the media ... Everyone is assuming I came out and said this. This is not a story I have anything to do with."
Which, is not exactly the same as saying the story is not true.
(If it is, it will likely be left to Woods to spell that out: In a June 2008 interview for Blackbook.com, Uchitel — described as a “VIP Diva” — said “Although I’ve been romantically linked to a famous baseball player, a Broadway star, a musician, and various film and television actors, I will never kiss and tell!”)
A car crash involving one of the best golfers the world has ever seen would be noteworthy whether it was Woods or Tommy Jones. And my advice for either would be the same: speak now, or forever hold your peace. And get back out on the course as soon as possible. Your talent might be the only thing that has the ability to handicap the tabloid machine.