Two weeks that shattered a legend
Tiger Woods had to be a happy man as he settled into a seat on his private jet for the long flight home from Australia. His successful comeback year was all but complete, and the rapturous reception he received Down Under was a pleasant reminder of his status as the most sought-after athlete in the world.
Not since the Beatles toured more than 40 years ago had the Aussies laid out such a welcome. Woods got a $3 million check just for showing up, the arrival of his jet was televised nationally, and fans jammed every fairway and green just to be able to say they saw him.
As he headed out, someone mentioned he had never seen such a frenzy at a tournament.
``I never have, either,'' Woods said.
Always in control, he teased them with a vague promise he would return. If he did, they could be sure it would be on his own terms, and they could be sure the price would go up.
The flight finally over, there was some time to recharge before capping the season with his own elite tournament in the hills north of Los Angeles. In between, Woods would fuel the jet for a quick trip to Stanford and induction in the school's athletic Hall of Fame.
He appeared on the sideline that night as honorary captain of the Big Game against California. For those lucky enough to be holding cameras, it was the perfect photo op of what seemed to be the perfect, blended All-American family.
The son of an African-American military man and Thai woman stood in his red Stanford sweat shirt, holding a red Cardinal hat in one arm and his 2-year-old daughter in another. His equally photogenic Swedish wife, Elin, stood next to him, wearing dark glasses with a scarf wrapped fashionably around her neck.
The day before, Woods had answered some questions for the 1.3 million followers of his Facebook page. The last one came from a fan named Rupert in Houston, who wondered how hard it was to leave his family and travel to tournaments.
``It's very difficult to leave Elin and the children, and I'm sure it's only going to get tougher,'' Woods replied.
Woods couldn't have known how tough things were going to get.
The first indication outside the Woods household that things might not be what they seemed came from the National Enquirer, which ran a story in its Thanksgiving week edition alleging that Woods was having an affair with a New York woman named Rachel Uchitel, who has denied it.
Inside the house, though, it might have been different. Another alleged mistress, Jaimee Grubbs, would later provide Us Weekly magazine a voice mail she said came from Woods two days before Thanksgiving, asking her do him a favor.
``Um, can you please, uh, take your name off your phone,'' said a man who identified himself as Tiger. ``My wife went through my phone and, uh, may be calling you.''
A few days later, people across the nation standing in lines to buy things on Black Friday heard some startling news: Woods had been seriously injured in a car accident outside his Florida home and was taken to a local hospital.
For many, shock turned to relief when word came later in the day that the accident and the injuries were minor and Woods was back home recuperating. But the questions were already starting to come.
Where was Woods going at 2:25 in the morning? How could he wreck his Cadillac Escalade so badly coming out of the driveway? Was it possible he could have been drunk or on drugs?
Then came the first bizarre revelation. The local police chief told The Associated Press that Elin had smashed in the back passenger windows of the Escalade with a golf club, ostensibly to help get her husband out.
The Florida Highway Patrol was curious to hear more. Inside the Woods mansion, though, they were already hunkering down.
Troopers went to the home the day of the accident, only to be told Woods was asleep. They arranged to come back the next day, only to be told he was too sore to talk. When they came back a third time, it was clear that no one would be saying anything. Not to authorities, certainly not to the media.
The silent strategy had always worked well for Woods whenever he didn't want to discuss other issues, whether it was women at Augusta National or his responsibilities to be a role model for young African-Americans. He had always controlled the message and, if he really wanted to make a point, it would be done in a clever Nike ad or from the safe confines of his Web site.
But this was different. This didn't just appeal to golf writers or the mainstream media.
The other tabloids geared up to find whatever dirt the National Enquirer didn't. Celebrity Web sites were suddenly filled with pictures of other women and tales which had never been told.
Helicopters hovered over his house in the gated community of Isleworth, looking for video of something that would sell. His mother was followed by paparazzi through an airport, and a small army of media fanned out looking for anything Tiger-related.
Woods wasn't giving them anything. He stayed out of public view, saying nothing even as rumors flew and speculation intensified about what he was doing when he drove wildly over a fire hydrant and into a tree. There were even more questions about what his wife was doing with the golf clubs.
His first public comments came the Sunday after the accident, and they weren't much, just a statement on his Web site saying the accident was his fault and asking that it remain ``a private matter.'' The next day he issued another short statement saying he was withdrawing from his own tournament, sparing himself the spectacle of facing media in Los Angeles who would be ready with questions about everything except golf.
Woods almost certainly hoped that would be the end of it. The events of Thanksgiving weekend may have been embarrassing - even a bit humiliating - but Uchitel was denying she had an affair with him, and authorities didn't seem all that interested in pursuing the backstory to the crash.
The next day, Florida state troopers dropped their probe, citing Woods for careless driving and fining him $164. That bit of good news was short-lived, however, as Grubbs, a Los Angeles cocktail waitress, told Us Weekly she had engaged in a 31-month affair with Woods and had the text messages and a voice mail to prove it.
Three hours after the voice mail appeared on the magazine's Web site, another statement was issued on Woods' Web site, under the almost comical headline ``Tiger comments on current events.''
This was a more contrite Woods, apologizing for the first time for unspecified ``transgressions'' and saying he had let his family down. But he still stubbornly sparred from a distance with the media encircling him, saying he had a right to privacy no matter how high profile of a life he led.
``The virtue of privacy is one that must be protected in matters that are intimate and within one's own family,'' Woods' statement read. ``Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn't have to mean public confessions.''
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 punch line to jokes flowing freely in offices everywhere and on late-night television.
His popularity ratings were plunging. Crisis management experts around the country crowded in front of news cameras urging him to stop hiding behind Web site statements and come clean to the public - and quick.
Still, there was no sight of Woods. The statements stopped, and he remained in seclusion.
His alleged lovers weren't so shy. Suddenly women began appearing seemingly everywhere on Web sites and magazines to claim they had affairs with Woods. Two became four, four began eight, and by some counts 10 or 12 or more.
Worse yet, they didn't mind sharing intimate details about the alleged encounters. Soon, anyone with a computer or iPhone was privy to what they claimed to know about Woods and what he liked to do behind closed doors.
Woods spent almost all his life keeping score on the golf course. Now people were keeping score on him.
Nothing, it seemed, could satisfy the insatiable appetite of the celebrity media to find out more about Woods, and their reports had no trouble finding an audience. Traffic to the biggest sites jumped 50 percent or more, and major portals weren't shy about further blurring the line between gossip and real news by blogging along details without necessarily checking out the source.
With good reason. Yahoo Inc. CEO Carol Bartz told an investor conference that the Woods story was ``better than Michael Jackson dying'' for bringing people to her site and helping the company sell enough extra advertising to boost profits.
The mayor of Las Vegas thought the same thing. With many of Woods' alleged lovers having links to the city and with Woods well known in Vegas casinos and nightclubs, Oscar Goodman said it would provide a boost to the local economy even if people no longer believed that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
Still, Woods remained in seclusion.
A police report released Monday in support of a Florida trooper who suspected Woods was driving under the influence merely upped the ante. The trooper had wanted Woods' blood test results, after a witness who wasn't identified in the report said Woods had been drinking alcohol earlier and had been prescribed two drugs, the sleep aid Ambien and the painkiller Vicodin.
The next day his mother-in-law was rushed to the hospital after collapsing in the bathroom. A frantic call from a woman who was either Elin or her twin sister was quickly released, complete with the sound of a child crying in the background.
None of it was funny, but that didn't stop the jokes. Every nighttime television host had his own, and what the professionals missed was filled in by amateur comedians.
An animation from Taiwan showing a very Asian-looking Woods crashing his car was an Internet hit, and a country-western song about him was released. Someone posted another Barry White-like song on YouTube, using the voice mail Woods allegedly left Grubbs with a backing chorus, and at Hollywood Park a horse named driveliketiger finished third in a race.
Though most of his fellow players expressed support for Woods and were careful about what they said, the player who introduced Woods to his wife wasn't as forgiving. Elin Nordegren worked as a nanny for Swedish golfer Jesper Parnevik when she and Woods first met, and Parnevik thought they would be a good match.
``I told her this is the guy that I think is everything you want. He's true. He's honest. He has great values. He has everything you would want in a guy,'' Parnevik said in an ESPN interview. ``And, uhh, I was wrong.''
Even his own management company piled on.
Barry Frank, IMG's executive vice president for media sports programming, was on a panel about college sports media, where all the panelists were asked what sports business story they would be following closely in the next year.
``How many girls Tiger was with,'' Frank said.
Exactly two weeks after the accident, another statement was posted on Woods' Web site.
For the first time Woods admitted he had been unfaithful. ``I am deeply aware of the disappointment and hurt that my infidelity has caused to so many people, most of all my wife and children,'' he said.
He asked for forgiveness, and said he didn't know if it would ever be possible to repair the damage he caused.
Then he announced what would have been unthinkable only days earlier: He was taking an indefinite break from golf to try to mend his fractured family life.
Before the crash and before the women started coming forward, Woods was staring at 2010 with great anticipation. He was playing perhaps better than ever, and three of the four major golf championships were at courses where he had won majors by runaway margins in previous years.
Now there's a possibility he could miss the Masters for the first time in 14 years. He might not play in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where he won by a record 15 strokes in 2000.
No one knows when he will return, and whether he can retain the famous focus that had made him arguably the greatest golfer ever. The state of his marriage is also anyone's guess, and there has been no shortage of speculation about the future of the Woods household.
In just a matter of days an empire and a legend came crashing down in ways no one would have imagined. The perfect firestorm enveloped Woods and, for once in his life, he had no way of controlling what was happening around him.
The fall from grace has been both sudden and spectacular. At the peak of power just last month, he now faces an uncertain future that can't be changed with some clever marketing campaign.
This wasn't just another case of an athlete gone bad. Woods was the 2-year-old hitting golf balls on the Mike Douglas show, the teenager who won three straight U.S. Amateurs, and the first African-American to win the Masters.
He was the talent so great that Nike introduced him as a professional with an advertising blitz behind the tagline ``Hello World,'' and the figure so imposing that his late father, Earl, predicted he would not only become greater than athletes such as Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson, but one of the greatest figures in world history.
``He's qualified through his ethnicity to accomplish miracles. He's the bridge between the East and the West,'' Earl Woods said in 1996. There is no limit because he has the guidance. I don't know yet exactly what form this will take. But he is the Chosen One.''
Woods may not have accomplished miracles, but he did some miraculous things on the golf course. His legend grew with every win as he closed in on the records of Jack Nicklaus, and even a knee injury that cost him the last half of 2008 couldn't stop his march to greatness.
His family life seemed as perfect as his golf. He married the beautiful Elin five years ago, they honeymooned on his yacht ``Privacy'' and soon started a family that includes two young children.
Even those who didn't appreciate his play on the course admired him as a man, above the scandalous behavior of so many sports superstars these days.
Now, no one will ever look at him the same way again.