Since bursting on the scene more than a decade ago as the most exciting golfer alive and living up to his promise as the most dominating athlete in professional sports, Eldrick (Tiger) Woods has been in the spotlight precisely because he seems unlike anyone else.
Where others stumble, he rises to the occasion. No putt is too difficult, no pressure too intense. More than a 14-time major champion, he's appointment television; consistently delivering a lasting memory out of the sporting moment; the ultimate star of the original reality show.
But this past week, reality has bitten back with the news of his single-car collision outside his Florida mansion. Yesterday, Woods announced - citing injuries - that he was going to pull out of his own tournament, the Chevron World Challenge, a limited field invitational started by his late father and the proceeds of which are directed to Woods's charitable foundation.
And now the 33-year-old star is fodder for jokes (what's the difference between Tiger Woods's wedge game and his driving? Woods can back up a wedge shot) and tabloid speculation in the wake of his stranger-by-the-minute accident in the wee hours of Friday morning, well, suggests Woods is afraid of his wife.
That's the picture emerging thanks to the largely uncorroborated Internet reports over the past few days have elevated an odd traffic accident - Woods's Cadillac SUV knocked over a fire hydrant and a neighbour's tree in a low-speed, single-car accident after 2 a.m. Friday morning - into a full-fledged celebrity scandal the likes of which the comfy world of golf has never seen.
Woods has remained silent in the ensuing maelstrom save for some carefully worded statements on his website requesting privacy. He's refused to talk with the Florida Highway Patrol on three occasions.
But the more interesting details came from other sources: Woods was barefoot (driving a car barefoot is against the law in Florida) and wearing shorts and a T-shirt with a bloody lower lip and laying unconscious in front of his house when police arrived, according to an unidentified sourced quoted by TMZ.com; he and his wife were fighting before the incident; he was on prescription pain medication at the time for an undisclosed injury.
And this one, again from TMZ, that Woods told a friend he was in the market for a "Kobe Special" - a reference to the eight-carat, $4-million ring Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant bought for his wife after he was ensnared in a sexual-assault scandal with a female hotel worker in Colorado in 2005.
The speculation is a nightmare for Woods, who has zealously guarded his privacy since his early days on Tour. One of his first and rare public missteps was a feature story in GQ Magazine where he was quoted making off-colour jokes. Once burned, he has controlled his public image since, cutting those who don't support his quest out of his inner circle. His wife, Elin Nordegren, has been even more low profile. One of the few public glimpses of their relationship was after Woods won the 2006 British Open and collapsed into her arms in tears, still grieving the death of his father earlier that summer.
But putting off the police is not like brushing aside pesky reporters. The FHP are seeking a search warrant on Woods's home, the irony being the extensive security cameras around the property Woods relies on to keep the world at bay might invite a level of scrutiny he never dreamed of. They're looking for any evidence that might corroborate the limited version of events - Woods was injured in a minor car crash and his wife was wielding a golf club to rescue him - or which might give weight to the more racy accounts circulating: Nordegren; his elfin Swedish bride and mother of his two young children, attacked him in a jealous rage over the tabloid tales of his infidelity; chased him out of the house in the middle of the night beating his car all the while with a golf club, causing his distraction and the accident.
But it's not as though he hasn't seen moments likes these play out before. Two of his closest friends and mentors are NBA stars Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, who have weathered fallout from their "boys will be boys" drinking, gambling, womanizing - and yes golfing - ways reasonably well, though not without cost.
Jordan - one of the only athletes in Woods's league as a celebrity endorser - had to pay a $168-million divorce settlement in 2007; Barkley, more famous in retirement as a broadcaster than he was in his playing days, was arrested for drunk driving earlier this year explaining to the arresting officer he was in a rush to get oral sex from a new friend, which earned him points for honesty but didn't save him a conviction.
How long Woods's silence can or will last is an interesting question. Legal experts were speculating that by keeping the police at bay he can allow his injuries to heal, robbing authorities of the evidence they would require to charge his wife with domestic assault. Even his fans were growing impatient with his vague answers, at least based on the comments on his website.
"I am one of your biggest fans," read one posted yesterday. "I hope you will face up to the situation and tell us what happened, we will forgive you. You are human like the [rest]of us and can make a mistake. I feel your great image will be tainted the longer you wait to explain what happened."
Or another: "It's always the lie that escalates the problem. Get the truth out NOW and life will be better."
Bill Paul has likely dealt with Woods as much any Canadian in the golf industry. As the tournament director of the Canadian Open it's his job to recruit Woods, because the mere presence of the luminous star means a flood of money and prestige for all concerned. And while Paul has had to field his share of esoteric requests in order to entice other golfers to grace his event, in his experience Woods is just your regular budding billionaire next door.
When Woods won the Open in 2000 at Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, he stayed at the Mississauga Holiday Inn adjacent to the QEW highway and dined at a local Boston Pizza.
"The guy I've known and dealt with in groups and in one-on-one situations is just like one of us," Paul said. "He might come across as guarded publicly, but he's not like that at all when I talk to him. He likes to talk sports, football, whatever the news of the day is. He'll ask me how my boys are doing. People have him on a pedestal, but to me he's always enjoyed being one of the guys."
And like, regular guys who enjoy a bit of golf and talking sports with their buddies, Tigers Woods is likely no better trying to explain his indiscretions to an angry spouse in the wee hours of the morning than anyone of them.