Tiger Woods has been in seclusion since his unexplained traffic accident…
As the carefully constructed public image of Tiger Woods continued its excruciating free fall last week, one question perplexed those who think there should have been hints of trouble: How was it possible for Woods, among the world's most scrutinized professional athletes, to keep his infidelity secret for so long?
Just about everyone is at a loss: the golf writers who banter with Woods (when he allows it), golf fanatics who can tell you which way his golf ball's Nike logo was facing when Woods chipped it into the 16th hole in the final round of the 2005 Masters, paparazzi whose paid informants can sniff out a straying spouse a mile away.
How was Woods, 33, able to maintain a pristine image as a loving husband, father and son that was apparently at raging odds with his private life?
Some say Woods' famously controlling nature allowed him to philander unsuspected. (On Friday he admitted publicly that he had cheated on his wife.) Some wonder whether intimidated golf reporters never pressed Woods because they did not want to risk losing the little access they had to the sport's premier practitioner. Some believe that fellow players, had they suspected, would have kept mum because of Woods' beneficial effect on TV ratings, their earnings and public interest in golf.
Others think the singular nature of professional golf itself made it possible for Woods to create a nearly impenetrable zone of privacy -- or secrecy.
"I wish I had some brilliant theory, because that's been the big question to me," said sportswriter John Feinstein, author of the bestselling 1995 book "A Good Walk Spoiled." Woods is so reluctant to reveal personal information, said Feinstein, that the writer considered it a triumph when he coaxed out of Woods the relatively trivial fact that he was a registered independent. Still, Feinstein believes that Woods' inner circle must have known he was straying.
"I can't see how his agent or caddie could not have known," said Feinstein. "It's his agent's job to know what the heck the guy was doing. If he didn't know, he should be fired." (Woods' agent, Mark Steinberg, has only communicated with the media by e-mail and has never addressed whether he knew about his client's transgressions.)
Not a team sport
Unlike other professional athletes, who travel with teammates, golfers can insulate themselves from prying eyes if they choose. Like other high-end golfers, Woods usually travels by private jet. When he takes a car anywhere, he usually drives himself. The lack of privacy common to team sports isn't an issue.
"There are guys on the tour who have never met one another because they play at different times of the day," said Feinstein. In 2007, he watched Nick Watney, who had just won his first PGA Tour tournament, gingerly approach Woods to introduce himself.
The night before the 2003 British Open, said Feinstein, Ben Curtis introduced himself to fellow pro Mike Weir. "So what brings you here?" Weir asked Curtis, who went on to win the tournament.
"The top players often stay in rented homes, and many even bring their own chefs to events, so there are fewer and fewer instances where, say, even at a major tournament, we'd run into them in town or at a restaurant as we once did," said Jeff Babineau, editor of the Orlando-based Golfweek magazine. "Compare this to earlier eras when writers might dine or have a beer with Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus on the eve of rounds at major tournaments."
Babineau's office is about 10 minutes from Woods' home in Isleworth, a private golf community in Orlando where other sports stars and celebrities live. But even before Woods' domestic troubles became known, he was rarely seen around town. "He's left alone," Babineau said.
'Did I miss this?'
Doug Ferguson, an Associated Press reporter who has covered professional golf for 13 years, is among the few beat writers with whom Woods feels comfortable enough to chat. Ferguson never suspected the golfer was leading a secret life.
"You are thinking, 'Did I miss this?' But the truth is, I can't think of a time I saw Tiger outside of a tournament, except a corporate thing he did in 2007 at Oakmont" -- a Pennsylvania country club -- "and a couple of his clinics," said Ferguson. "I don't know many people who saw him outside the golf course."
Even the access that Ferguson has had to Woods, he said, never amounted to much in the way of news. "I keep reading that the press had to be nice to him or they would lose the interview, which is funny, because what interview? There was nothing to lose there. I have built up a comfort zone with him, but most of it was clubhouse, locker room, meaningless BS stuff."