Public pressure mounts to crack Tiger Woods' wall of privacy

It was a small crash.

Single vehicle, in the dark of night. A fire hydrant, a tree and a golfer injured.

Correction. The Golfer.

And when you're The Golfer, no crash is small, especially when it's near your driveway, in the dark of night, and, when paramedics arrive, your wife is hovering over your unconscious body after reportedly smashing out the back windows of your Cadillac Escalade with a golf club.

Oh, and last week the National Enquirer reported you were having an affair with a former New York nightclub hostess.

Few people doubt there is more to the story of how Tiger Woods ended up lying on the ground outside his Isleworth home at 2:25 a.m. with facial cuts and bruising. Was Woods' wife swinging that club to save her injured husband, or trying to injure a husband who'd been caught swinging?

Woods, 33, isn't talking, beyond issuing a statement in which he calls the incident "embarrassing" and admits fault. He has declined for three days to talk to the Florida Highway Patrol troopers investigating the crash, and on Monday, as the pressure from the media intensified, he retreated further into his carefully crafted shell of privacy. Woods announced he would not participate in his own golf tournament starting later this week.

But given that no one was killed last week and property damage was minimal ($600 to repair the hydrant, for which Woods will be billed), what is Woods really obligated to say?

Legally, the answer is simple: nothing. In the case of a single vehicle accident, Florida law requires the driver to submit his license, registration and proof of insurance.

On Sunday, Woods complied.

And if you listen to a defense attorney or two, you'll hear resounding endorsement of that very course of action.

"He can nip it in the bud right now by saying nothing and letting police reach a dead end," said Tampa defense attorney Ty Trayner, who recently represented hit-and-run defendant Jordan Valdez, a public no-commenter in her own right.

But what that legal equation fails to account for is a media appetite that grows stronger with every unanswered question.

"This isn't the court of law, this is the court of public opinion," said Mike Paul, president of MGP Associates in New York, who likes to call himself the "reputation doctor" on his blog.

Woods signed a contract to become a professional athlete. In doing so, Paul said, he agreed to allow society access to his life.

"You don't have the choice of turning it on or off when you want to," Paul said.

Woods, he said, needs to talk.

And soon.

Don't hold your breath. Woods made his public debut at 2, but with the exception of a few dirty jokes he told in front of a journalist when he was 21, Woods has managed to guard his personal life within a carefully scripted public image. This is a man, after all, who named his 155-foot yacht Privacy.

FHP spokeswoman Sgt. Kim Montes said that the agency isn't commenting on the specifics of the investigation or why they are continuing to press forward, other than to say it is an effort to conduct "a complete and unbiased investigation into the crash."

But David Brill, a retired FHP traffic homicide investigator who trains law enforcement how to investigate crashes, said that more than likely the troopers are trying to find a way to place Woods behind the wheel of the car for the purpose of any citations or criminal charges.

The information they did receive from him — driver's license, insurance and registration — serves only an administrative purpose and can't be used as proof he was driving. A statement to troopers could help establish that, though it isn't necessary in a single car crash, according to Florida law.

"What they're trying to do," Brill said, "is to get out of this without the suggestion that they're showing favoritism."

What Woods does now is not only about him. As a near-billionaire, according to Forbes.com, he holds some of the most celebrated endorsement contracts — Nike Golf, Gillette, AT&T and Gatorade all use his name and squeaky clean image to peddle their brands.

Paul said that Woods needs to take into account the fact that everyone around him has a reputation to protect — from the troopers investigating the crash to the PGA itself.

Paul's office counted 3,200 news stories on Woods' crash the first day, 5,100 by the second day, and more than 8,700 as of midday Monday.

And he said he expects more until Woods shares his side of the story. It might sound like a contradiction, but Woods has to tell a potentially embarrassing story to preserve public respect, Paul said. If he doesn't do it, someone else certainly will.

For now, sports marketing professor T. Bettina Cornwell of the University of Michigan, said she believes Woods' corporate sponsors are playing wait-and-see before questioning whether the golfer's image has been damaged enough to harm their sales.

"People are people," she said, "and the blogosphere is certainly supportive of him."

Asked if the media is going too far demanding answers to what happened at the Woods' mansion last week, media ethicist Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, said that journalists have an obligation to inquire. (The Poynter Institute owns the St. Petersburg Times.)

And while the story has legitimate purpose, especially when so much journalism about Woods has been about how great he is, journalists need to recognize the sensational nature of the story as well. "I think you're kidding yourself," she said, "if you don't see that one of the reasons this story is so interesting is that it seems like it's a window into the life of someone whose life seemed so perfect on the outside."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report, which used information from the Orlando Sentinel. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

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Public pressure mounts to crack Tiger Woods' wall of privacy 11/30/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 1, 2009 8:59am]

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