Tiger Woods is widely considered one of the best golfers of all-time and undoubtedly the most dominant of the last 40 years. As an astonishingly successful and personable star, who is of Black, American Indian and Asian descent, he was also the greatest ambassador the historically white game of golf had ever known… until a scandal in 2009 forever shattered his golden boy image.
A child prodigy who appeared on national TV at 2 years old to show off his prowess, Woods won the most prestigious junior championships, dominated college golf and turned pro in 1996 when he was just 20 years old. The first 13 years of his career were marked by unparalleled success. Woods won 70 PGA tournaments, including 14 major championships, and spent a record amount of time ranked as the world’s No. 1 golfer. He signed endorsement deals with some of the world’s biggest brands, including one with Nike that was the largest in pro sports history at the time.
Woods’ personal life seemed just as enviable, with a loving wife and two small children living in a massive Florida mansion. It all made for a public image that was closer to infallible demigod than professional athlete, which in turn made the events of November 27, 2009, and the subsequent revelations so shocking to the public.
Woods' crashed his SUV, which became the catalyst of intense public and tabloid fascination
There had been reports in the National Enquirer days earlier that Woods had engaged in an affair with a New York nightclub manager, but tabloid headlines about his troubles really took off when he pulled out of the driveway of his Orlando-area home at 2:30 in the morning of November 27. He steered his 2009 Escalade into hedges and a tree in a neighbor’s yard before crashing into a fire hydrant, dealing serious damage to the front of the SUV.
The collision was loud enough to wake up his wife, Elin Nordegren, who came running out of the house. She broke the back window of the SUV with a golf club, dragged her husband into the street, then sat with him as he drifted in and out of consciousness, mouth bloodied, wrapped in blankets provided by neighbors. One of those neighbors, Jarius Adams, called 911 at Nordegren’s request. The Florida Highway Patrol reached the house in about 10 minutes.
“He was mumbling, but didn't say anything coherent,” Windermere police chief Daniel Saylor told the Associated Press at the time.
There was no alcohol involved in the crash, but Woods had taken prescription Vicodin painkillers earlier that night, as Nordegren told the police. His injuries were described as serious in the police report, which also noted that he had been unconscious for about six minutes after the crash.
Woods was ultimately issued a citation for careless driving and fined $164. That would be the very least of his problems.
The press soon descended on the scene, smelling blood both literal and metaphorical. On November 29, Woods addressed the matter for the first time by evading the issue with a vague personal statement on his website.
“This is a private matter and I want to keep it that way,” the statement read. “Although I understand there is curiosity, the many false, unfounded and malicious rumors that are currently circulating about my family and me are irresponsible. The only person responsible for the accident is me. My wife, Elin, acted courageously when she saw I was hurt and in trouble. She was the first person to help me. Any other assertion is absolutely false.”
New affair allegations began making headlines around the world
The statement wound up having the opposite effect, largely because on the same day that he released it, Us Weekly published a report suggesting that Woods had an affair with another woman. That brought the affair allegations at that point to two: Rachel Uchitel, the nightclub manager identified by the National Enquirer, and Jaimee Grubbs, the subject of the Us Weekly story.
Uchitel initially denied the Enquirer report, but the Us Weekly story came with a message on Grubbs’ voicemail that was allegedly left by the golfer. Grubbs, who was 24 at the time, said that they’d had a 31-month affair and that Woods was desperately trying to scrub any evidence of it.
“Hey, it's Tiger," a man said in the voicemail message. "I need you to do me a huge favor. Can you please take your name off your phone? My wife went through my phone and may be calling you.”
Grubbs did just about the opposite of that — over the next few months, she would reveal reams of dirty text messages she allegedly exchanged with Woods. Her forthcomingness would inspire over half a dozen more women to come forward with tales of sexual trysts with the world’s most famous golfer. The details were splayed out across tabloid front pages around the world, the steamy stories from cocktail waitresses and models creating a portrait of a man who sought out illicit experiences during his time on the road.
A few days later, with news media swarming his home and helicopters flying overhead around the clock, Woods released another statement that vaguely alluded to all of the allegations.
"I have let my family down and I regret those transgressions with all of my heart. I have not been true to my values and the behavior my family deserves,” it read. "I am not without faults and I am far short of perfect. I am dealing with my behavior and personal failings behind closed doors with my family. Those feelings should be shared by us alone."
Woods went radio silent after that, even as the media ran with the story — the golden boy of golf, the most talented player the world had ever seen, the wealthy champion with the beautiful wife and perfect family seemed to be harboring an SUV’s worth of dark secrets, infidelities and lies.
And finally, after two weeks of waiting, Woods made another statement, again on his website. “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 wrote, finally admitting to some degree of cheating.
In February, he finally spoke to the press, at the PGA Tour’s headquarters in Florida. There, he was a bit more forthcoming and equally apologetic, offering a pre-written statement and then taking questions over the course of a 13-minute press conference.
“I was unfaithful, I had affairs and I cheated. What I did was unacceptable," he said. "I hurt my wife, my kids, my mother, my wife's family, my friends, my foundation and kids all around the world who admired me."
Woods also said he was in therapy and had done a lot of reflection over the few months that followed the crash and revelations.
“I knew my actions were wrong but I convinced myself that normal rules didn't apply. I never thought about who I was hurting, instead I thought only about myself,” he said. “I ran straight through the boundaries a married couple should live by.
“I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled, and thanks to money and fame, I didn't have to go far to find them.”
The aftermath included a very long road back to the top of the golf scene
He continued a sabbatical from golf in order to work on his marriage — and his image. He lost sponsorship deals with big guns like Accenture, AT&T, Gatorade and General Motors, though Nike stood by his side. Some of those sponsors would ultimately come back, but his marriage with Nordegren eventually fizzled, with a divorce announced in August 2010.
While Uchitel denied the reports of her affair at first, she’d later use it as a ticket to tabloid and cable TV-level fame. Years later, she revealed that she met Woods through Hall of Fame Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and parlayed the whole experience into a stint on Celebrity Rehab and several TV documentaries.
Woods’ hiatus from golf did not last long, with Woods returning to the links for the Masters in March 2010. He was never quite the same after the scandal, in part due to years of back troubles and multiple surgeries. He won his only major post-accident in 2019 when he earned another green jacket at the Masters. Afterward, President Donald Trump announced that he would be awarding Woods the Presidential Medal of Freedom.