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A decade ago in the Southern California winter, Earl Woods sat in a suite at the La Costa Resort and Spa, speaking of fatherhood and death and the 24-year-old son he had raised, he was sure, better than any other man could have. "Tiger has never been punished," Earl said. "Never been disciplined. Never had a babysitter."
The windows were closed, the lights off. An endless curl of cigarette smoke drifted to the ceiling, and Earl hit full legend-building mode as evening fell. It came as no surprise, really, when he mentioned how his boy couldn't stomach even a hint of falsehood.
"Tiger gets physically ill when he's not telling the truth," Earl said. "He can't sleep, can't eat, his whole body chemistry is upset. I told him: In order for your life to work, you must come from truth—at inner core. One of his pillars of strength is his integrity."
At the time this seemed cartoonish, more apocrypha to fuel Earl's idea of Tiger as social messiah. But Tiger, too, often brought up the notion. "My father has always taught me to come from truth and just trust yourself," he said then. "You'll make the right decisions if you come from truth." He sounded so grounded, so sure, as if volleying the words with Pop were enough to make them real.
That voice is gone now, its odd mix of arrogance and naiveté replaced, over the last four months, by hesitancy, weariness, a self-loathing so fluent it borders on glib. Tiger Woods returns to golf this week a transformed figure, one quickly growing used to flagellating himself in public. In the two hyperorchestrated, five-minute TV interviews Woods gave on March 21 to soften up the world for his comeback at the Masters, he described his infamous series of adulterous trysts as "disgusting behavior ... horrific ... to stare at yourself and look at the person you've become, you become disgusted.... I was living a life of a lie."
Woods didn't let up on Monday at Augusta, either. In his first open Q and A since the Thanksgiving car crash outside his home at the Isleworth development in Florida touched off lingering questions—about his prescription-drug use and impaired driving; possible domestic violence by his wife of five years, Elin; his kid-glove treatment by law enforcement; and the glaring inconsistencies in a subsequent investigation—Woods peppered the 30-minute parry and thrust with the media with enough vaguely brutal self-criticism to satisfy a Maoist show trial.
"All I know is I acted just terribly, poorly, made incredibly bad decisions, and decisions that have hurt so many people close to me," Woods said. "That's enough."
Still, most of it came from a cool, almost clinical remove, insulated by therapy-speak about "denial and rationalization." For anyone wondering what the days surrounding the crash had been like for Woods—how he'd responded as his car and life veered out of control—the truth was lost. Woods and his handlers want it lost, and in his flat affect and repeated stonewalls Woods has shown how intent he is on locking that night and its messiness into some untouchable box.
But the story remains messy. The Woods camp has left details unconfirmed, undenied, dangling in a hurricane of tabloid assertions and leaked text messages and e-mails linking the world's No. 1 golfer to more than a dozen waitresses, party girls and porn actresses. Woods has admitted his involvement in unspecified affairs, admitted to undergoing unspecified therapy, but he has never admitted that as his marriage began to unravel, he became in private what he had never been in public: desperate, unnerved, trapped by his own—often electronic—devices.
Each celebrity scandal has its tipping point at which a famous person loses all credibility. For Woods it came five days after the crash, when a magazine website released a precrash recording of a quavery voice mail left for the perfectly named Jaimee Grubbs. "Hey, it's Tiger. I need you to do me a huge favor," said the voice, a bit rushed, but still bearing that nasally suburban tone that always left Woods—despite 20 pounds of weight-room padding, 14 major titles and a near-billion-dollar net worth—sounding one pocket protector away from geekdom.