PARIS – In 2004, while golfing in Ireland, Tiger Woods found himself fielding questions from reporters more interested in his private life than his swing. They wanted to know if it was true that he was about to wed his fiancee, Swedish model Elin Nordegren.
Woods, just as he is now, hit those nosey folks into the rough.
"You guys would be the last people I'd ever tell," he said.
Good for him.
Woods has long made it abundantly clear that much of what he does off the golf course is nobody's business but his own. Regardless of how curious we may be about the mysterious circumstances surrounding his car crash last Friday, there's no reason that he should bare all in public now.
If Woods and Nordegren had promoted themselves as a model of marital bliss and made their fortune selling "10 Hints for a Happy Home" self-help guides, then we could legitimately claim an interest in knowing whether their marriage has hit the rocks and whether a husband-wife squabble prompted Woods to flee in his car at 2:25 in the morning.
But since Mr. and Mrs. Woods have always taken pains to largely keep themselves to themselves, they owe us nothing, not a peep.
Saying, as Woods has, that his accident "is a private matter and I want to keep it that way" may be unwise, because it invites the storm of guesswork, media digging and questions he is now facing. But silence most certainly is his right.
If Woods was motoring off for a late-night rendezvous with a steroid dealer, which no one is even remotely suggesting, then sports enthusiasts would be entitled to know that the world's No. 1 golfer is a fraud. But if Woods was simply unable to sleep, was still jet-lagged from his trip to China and Australia two weeks beforehand, had a hankering for a hamburger, had a bust-up, or whatever it was, there is no rule that says he has to explain himself publicly if no laws were broken.
"This situation is my fault, and it's obviously embarrassing to my family and me," he says. But he is not obliged to tell us why.
One of the more absurd arguments often made about the rich and famous is that being in the public eye also makes them public property. That spurious reasoning is especially applied to celebrities like Woods who make mountains of money from endorsements. In selling their name and image to advertisers, this line of thinking goes, they've sold out and that makes them ours.
Wrong. Purchasing a razor, drink or sportswear endorsed by Woods doesn't buy you a piece of the man, too. That Woods is on his way to becoming or has already become the first athlete to top $1 billion in earnings says plenty about how easily led consumers are. But it doesn't entitle them to know everything that Woods does behind closed doors.
Image consultants argue that if Woods' personal life is in turmoil, then it would be best that he come clean. Do a David Letterman.
But there are crucial differences between Woods and the talk-show host, who confessed on his show that he had had sexual relationships with women who worked with him.
First, Letterman has made a career of mocking politicians mercilessly, often for their sexual transgressions, so the television-watching public had a right to know that he is as equally weak as those he pokes fun at.
Also, Letterman said that someone tried to extort $2 million from him over the affairs. So his hand was forced. What worked for Letterman wouldn't necessarily work for Woods.
"It really boils down to what you want, what is best for you," says veteran British PR guru Max Clifford.
And then there's the issue of what this whole saga says about us, the gossip-gobbling public.
If we're honest, we'll admit that we want Woods to talk not because we think it will do him good but because we get a kick from seeing celebrities brought down a peg or two — down to our level, warts and all.
Ha! They may be rich, but they too have cellulite, affairs, divorces — they are no better than you or me, we think. It makes us feel better about ourselves knowing that no one, not even Woods, is an exception to the rule that all humans have flaws. Often, we don't even care whether the gossip columns are true, as long as they are titillating and make a train ride or a wait in the doctor's office pass more quickly.
So forgive Woods for not wanting to feed this unhealthy curiosity.