Tiger saga spiraled out of control

Nearly three months after the car accident outside his Florida home, Tiger Woods finally spoke to the public but took no questions. AP Photo/Lori Moffett

From a fire hydrant to a firestorm, from fame to infamy.

It is that simple, yet so much more complex for Tiger Woods, who will return to competitive golf at the year's first major, the Masters, in early April.

And it all started with a relatively harmless accident, a one-car crash in a gated community that would otherwise have been unremarkable had it not involved the world's No. 1 golfer and the ensuing avalanche of negative publicity.

There was a trip to the hospital, erroneous reports that Woods had been seriously injured, and rampant speculation about the role of his wife, Elin, in the early morning hours of the Nov. 27 incident in which Woods struck a fire hydrant near his Isleworth driveway. The incident produced more media scrutiny than 14 major championships and 71 PGA Tour victories could have ever garnered.

Woods was issued a $164 ticket by the Florida Highway Patrol, and questions swirled about the FHP's investigation, including how the law enforcement agency tried to get Woods' medical records from the night in question. Woods also withdrew from the Chevron World Challenge, a tournament in Southern California that benefits his foundation.

Meanwhile, tabloid reports about extramarital affairs began to surface, and although many of them have never been confirmed, Woods nonetheless admitted to "transgressions" in a Dec. 2 statement that turned the golf world on its axis.

"I really feel sorry for Elin -- since me and my wife were at fault for hooking her up with him," said Swedish PGA Tour player Jesper Parnevik, who employed Elin as a nanny before she met Woods. "We probably thought he was a better guy than he is. I would probably need to apologize to her and hope she uses a driver next time instead of the 3-iron."

Parnevik's pointed reference was to the widespread speculation that Elin injured her husband with a golf club after allegedly learning of his extramarital affairs on Thanksgiving. Woods later vehemently denied those charges when he finally spoke for the first time on Feb. 19 at PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

Nonetheless, it was becoming clear that Woods' exemplary record between the ropes -- including being named the Associated Press' athlete of the decade in December -- did not extend to his personal life. His own tournament, with his likeness plastered everywhere, went on without him, the circumstances serving as a dark cloud over the event and the game.

"I'd like to see him come on TV and just pour it out a little bit and show what's happened," said PGA Tour player Steve Stricker, one of Woods' friends. "I don't know if that'll ever happen. But people forget, and if he just does the right things from here on out, people will forgive him and move on and forget hopefully."

But Woods did not come on TV. Not for a long time. A little more than a week later, on a Friday night, he issued a more detailed statement in which he would be taking an "indefinite" break from the game to deal with his family issues and for the first time referenced "infidelity."

The game was now suddenly without its No. 1 attraction, with no hint as to his whereabouts, what he was doing or when he would return.

"I'm a big fan of his, a friend of his, and I miss him," Mark Calcavecchia said. "I love watching him play like everyone else. The good news for the rest of us is, it's going to be a lot easier to win tournaments without Tiger playing. But we need him out here. What he's done for our tour and golf over the last 13 year is unparalleled, really. Whenever he comes back, hopefully it's smooth sailing and he'll be better than ever."

It has hardly been smooth.

As Woods went into hiding, various companies with which he had multimillion-dollar endorsement deals either dropped him or distanced themselves from the embattled golfer.

Among those firms to move away from having Woods endorse their products were Accenture, AT&T and Gatorade. Those three companies combined to pay him some $33 million a year. Woods reportedly made a total of $100 million annually in off-course endorsement income.

On the flip side, Nike and Electronic Arts have come out to say they are standing by Woods, and EA continues plans to use Woods as the face of its golf video games.

In December, The New York Times reported that a Canadian doctor who had treated Woods and several others was under investigation in the United States because he was suspected of providing performance-enhancing drugs to athletes.

The Times reported that Woods had plasma therapy at Galea's direction -- a legal procedure under the PGA Tour's anti-doping guidelines. The fact that Galea was linked to PEDs raised concern about whether Woods had been involved in such activity.

In one of his few public comments since the scandal unfolded, Woods' agent at International Management Group, Mark Steinberg, said, "The treatment Tiger received is a widely accepted therapy, and to suggest some connection with illegality is recklessly irresponsible."

In his Feb. 19 statement, Woods denied using performance-enhancing drugs.

Things quieted down after the first of the year with knowledge that Woods would be away from golf for some time, although the topic of whether Elin would file for divorce became a near-daily source of tabloid fodder.

The Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines -- where Woods would have been expected to compete in his first tournament of 2010 -- came and went without him. So did Pebble Beach -- site of this year's U.S. Open, a major championship that Woods won by 15 shots in 2000 -- and the WGC-Accenture Match Play, where he made his return to golf in 2009 following a lengthy absence due to knee surgery.

But it was on the first day of the match play event that Woods made more headlines: He announced he would be making his first public remarks at PGA Tour headquarters at the TPC Sawgrass two days later.

Woods read a 13½-minute statement on Feb. 19, offering no new details of what occurred, but saying up that he had received therapy for 45 days and would be returning for more treatment the following day.

"I have made you question who I am and how I could have done the things I did," Woods said to a small gathering of invited guests, including his mother, Tida. Elin was not in attendance. Only three wire-service reporters were in the room, and they were not allowed to ask questions.

"I was unfaithful. I had affairs. I cheated," Woods said. "What I did was not acceptable."

Woods also left doubt about his golf future.

"I do plan to return to golf one day," Woods said. "I just don't know when that day will be. I don't rule out that it will be this year. When I do return, I need to make my behavior more respectful of the game."

Showing respect to the game, some pundits claimed, was a direct response to Tom Watson's remarks before Woods' statement. The eight-time major winner said that Tiger "has not carried the same stature as the other great players that have come along like Jack [Nicklaus] or Arnold [Palmer], the Byron Nelsons, the [Ben] Hogans. … But I think he needs to clean up his act there and show the respect for the game that the people before him have shown."

Now the time for Woods' return has come sooner than some believed.

Woods was back in Orlando on Feb. 27 after a week of therapy and was immediately seen working on his game at his home course of Isleworth.

A week later, Hank Haney, his coach since 2004, joined him, heightening speculation about Woods' return.

Now that guessing game is over, to be replaced by new ones concerning his game and his ability to put a 4 ½-month nightmare behind him.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.