The media wolves at Tiger's door

When Tiger Woods married Elin Nordegren five years ago, the concern was that marriage might make the game's greatest golfer lose his competitive edge.

That didn't happen. He's still the game's greatest golfer. But over the past few days, Woods has discovered that being a married sports icon can create a host of other issues.

For the first time in his career, his personal life is a far bigger attraction than his golf achievements. It's unusual for a one-car crash -- in which Woods managed the hat trick of somehow hitting a fire hydrant and careening into a tree while leaving his own driveway -- to elicit this much attention, but when the accident reportedly might be linked to an altercation with his wife over a possible affair, it becomes the paparazzi's highest priority.

So far, Woods has handled his greatness with incredible aplomb and grace. He usually says and does the right things, makes the right moves, whether we're talking club selection or business.

But the controversy Woods is in the throes of now is unlike anything he's ever faced. This incident isn't going to just blow over. Winning the U.S. Open with an injured knee is going to look easy compared to what he and his family will face in the coming weeks.

Woods is naive if he believes the carefully constructed statement he released Sunday on his Web site is going to put an end to the speculation, the Internet rumors and the tabloid stories. In fact, it's going to get worse.

A lot worse.

"This incident has been stressful and very difficult for Elin, our family and me," Woods said in the statement. "I appreciate all the concern and well wishes that we have received. But, I would also ask for some understanding that my family and I deserve some privacy no matter how intrusive some people can be."

Woods' request for privacy became irrelevant the moment the conjecture began that there might have been a conflict between Woods and his wife on Thanksgiving over last week's National Enquirer story about an affair. Nothing has been verified, though TMZ.com reported Monday that the Florida Highway Patrol is seeking a search warrant for hospital records to investigate the probable cause of Woods' injuries -- a report the FHP doesn't confirm. But at this point, confirmation doesn't matter. What matters is the speculation that the rumored conflict was the reason not only for Woods' hasty late-night departure, but also for his refusal so far to be interviewed by the Highway Patrol.

As of now, Woods doesn't have to explain anything to the police or the public; and truthfully, it's in his best interest to keep quiet unless he wants whatever happened in his Orlando home prior to the accident to become a matter of public record.

But whether or not these rumors of infidelity and a wild argument with his wife are true, there's now a media bounty on Woods' head -- or rather, his marriage. Every tabloid -- and probably some mainstream media outlets -- is going to comb through Woods' personal life, playing the "Let's see if we can catch the married guy" game. It happened to Roger Clemens. Once Clemens was linked to steroids, the allegations that he engaged in a 10-year affair with country singer Mindy McCready -- a tryst that reportedly started when McCready was 15 years old -- came soon after. If Woods has so much as winked at a woman who isn't his wife, Anderson Cooper is going to do a 30-minute special on CNN.

In a span of 24 hours, TMZ had 14 posts on Woods' accident, including footage of his alleged mistress in L.A. with attorney Gloria Allred, the celebs' Michael Clayton. A number of them qualify -- in the words of Woods' statement -- as "intrusive."

The headlines have gone from pondering whether Woods is the greatest golfer ever and the best athlete on the planet to "Tiger Woods' Mistress Speaks!" and "Fore! And There Goes Tiger's Image."

The intensely private Woods isn't used to any of this. He's used to controlling the media's access and manipulating how the media covers him. He's used to going to golf news conferences, saying absolutely nothing and occasionally entertaining golf writers with a corny joke. If he is criticized, he's used to those criticisms as being centered on golf, not his merits as a father or husband.

But now Woods has given the media a new, sexier story to track -- Tiger Woods, Lothario?

"This is a private matter and I want to keep it that way," Woods insisted in the statement on his Web site.

Good luck with that.

I don't anticipate Woods will lose any endorsements over this, but it's already dramatically changed the way Woods is viewed; and it isn't implausible that it will impact him on the golf course, particularly if it balloons into a larger legal issue. According to his agent, Woods has already dropped out of his own golf tournament, the Chevron World Challenge beginning Thursday in Thousand Oaks, Calif., because of his injuries.

Woods' calling card is discipline and mental toughness, but it's an entirely different scenario when "Entertainment Tonight" and "Access Hollywood" are camped out on the 18th hole. Woods was one of those athletes whose business was rarely in the streets, but you can bet folks will be rushing to tell media outlets what they know now.

Some athletes, such as Derek Jeter, might be able to handle that kind of scrutiny. Others, such as Tony Romo, are affected by the intense interest in their personal affairs. It can become a huge distraction. I'm sure Alex Rodriguez doesn't miss answering questions about his divorce and alleged infidelities, and Romo surely didn't enjoy the use of those photos of him vacationing in Cabo with Jessica Simpson during the Cowboys' bye week two years ago to suggest he wasn't focused on football.

When a professional athlete's private sanctum is constantly violated, it takes a toll. I also live in Orlando and can tell you that Woods enjoys a carefree existence here. He's not bothered when he's out socializing or when he goes about his daily business. He's mostly treated like just another resident.

I suspect that's about to change. Orlando is hardly New York City, but the media coverage on Woods and this accident has that feel. There are numerous television trucks parked outside Woods' gated community -- which I'm sure his neighbors love -- and Woods is probably living in fear that TMZ is going to pop out of the bushes once he shows his face in public.

Life has changed permanently for Woods. We'll see if he can handle it. At the very least, he has learned two painful lessons: This is the downside to having a marriage in the spotlight, and fame is almost always give-and-take.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.