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Woods Speaks Out, Questions Still Remain

Tiger Woods, who rarely has shared anything about his personal life during a golf career that has made him the highest-paid athlete in the world, finally broke his silence Sunday about his car crash in the wee hours of Friday morning.

The world's No. 1 golfer said in a statement on his website Sunday that the accident - in which he drove his black Cadillac Escalade into a fire hydrant and then a tree in front of his next-door neighbor's house near Orlando - was his fault.

Woods praised his wife, Elin Nordegren, for "courageously" pulling him out of the wrecked SUV. And apparently referring to reports in the National Enquirer two days before the crash that suggested he was having an affair, Woods said malicious rumors about him and his family were "irresponsible."

His statement, however, did little to temper a storm of questions surrounding the incident. And for the third day in a row, Woods and his wife canceled a meeting with Florida Highway Patrol officers who want to interview them. FHP Sgt. Kim Montes said the move was "highly unusual" but that the couple were not required to give a statement.

The incident occurred outside Woods' luxury home about 2:25 a.m. ET Friday, police said. Authorities said after Woods, 33, crashed his SUV into the neighbor's tree, Nordegren used a golf club to smash a backseat window, gain entry to the vehicle and then pull out her 6-1, 185-pound husband.

Police reported that when officers arrived, Woods was lying on the ground with facial cuts, drifting in and out of consciousness.

"This situation is my fault, and it's obviously embarrassing to my family and me. I'm human, and I'm not perfect," wrote Woods, who has won 83 titles around the world, including 14 major championships, second only to the 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus.

"This is a private matter, and I want to keep it that way," Woods wrote. "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."

Left unanswered, however, are many questions. Where was Woods going at that hour? What caused the accident? And why remain quiet about it?

Some answers could come Tuesday, when Woods is scheduled to hold a news conference at the Chevron World Challenge in Thousand Oaks, Calif. The tournament benefits the Tiger Woods Foundation.

But Woods' agent, Mark Steinberg, said Sunday in a text message to USA TODAY that no decision had been made about whether Woods will attend or play in the tournament.

An impact on endorsements?

The accident - and the lack of details about it - could tar-nish Woods' gold-plated brand on Madison Avenue, warns Robert Tuchman, executive vice president with Premier Global Sports, which puts corporate marketers together with potential endorsers.

"In the marketing world, there's always a stigma when things like this happen. Fair or not, the damage is done," Tuchman says.

"Tiger Woods had a squeaky-clean image. You won't see his sponsors pull out. But other potential sponsors might hesitate."

Brand strategist Ernest Lupinacci thinks Woods made a mistake by waiting until Sunday to make a statement.

"It took him two days to say, 'I was in a one-car accident'? He should have spoken up sooner," says Lupinacci, a creative director who wrote many Nike ad campaigns as well as the Priceline.com commercials starring William Shatner.

"If he had said, 'I had to go get baby wipes at CVS,' it would have been none of our business. Now people are going to ask: 'Why did it take that long to make that statement? Why won't he talk to the police?'

"There's always going to be questions, because the perception is the bigger problem. Nature - and gossip - abhors a vacuum. Either Tiger can tell us the story, or TMZ can tell us.

"Until he issues a statement, there's a vacuum. That vacuum will suck up everything and anything it can."

But sports marketing specialist Bob Dorfman doesn't think the incident will affect Woods' relationship with sponsors such as Nike, AT&T, Gatorade or EA Sports.

Woods ranked No. 1 in Sports Illustrated's "Fortunate 50" list in 2009 with total winnings and endorsement earnings of $99.7 million. This year, Woods became the first billion-dollar athlete, according to Forbes, having amassed that total in winnings, endorsement money, appearance fees and other earnings since joining the PGA Tour in 1996.

"It seems like this is, at worst, a personal thing between him and his wife," says Dorfman, the executive creative director at Baker Street Partners in San Francisco. "If alcohol or drugs were involved, that might cause some problems. He's been perfect so far. I certainly think they'd be forgiving of this indiscretion."

Florida authorities said after the incident that alcohol was not involved.

PGA Tour spokesman Ty Votaw declined to comment.

Nike, which has been Woods' biggest sponsor since he turned pro, said in a statement, "We are extremely sorry to hear about Tiger's accident but are pleased that he's doing fine. We are thinking of him and wish him well."

'We're kind of boring'

Woods and Nordegren, 29, live in the Windermere, Fla., estate with their two children, Sam, 2, and Charlie, 9 months.

The $2.4 million home is part of the exclusive Isleworth subdivision. An Arnold Palmer-designed golf course and a chain of small lakes run through the subdivision, which is enclosed with high brick walls and is home to CEOs and other sports stars such as the NBA's Shaquille O'Neal and the LPGA tour's Paula Creamer.

Woods has gone to great lengths to keep his personal life private - his 155-foot yacht is called Privacy - and except for criticism of his temper on the golf course and a few curse words of his that have been heard on TV broadcasts, Woods has kept his name out of the spotlight beyond golf, his endorsements and charity work.

This year, in a posting on Facebook, Woods wrote that people don't see his or his wife's name in gossip magazines and tabloids "because we're kind of boring."

Until Friday morning.

Windermere Police Chief Daniel Saylor told reporters Friday night that two of his officers found Woods lying in the street, with his wife hovering over him.

"She was frantic, upset," Saylor said. "It was her husband laying on the ground."

Police said Woods was going in and out of consciousness, his lips were cut and blood was in his mouth when officers arrived. Saylor said Woods' wife told officers that she was in their house when she heard the accident. Saylor said she told officers she "broke the back window with a golf club."

Saylor said he had no knowledge of any argument between Woods and his wife.

"She supposedly got him out and laid him on the ground," Saylor said.

The air bags in the 2009 Cadillac 4x4 Escalade that Woods was driving did not deploy, which means the vehicle was traveling at less than 33 mph.

After being taken to Health Central Hospital in nearby Ocoee by ambulance, Woods was treated and released Friday.

"Tiger Woods was in a minor car accident outside his home last night. He was admitted, treated and released today in good condition," said a joint statement released Friday by the Health Central Hospital and Woods' office.

No interviews

Police first tried to interview Woods on Friday but said his wife asked the officers if they could return the next day because Woods was sleeping.

On Saturday, Steinberg, in a call put through the FHP dispatch, told officers traveling to Woods' home the golfer and his wife were unavailable to talk.

On Sunday, troopers arrived at the Woods home and his attorney, Mark NeJame, provided the troopers with Woods' driver's license, registration and current proof of insurance, as required by Florida law.

The Escalade was not impounded but instead was taken to a private yard with damage to the front and both rear passenger windows broken.

"Since he is not required by Florida law to give a statement, we can't force him to," Montes told USA TODAY. "This is highly unusual, because most drivers in minor traffic crashes usually give us a statement. But he is not breaking any laws.

"They have not rescheduled a meeting, and by all indications, we will not get a statement from him."

The crash remains under investigation, the FHP said.

"We have been informed by the Florida Highway Patrol that further discussion with them is both voluntary and optional," Steinberg wrote in an e-mail.

"Although Tiger realizes that there is a great deal of public curiosity, it has been conveyed to FHP that he simply has nothing more to add and wishes to protect the privacy of his family."

In a tape of a 911 call from Friday that was released Sunday by the FHP, an unidentified man told dispatchers that a black Cadillac Escalade hit a tree and "I have someone down in front of my house."

The call is inaudible at several points because of the bad connection.

"I came out here just to see what was going on," the man told dispatchers. "I see him, and he's laying down."

One woman is heard in the background yelling, "What happened?"

Speaking out

Meanwhile, a woman linked to Woods by a report in the National Enquirer told the Associated Press on Sunday that "this is not a story I have anything to do with."

Rachel Uchitel, a party hostess, told the AP, "I resent my reputation is getting completely blasted in the media."

National Enquirer executive editor Barry Levine told the AP that his paper's story on Woods and Uchitel "stands for itself."

Uchitel, who lost her fiancé in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, met Sunday with prominent lawyer Gloria Allred, who represented Nicole Brown Simpson's family in the O.J. Simpson case. Allred also represented Paula Jones in her sexual harassment case against former President Bill Clinton.

"At some point," Allred said Sunday, "we'll decide what the next step should be."

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