ST. LOUIS -- The last time I talked to Tiger Woods, we stood in the middle of a country club parking lot talking about golf. Woods had lots to say that day. He had just finished a lengthy interview in the PGA Championship's crowded press room. But for some reason after doing 25 minutes of Q&A before about 100 reporters and countless TV cameras, he casually walked out into the parking lot, leaned up against a shiny new luxury SUV courtesy car and gabbed it up some more with a more intimate group of ink-stained wretches like me.
He had plenty of explaining to do that day, and he answered every question fired in his direction.
As the world's most famous athlete, and perhaps the greatest golfer of all time, Tiger Woods handled the lengthy inquisition with ease. He had just lost a major tournament in an exciting finish, and he gave us every detail, painting a strategic picture of the entire final round. It was part of his obligation as a high-profile professional athlete to explain the trials and tribulations of his very public athletic life.
And yes, he owed us that much.
So now that the Tiger Woods story has moved off the golf course, veered into his private life and crashed and burned into a TMZ-obsessed, tabloid-frenzied, full-fledged titillating media circus, we think he owes us a whole lot more.
The trouble is, too many of us are confusing our desire to know with our need to know.
Woods ending up as the central character in an awkward, private embarrassment is not quite the same as Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire ending up as the central characters in an uncomfortable public saga known as baseball's Steroids Era.
There's a distinction between the relevant details of serious, history-altering news (athletes who cheated in their sport and distorted baseball's record books) and the natural, but slightly embarrassing human instinct (curiosity) that drives us to crave all the gossipy aspects of the alleged private indiscretion of a married man who happens to be a rather famous pro athlete. Anyone who doesn't know the difference is either a bit too sanctimonious or simply not that smart.
Woods doesn't owe the media or the public one single word of explanation about whatever events did or didn't happen leading up to the Thanksgiving night auto accident outside his front lawn in Windermere, Fla. That's his private business, not his public obligation. Even as he stonewalls the police and issues prepared statements that only vaguely explain the course of events that caused him to crash his Cadillac SUV into a tree and left him bloodied and bruised (and not necessarily in that order), that is his legal right to do so. Unless a crime was committed, Woods can continue to hide behind a wall of attorneys and image makers.
Even if it severely damages his well-crafted public image, Woods has the right to say nothing.
But the world's most famous athlete may no longer have the luxury of saying nothing no matter how badly he craves his privacy.
Ask Rick Pitino about that.
Remember when the woman who is being accused of blackmailing the Louisville coach began taking her accusations to the public? Remember how many people told Pitino not to respond to her gossip? His lawyers told him to keep quiet, his athletics director told him to keep quiet, the police and federal authorities told him to keep quiet. And yet he still held an angry news conference to call her a liar.
So why did he talk?
Well, who is the one person whose authority supersedes all of those other powerful people in Pitino's life?
His angry and embarrassed wife.
We'll see how long Woods can hold on to his privacy principles before his angry and embarrassed spouse changes the rules of engagement in this tabloid media war.
I've covered the world of sports for almost 40 years, and my level of shock concerning the titillating details of the private lives of athletes is rather low. I've known of affairs whose details were either so shockingly steamy, uncomfortably awkward or comically stupid that the average fan would swear that it was the stuff of pure fiction.
But the full details (names, places, times, dates, etc.) of these stories never made print, and I suspect they never will.
There is a simple explanation for that.
I'm a little old school. I still believe if it doesn't have any impact on his professional life, then an athlete's private life is just that, totally private. That doesn't mean I'm not curious about what happened. Do I ache for all the juicy details? Heck, yes, of course I do. I'm just as shamefully human as the next guy and revel in picking up all the gossipy details of stories like this.
But I know the difference between what I want and what I need.
Gossip -- as long as you're not its target -- is a lot of fun.
But we don't need the gossip.