The celebrities and the superrich who live in Isleworth, including Tiger Woods, would like to project a common touch. Every Halloween, residents of the gated golf community near Orlando, Fla., decorate their golf carts and drive trick-or-treaters door to door. They share lunches and dinners at the country club, play pickup basketball games and hold community events. "It's pretty normal," says Ravé Mehta, CEO of a software-development firm who lives just outside Isleworth's vine-covered walls but has many friends inside.
Normal is a relative term. Houses inside Isleworth's 600 acres, 45 miles southwest of Orlando, Fla., cost between $2 million and $8 million. Aside from Woods, perhaps the wealthiest and most famous golfer in history, homeowners have included sports legends like NBA superstar Shaquille O'Neill, movie stars like Wesley Snipes and tycoons like Planet Hollywood creator Robert Earl. The development is ranked the world's No. 1 luxury golf community, and the Mediterranean-style country club is a massive 89,000 square feet. Isleworth has its own private security force with marked patrol cars and fully staffed guard houses that carefully screen any visitors. Even police officers from the nearest incorporated town, Windermere, must ask permission to enter.
When you live inside that kind of cocoon of wealth and exclusivity, it's easy to believe that your privacy trumps everyone else's. And whether he means to or not, Woods is projecting that decidedly exclusive mind-set as he insists on stonewalling Florida law-enforcement investigators looking into the circumstances of his bizarre, 2:30 a.m. car crash on Nov. 27, when his Cadillac SUV struck a fire hydrant in front of his $2.4 million Isleworth mansion and then plowed into a neighbor's tree. The crash left Woods temporarily unconscious and seems to have rendered his p.r. apparatus addled as well. His less-than-forthcoming statements to both police and the public have only stoked rumors about his domestic life that were flooding the gossip blogosphere even before the incident.
Technically, Woods isn't legally obligated to say anything more to the cops, who said over the weekend that alcohol was not involved in the accident. Unless law enforcement in this case the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP), which has jurisdiction in traffic-accident investigations finds some evidence that suggests Woods' crash was more than just a driving mishap, it can't compel him to grant a police interview. "If not, he's only obligated to pay a traffic fine and the cost of the hydrant he knocked over," says an official in Orange County (which includes Orlando and Isleworth) who is familiar with the case and spoke on condition of anonymity since the county is not involved in the probe.
Since Nov. 27, Woods has issued a statement accepting blame for the accident while at the same time slamming the "malicious rumors" published recently in the National Enquirer and on numerous gossip websites alleging an affair with a New York socialite (who herself has since denied the rumors.) But given Woods' mega-fame, and the worshipful esteem in which fans hold him and his impeccable image, silence is rarely if ever a wise option in a media frenzy like the one surrounding his midnight misfortune. He risks looking as if he's hiding something and, just as bad, he appears to be behaving as if he should be exempt from the kind of police scrutiny most plebeians would expect after trashing public property at 2:30 in the morning. (And if Florida police aren’t careful, they risk looking as if they’re handling a celeb with kid gloves.) Moreover, "we expect greater disclosure from a celebrity like Tiger Woods because he is so familiar to us," says Ida Cook, a sociologist at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. "When we're denied that, it doesn't feel right."
That said, Cook asserts that Woods is being subjected to a public double standard: we expect him to tell us and the police more about his private life than he should have to, "certainly more than Joe Schmo would probably have to offer under similar circumstances." That may be so, but if investigators do eventually find evidence that Woods hasn't been as up-front as he should have been that he might have been under the influence of painkillers after last year's knee surgery, or that he and his Swedish model wife (who told police she smashed the SUV's rear window with a golf club to help extract her injured husband) were having a domestic argument heated enough to contribute to the accident Woods' reticence, or lying, will come crashing down on his credibility much harder than it would on Joe Schmo. An FHP spokeswoman on Monday acknowledged, for example, that the agency could still request Woods' medical records from the hospital he was taken to briefly after the accident.
Woods' woes forced him to announce Monday that he was dropping out of his own charity golf tournament, the Chevron World Challenge, which starts on Dec. 3 in California.
The Woods incident is the second time in two months that Isleworth's well-heeled serenity has been shaken. In late September, millionaire Florida developer Bob Ward was charged with shooting his wife to death at their $5 million Isleworth home. (He has pleaded not guilty and is facing trial.) It was the first homicide the gated community has experienced since it was started in the 1980s by golf icon Arnold Palmer, who fell in love with the area's rolling landscape and chain of lakes. (He created an 18-hole golf course there that is consistently ranked one of the longest and most difficult in links-crazy Florida.)
Mehta says he almost had his own accident involving Woods recently. While Mehta was driving through the parking lot of a local athletic club, Woods suddenly hopped out between two cars with a duffel bag, forcing Mehta to slam on his brakes to avoid hitting Woods. "He [Woods] stops, looks up at me and grins, like, 'Ha, ha, sorry,' " Mehta recalls. Whether or not Woods can eventually laugh off his latest traffic mistake depends on whether Florida investigators decide he really doesn't have anything more to tell them.