Toronto, Canada – By Mark Lamport-Stokes
THOUSAND OAKS, California (Reuters) - While Tiger Woods continued to attract criticism from communication experts for the way he has handled his troubled private life, he gained widespread sympathy from fans at his tournament on Thursday.
The world number one is conspicuously absent this week from the Chevron World Challenge he has hosted in California for the past nine years but a majority of spectators there felt his domestic strife should remain private.
Woods withdrew from the charity event on Monday, citing injuries from a mysterious car crash outside his Florida home last week as speculation began to escalate over his five-year marriage to Swede Elin Nordegren.
"What happens within his family should be kept within his family," Los Angeles banker and golf fan Chris Lee told Reuters during Thursday's opening round at Sherwood Country Club. "He shouldn't be pressured to discuss it outside his family.
"I don't think the public has a right to know. But for him to deal with it within his own family and to have to share that story with the world, the tabloids and whatnot, it's going to be very, very difficult."
Woods crashed his Cadillac SUV into a fire hydrant and a neighbor's tree while pulling out of the driveway of his home in Windermere, Florida in the early hours of Friday morning.
He was subsequently issued a traffic ticket for careless driving but he has been widely criticized in the media for his initial delay in giving any statement and his refusal to speak to the investigating authorities for three consecutive days.
"It's not really our business but because of his position in the golf world, he should have spoken out earlier to address the public and then get it behind him," student and mother Laura Maggay told Reuters.
"I really feel bad for the family but how I feel about Tiger is maybe a little bit different today than it was a week ago.
"I also feel it might have been a good idea for him just to show up here this week. I understand why he doesn't want to but this is his golf tournament. A lot of people look up to him."
EXPECTATIONS FOR PRIVACY
Anna Buesgens, a friend of Maggay's, also said she felt bad for Woods's family, because they were "getting pressed into it when they don't want to be."
"But when you are being paid $100 million a year, you can't expect to have as much privacy as everyone else."
Although Woods finally issued an apology to his family on Wednesday for his "transgressions," media experts believe the game's biggest drawcard has been too slow to react to developments and needs to reveal more of his human side.
"Woods must take control of the story as a sheer business necessity," Michael Cherenson, chief executive of the Public Relations Society of America, told Reuters.
"He needs to explain himself with certainty and sincerity, take responsibility, apologize and get on with his life and career. If he continues to view the situation as a 'private matter' ... he will never gain control.
"It's up to Woods. If he handles it right, I think his vast appeal and reserve of goodwill will make his fans forgive and forget."
Michael Gordon, chief executive of Group Gordon Strategic Communications in New York, agreed.
"The story is controlling him," Gordon said. "He has to speak publicly -- to Oprah (Winfrey), on ESPN, at a press conference -- admit what happened and apologize for it to all concerned.
"Right now he's hiding behind these elegantly written statements ... and as a result he's creating questions rather than answering them.
"Because of his endorsements, Tiger is the highest paid athlete in history and has carefully cultivated an image that was pristine just one week ago," Gordon added.
"Unfortunately in 2009, when you're the top athlete in the world and you commit an indiscretion, any desire for privacy is completely unrealistic."
(Editing by Ian Ransom)