From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Sleepy neighbors came out of their homes and circled the man lying on the ground—Tiger Woods. They saw his black Escalade, its rear windows shattered, crashed into a tree; they saw Woods, barefoot and in shorts, bleeding from the mouth and out cold. "He opened his eyes a little bit, and then his eyes rolled back in his head and he lost consciousness again," says someone who was at the scene outside Woods' home in Windermere, Fla., around 2:30 a.m. Nov. 27. When EMTs squeezed Woods' foot to see if he was paralyzed, "he opened his eyes a bit and groaned, but his eyes looked dead."

That's when one neighbor began to speak the Lord's Prayer, while Woods' wife, Elin, hovered over her husband. "She was sobbing; she really freaked out," says the witness. "She seemed extremely scared by the whole thing." When Woods was lifted into an ambulance, "she told him, 'I love you' as they closed the door."

Woods, it turns out, was not seriously hurt; he was treated at a hospital and released the same day. But the mystery of exactly what happened in the wee hours of Nov. 27 is at the heart of a shocking scandal that is already marring the golf great's squeaky-clean image. On Dec. 1 Florida police charged Woods with careless driving, a moving violation that could result in a $164 fine. But beyond the charge, there is speculation in the tabloids that the single-car crash that injured Woods—perhaps the planet's most recognizable athlete and up until now a robotically bland public figure—may be linked to rumors he was having an affair with a stunning Manhattan nightclub hostess named Rachel Uchitel, and possibly with other women. What's more, Woods' actions in the days after the crash—he refused to be interviewed by police and backed out of hosting a golf tournament benefiting his children's foundation—only added to the appearance he was hiding something. "I understand there is curiosity," he wrote in a brief statement posted on his Web site Nov. 29. But "I deserve some privacy no matter how intrusive some people can be."

This much is fact: Woods, 33, left his $2.4 million home in the gated community of Isleworth in the middle of the night, got into his SUV, veered into a fire hydrant just yards from his driveway and rammed into a neighbor's tree. Windermere police say Elin, 29—his wife of five years and mother of their two children, daughter Sam, 2, and son Charlie, 10 months—told them at the scene that she ran out after the crash, used a golf club to break the SUV's rear windows and dragged Tiger out of the car. (She also handed over two pill bottles when officers asked if her husband was taking any medication, according to someone who was there.) "Elin acted courageously when she saw I was hurt and in trouble," Woods wrote in his statement. "She was the first person to help me."

Aside from the statement, though, the notoriously secretive Woods has been in major lockdown mode. He turned away police trying to interview him not once but three times before his sports agent Mark Steinberg claimed Woods isn't obligated to speak to investigators and won't answer any more questions. "It has been conveyed to [the Florida Highway Patrol] that he simply has nothing more to add and wishes to protect the privacy of his family," Steinberg said. Investigators determined that alcohol was not a factor in the crash and closed their investigation on Dec. 1.

Even so, the ordeal is amounting to much more than a simple traffic ticket for Woods. His reluctance to talk about the crash only increased speculation about what caused it—and if it followed a domestic dispute over Woods' alleged affair. Just two days before the accident the National Enquirer reported Woods had a romance with Uchitel, 34, whom he met at the New York City hot spot Griffin earlier this year. "She's a VIP host and she entertains rich clients and celebrities," says a club source. "Her job was to rack up VIP clientele." Another source says that one night this summer, "Tiger sat with [Jets quarterback] Mark Sanchez, and Rachel booked his table." After that, "Tiger came in quite a bit, and she was his hostess every time." Uchitel, a former TV producer whose fiancé was killed in the 9/11 attacks (see box), "told a lot of my friends she's hooking up with Tiger," says another source. "No one can resist her, so she gets any guy she wants."

Yet another source tells PEOPLE Uchitel confided that she rendezvoused with Woods in Florida this summer before meeting him again in Australia in November. After one trip "she came back, and she's like, 'I am in love with this guy,'" says the source. "She's like, 'No, you don't understand. We had this amazing feeling for each other. I'm totally into him.'" The source also believes Woods and Uchitel spoke after the crash. "She knew the details of it before it came out anywhere," says the source. "She cares about this guy and she wants to protect him." Indeed, Uchitel vehemently denied she was involved with Woods in any way—and shortly after the crash hired powerhouse discrimination attorney Gloria Allred. "Not a word of it is true," Uchitel, who offered to take a lie-detector test, told the New York Post. "Tiger and I are not friends.... I've only met him twice."

Still, did Elin confront Tiger about the alleged affair in the moments before the crash? TMZ reported that, according to a conversation Woods had with "a non-law-enforcement type," he fled his home after an argument with Elin, and she chased after him and struck the SUV with a golf club, causing the accident. A source who knows the couple says, "They had a domestic quarrel and are trying to put a spin on it now."

Those who spend time around the couple say there have been no outward signs that something is wrong. "I have never seen them argue," says someone familiar with Woods and his wife. "They always seem very happy to be with each other." Woods did not specifically address the affair allegations in his Nov. 29 statement, but he did shoot down what he called "the many false, unfounded and malicious rumors that are currently circulating about my family and me.... The only person responsible for the accident is me." So exacting in demeanor, so unyielding on the course, Woods also stepped out of character to admit he is, after all, flawed. "I'm human and I'm not perfect," he wrote in his statement. "This situation is my fault."

But even that admission raised questions—what situation is he referring to? Why was it his fault? Will Woods ever explain why he left his house at 2:30 a.m., or why he crashed, or how he was injured? Those who know him say there's a better chance of beating him in a putting contest than getting him to open up about his life. "This is typical of how Tiger handles stressful situations: Don't say anything, put out a good statement, then move on to a rosy future," says one source. "Tiger can be a bull, especially if anything secretive gets out."

Ironically, that aura of impenetrability had actually waned in recent years, after his marriage to Elin in 2004 and the death of his father, Earl, in 2006. Being a parent, it seemed, softened him even more. "People say I was born to play golf, but I think I was born to be a dad," he told PEOPLE in a candid interview this June. He called his father—an ex-Marine who instilled in him a sense of always being true to himself—"my greatest role model. I think of him every day. I hear his voice when I have decisions to make."

It's not hard to imagine Woods listening for that voice right now, as he faces the first major scandal of his storied career. It's true he was only charged with careless driving, but it could have turned out much worse for him and his family. There were reports that Elin—who, like Woods, was not officially interviewed—gave police conflicting accounts of what happened. That could have been interpreted as obstruction of justice. "And if she were following him and whacking the car with the golf club," says noted Miami prosecutor Michael Von Zamft, "there might be some argument that it was battery."

Woods has no plans to play in any more events this year (he won seven times in 2009 on a surgically repaired left knee) and remains holed up in his Isleworth estate with Elin and their children. The couple are building a $55 million home on Florida's Jupiter Island, and it should be ready for them to move into some time in 2010. By then the scandal surrounding Tiger's mysterious crash might be just a bad memory—or it might not be. "I love the idea of growing old together," Woods told PEOPLE about his wife in 2006. "It's great when you see people who've been married for 20, 30, 40 years, and they're still in love. That's what I want for us."

  • Contributors:
  • Steve Helling/Orlando,
  • Linda Marx/Miami,
  • Siobhan Morrissey/Key Biscayne,
  • Bob Meadows/New York City,
  • Liz McNeil/New York City,
  • Diane Herbst/New York City,
  • K.C. Baker/New York City,
  • Alyssa Shelasky/Washington,
  • D.C.,
  • Mark Gray/Los Angeles,
  • Lorenzo Benet/Los.