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11.29.09

The Mysterious Mrs. Woods

Even more perplexing than Tiger Woods’ strange behavior early Friday morning is that of his elegant and discreet wife, Elin Nordegren. Jacob Bernstein on the couple’s once seemingly perfect relationship.

If the news of Tiger Woods’ alleged marital spat early Friday morning was surprising, it wasn’t just because the man involved in the car crash is perhaps the best behaved athlete the Western world has ever seen.

Since she turned up on his arm in early 2002, Woods’ wife, Elin Nordegren, has been not just a cipher but a consummate match for her husband—classy and elusive, and from a smart, well-to-do Swedish family.

“You could point to a thousand candidates for a professional athlete to choose from for a wife and she was maybe No. 1,” the source tells The Daily Beast.

From the start of their relationship, she’s shown as little interest in publicizing her high-profile relationship as her husband, despite tabloid interest that’s followed her over the course of their eight-year relationship.

As Sports Illustrated noted when it profiled her in 2004, the year she married Woods: “Even in the insular world of the PGA Tour, [Nordegren] is a shadowy figure, talked about by everyone but close to very few.” One golf-world source told the magazine at the time, “She’s become like Greta Garbo. When she started dating Tiger, it was like there was an unwritten agreement she wouldn’t say anything to anyone. She’s still nice, but when you talk to her, you don’t get anything out of her.”

Amazingly, in this tabloid age, that article is practically the only substantial piece of journalism to appear about her for half a decade.

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That might be why one golf-industry acquaintance describes her as such a good match for her husband, at least until last week. And it’s part of why this person and others are so confounded by reports that Nordegren may have “gone ghetto” on Woods after allegedly hearing that he was having an affair. Leaving the house in the middle of the night, Woods crashed his car into a tree, sustaining minor injuries. Over the course of the weekend, more details emerged, but little was clear, even after the golf star put out a statement Sunday taking the blame for what happened and insisting that his wife tried to help him.

If this was true, why had a neighbor, and not his wife, called the police? What was she doing with that golf club that smashed the back window of the car? Was she trying to free him from the vehicle? How on earth did this happen?

“You could point to a thousand candidates for a professional athlete to choose from for a wife and she was maybe No. 1,” one golf-industry acquaintance tells The Daily Beast.

The person goes on to describe Nordegren as “lovely and intelligent,” an “omnipresent” attendee at her husband’s matches—at least until the birth of the couple’s first child, in 2007—who was always there but “never stepped into the spotlight or did anything wacky.”

Nordegren didn’t even complain publicly when she suffered complications during that pregnancy. She wound up giving birth in the hospital on her own via Caesarean section, while Woods remained on the golf course competing in the U.S. Open.

Says the source: “I can only speak from their public appearances and very few private ones, but they seemed not to have any kind of conflict. What we think happened probably did, but there was no evidence of it. This wasn’t like Dennis Rodman, who lived out his hostile relationships in the press.”

So who is Nordegren, 29, and what is her story?

She spent her first years in a small town 50 miles north of Stockholm, where she was the older, by 10 minutes, of identical twins. Her father, Thomas, is a successful journalist who has served as the Washington bureau chief for Swedish Broadcasting media. Her mother, Barbro Holmberg, is a prominent figure in Swedish Democratic circles who became the country’s migration and asylum minister. Thomas and Barbro split when Elin and her sister Josefine were 6 years old, though it didn’t have any apparent effect on their daughters, both of whom seemed, until this week at least, to be those rare people around celebrities without any discernible serotonin deficiencies.

Although Nordegren modeled briefly in her teens, and has been referred to repeatedly in press clippings as a “former model,” she didn’t exactly make a career of it. “She wasn’t a high-profile model,” says one New York-based modeling source from a well-known agency.

Partly, this is because she didn’t seem to care about it. Bingo Rimer, the photographer who discovered Nordegren, told SI: “Elin doesn’t care about modeling. She never has. Even the few things I got her to do, I had to drag her into the studio. Being famous, the whole celebrity thing, she really and truly does not care about that.”

Nordegren did some commercial work, posing in swimsuits and whatnot, but she went to college anyway, at the prestigious Lund University, and took a job in a Stockholm clothing store called Champagne, where she met Mia Parnevik, wife of Swedish golf sensation Jesper Parnevik, who hired Nordegren as the nanny to their children.

The Parneviks were sort of like the Posh and Becks of Swedish golf; he was known as much for his disco-inspired trousers and strange hats as for his playing acumen. His wife is something of a shopaholic. (Hence the fortuitous meeting with Nordegren.) In 2001, at the British Open, Nordegren met Woods, whose penchant for blondes was well-documented.

At first, Nordegren was reportedly uninterested in Woods. As Mia Parnevik later noted, her thoroughly competent nanny displayed no interest whatsoever in the sport. She also had hopes of becoming a child psychiatrist and was concerned about appearing to be a “gold-digger.”

Further, the famously awkward Woods did not make a smooth approach. According to a close friend of the Parneviks who spoke to SI, Woods was so nervous about asking her out, he had a friend do it for him. “Her reaction was, ‘What the hell was that?’” the magazine quotes a close source as saying. “She thought it was so weird and pathetic. Of course she said no.”

But Woods persisted, flooding the Parneviks with calls, and she relented.

It turned out they had much in common. Like Woods, the golf-industry source notes, Nordegren was sporty. She’d played soccer and knew a lot about golf from her time with the Parneviks. “She was also conservative by nature, like him,” the person says.

Months after the romance blossomed, she returned to Sweden for Christmas, told Rimer of the relationship, and—displaying a press savvy befitting a future high-profile wife—worked out a deal so that only photographs she approved would be released. (Later on, nude photos of a woman looking like Nordegren surfaced, but they were apparently fakes. She sued for libel and won.)

A year later, the happy couple went on safari in South Africa, where they disappeared for 20 minutes, worrying ranger Nhlanhla Khumalo, who thought they might have been eaten by tigers. When they reemerged, Khumalo later told People magazine, Nordegren was wearing a giant engagement ring. “The diamond was half as big as my finger,” he said.

The 2004 wedding that followed was fit for a king. Held in Barbados, it reportedly cost $1.5 million. Hootie and the Blowfish played (well, everyone says they shared a certain squareness) and fireworks lit up the sky. Guests included Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley. The afterparty was held on—you guessed it—a golf course. The couple spent their wedding night aboard Woods’ $20 million yacht, which he christened “Privacy.”

It’s something the couple is no doubt missing as the tabloid feeding frenzy continues.

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Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.