By Chris Talbott/The Associated Press
HATTIESBURG, Miss. — Trying to unwind after a 14-hour day Saturday, I popped on the History Channel and watched hapless documentarians search in vain for the abominable snowman.
Nothing, not even an extra-large footprint to report.
I know how they feel.
I’ve been chasing a Tiger’s tale across the rolling piney woods of south-central Mississippi with nothing to show for it but a notebook full of rumors. It seems that everyone has seen Tiger Woods in this town of 45,000, supposedly undergoing treatment for sex addiction at one of the country’s finest facilities.
Like the sherpas of Nepal, locals in the Hub City report new sightings all the time.
Someone swears they saw him on horseback the other day. Another watched a convoy of black SUVs with windows as dark as midnight pull into a gas station, and Woods popped out of one.
Details relayed from friends of friends of friends are circulating like crazy, each with its own hint of truth, but no proof. It’s the most exciting thing to happen here in a while, and everyone’s talking about it.
Most stories go a little something like Steve Brantley’s: “I know someone whose sister-in-law’s cousin saw him. But I’ve yet to talk to anyone who’s actually seen him.”
Same for me, Steve.
This all started Friday when celebrity Web site radaronline.com reported that Woods was at Pine Grove Behavioral Health and Addiction Services, one of the nation’s top treatment centers. The place is owned by Forrest General Hospital, a couple of miles down the road.
Problem is the Pine Grove clinic is locked up tight. Celebrities apparently pass through there all the time, yet employees are bound by confidentiality agreements. And let’s face it: Celebrity rehab clinics are supposed to be in towns like Palm Springs or Los Angeles.
But it kind of makes sense that a sex addiction program is here. No one could possibly expect to find celebrities at a converted cottage-style motel, nestled between a rental car place and a windshield repair business in an aging part of town.
“Rock stars and big-name people come through here, and one of the reasons is no one would think they’re here,” Brantley says.
Rumor has it there’s a former NBA player and a well-known female country music singer there now. Or last week. Or pretty darn recently. Probably.
I met Brantley a couple of hours into my hunt Saturday. He was one of the few folks in town willing to brave the rain and chilly wind for a round of golf.
Like everyone else I’ve talked to, the conversation was full of jokes, rumors and a discussion about whether sexual addiction is really a malady or a state of being.
“Did you know we had a sex clinic in town before this?” Brantley asks. “I didn’t.”
Everyone knows now, though, that’s for sure.
For the record, Woods hasn’t been swinging clubs at the Hattiesburg Country Club, where I talked with Brantley and club pro Russ Fransted, who’s heard all the stories out there.
“He’s been spotted more places than Elvis,” Fransted jokes.
Richard Walsh, the pro over at Timberton Golf Club, hasn’t seen Woods, either. He was manning the clubhouse at sunrise Saturday, and his tee time card showed just three golfers signed up for the day — and none was named Woods.
“I had 30 calls yesterday,” Walsh says. “Just from people saying, ‘I hear Tiger Woods is in town. Is he out practicing?’ It’s just kind of ridiculous. I feel sorry for the guy.”
Still, the rumors have the tantalizing feel of truth.
“Does it seem reasonable that he’s here?” Walsh asks. “Sure. Hattiesburg is in the middle of nowhere.”
I started my day at nearby Timberton because of another rumor that seemed to have a kernel of possibility to it. I got a call from a friend who said Tiger was staying at Ash-Leah Manor, a beautiful bed and breakfast on the outskirts of town.
The friend had a friend who was positive that Pine Grove owned the manor.
Not true, says Peggy Gates, the woman who runs the business with Bob, her husband of 55 years. While the B&B does play host to families of patients from time to time, Peggy says that neither Tiger Woods nor his wife, Elin, have been there.
Since the six-week program is inpatient, she notes, Woods would be staying at the facility on the corner of Broadway and Emerald. So I head back there, where a few reporters had gathered around the building, enough to draw an increased presence from local authorities. But most were camped out at the wrong place Friday and there didn’t appear to be anyone on watch Saturday.
If it wasn’t for the 8-foot-tall wooden fence surrounding the facility, there would be nothing of note about the buildings that make up the clinic.
The compound has several refurbished cottages, the roofs just visible over the fence. Vehicles can drive onto the property through a couple of gates, making it impossible to see who’s coming in and out. Signs say “No Trespassing” and “Video Surveillance in Progress,” but the only apparent cameras are pointed inside the fence.
With no real activity, I head over to the Bobby L. Chain Municipal Airport, south of town.
The airport itself is a single small building and the guys I encounter inside are clearly bored. No one wants to give their name, but they’re free with information: No Tiger sighting. No NetJets planes landing.
That mystery flight that came in last week around 4 in the morning?
“That was an organ donor,” one of the guys says.
Of course, Woods could have driven in (remember that convoy of SUVs?), taking Interstate 10 across the Florida Panhandle and US Highway 98 north from Mobile, Ala. Or he could’ve flown to nearby Laurel or Jackson.
I see a trio of Hattiesburg policemen roll up, so I stop them. I need directions to the police station and tell them I’m one of the reporters looking for Tiger. Before I finish the sentence, they raise their arms and say in unison, “We don’t know anything!”
They send me to see Capt. D.J. Davis at the department.
“He’s really here?” Davis asks, when I inquire if the clinic has asked for security help. “I thought that was just a rumor.”
While the department does help the hospital from time to time, Davis assures me there’s been no request for help with Woods, as far as he knows. Another dead end.
So I head back to the clinic where there seems to be a pretty regular stream of gawkers, but no other media. I know they’re around. One guy, whose car was filled with gear, paid a nearby property owner $200 to let him sit in view of the clinic for a few hours.
At a Cracker Barrel restaurant, my waitress says a group there was looking for directions to the clinic. And I hear that ESPN is sending a van.
I talk to the hospital’s security chief. He’s been pleasant in what is clearly a stressful situation for employees. A fancy SUV rolls up while we’re talking and the window comes down. The hospital police officer inside says, “The AP’s back.”
Turns out he ran my plates earlier.
I call the clinic to leave a message for the director, Patrick Carnes. I figure if nothing else, I can write about the clinic. But the lady who answers hangs up on me — twice.
With all reasonable leads exhausted, I turn to chasing ghosts. I hear from a couple of people that Elin Woods has been spotted at Canebreak, the toney subdivision north of town, looking for a house to rent. It’s built around one of the state’s best golf courses, it’s secluded and it has a gate manned by a security guard.
This rumor feels false, though, filled with too much detail: Elin supposedly telling someone she couldn’t believe she could walk around the mall without being identified.
I drive around and write down the names on every for-sale sign and start calling real estate agents, who are often great repositories of local knowledge. I call 10 and five answer, all of them amused by the question. None has heard even the faintest of whispers.
“There was a rumor about five years ago that Tim McGraw and Faith Hill were going to buy a house in Canebreak and it just wasn’t true,” Dottie Farris says. “It’s a small enough town that if one person says something, it takes off like wildfire.”
There’s a clear message in that story, so 48 hours after starting the hunt for Tiger, I’m packing up and leaving Hattiesburg. I’m wearing the same shirt for the third day in a row and I feel like I’ve failed.
We know he’s not in New York or South Africa, and he’s probably not in Arizona. So maybe Woods really is here.
I’m really not sure, but if you hear anything, give me a shout.
Chris Talbott is an Associated Press writer based in Jackson, Miss., who covers news and sports in the region.