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The Tiger Woods story almost didn't happen, according to National Enquirer executive editor Barry Levine. The world's most famous golfer wasn't even on the Enquirer's radar screen. No accident, no scandal, no problems for Woods almost.
"Tiger Woods is a global celebrity," Levine said, "but he wasn't the type of individual we followed. He's not Brad and Angelina. He's not Oprah. He's not out like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan at the clubs. The fact is Tiger has always led a relatively squeaky-clean lifestyle so when that first tip came in to us in September that he was involved in an extramarital affair, certainly it kind of caught us by surprise."
The Enquirer says it used all its investigative reporting techniques -- surveillance, telephone work, cultivating sources and staking out individuals -- and spent months traveling from Las Vegas to Los Angeles to Melbourne, Australia, seeking information on Woods. (Levine submitted his reporters' coverage of former presidential candidate John Edwards' extramarital affair scandal for consideration for a Pulitzer Prize, but the administrator of the prize board has said the National Enquirer is ineligible for the nation's top journalism award.)
"The story blew up in Australia where we caught the woman [Rachel Uchitel] going up to Woods' hotel suite and visiting him there and that's when we first went to her for comment," Levine said. "When we finally confronted Rachel she denied going to Australia to meet Tiger Woods. She said she had met him once at a nightclub because she worked as a hostess, as an events planner at a nightclub and once or twice bumped into Tiger. In fact she told me on the telephone a few days later that she had lied. She was obviously trying to conduct damage control so we knew we had caught her wrapped up in a series of lies about her relationship with Tiger Woods."
Eventually the National Enquirer went to Woods for comment. His lawyers responded that he and Uchitel met in a nightclub, but there was no relationship. Woods' denial happened several weeks before Thanksgiving and the tabloid planned to go with the story a week before Thanksgiving while Tiger was at a tournament in Dubai.
"We held an editorial conference about the story," Levine said. "Our senior editors and our lawyers said, 'You know what? This story is not going anywhere. Let's give it another week. Let's continue to report it for another week.' The irony is that had we published the story the week before, the infamous car accident might never have happened because Tiger would have been in Dubai and his wife might have challenged him on the story but it might have been done by phone.
"So there might not have been this explosive argument that occurred late on the night of Thanksgiving. That's fascinating in the sense that if the car accident never happened the mainstream media might not have jumped on the story the way they did and the real details of the scandal and all these women may not have surfaced."
By waiting a week, the Enquirer unearthed the detail that solidified its reporting. One of Levine's reporters learned that Uchitel's trip was paid for by one of Tiger's companies.
"That was a bombshell because we had actual link that Tiger Woods had paid for her trip," Levine said. "So we felt very comfortable the next week in reporting the story."
The Enquirer's issue with the Woods story hit newsstands in Florida on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving, and just less than two days before the accident. Levine says sources told him one of Elin Woods' friends saw the story and quickly called her and said, "'Do you know what the National Enquirer is saying about Tiger? Who is this woman, Rachel [Uchitel]?' Of course there was an argument late on the night of Thanksgiving, and we later learned that Rachel was on the phone with Tiger Woods. He was trying to do damage control. His wife actually caught him in the act of talking to Rachel as our sources told us, and that exploded the argument even more."
Levine said the people who were sources for the Enquirer's story were paid, but he wouldn't say how much.
"We make no bones about it at the National Enquirer. We practice checkbook journalism," Levine said. "If a source brings us credible information on a story we will pay them; we will write them a check."Ben Houser is a senior producer for E:60. Mike Loftus is an Associate Producer and contributed to this report.