PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - A total hush fell over the darkened room at the PGA club house and all eyes turned to a break in the heavy blue drapes.
A lone helicopter buzzed loudly overhead as Tiger Woods stalked into the room, his eyes searching for the microphone like a troubled swimmer looking for a lifeline.
The atmosphere was intimate, a tightly-controlled setting for the golfer’s first public appearance in months, but cameras beamed the event out to a live television audience watching for every word.
Woods launched into a solemn, faltering and long apology as he sought to save his marriage and push the reset button on a billion-dollar career that has been on hold since his stunning fall from grace last year.
Engulfed in a frenzy of media speculation over his private life after a bizarre car accident in the middle of the night in November, Woods admitted in December to marital infidelity and announced he was taking an indefinite break from professional golf. But he had not yet appeared in public to apologize.
“I have let you down,” he said, speaking nervously, to the room filled with 40 or so people at the headquarters of the U.S. PGA Tour in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. The group included agents, PGA executives and family, but not his wife, Elin, with whom he has two children.
“I have let you down personally,” he said, looking over to his mother, Kultida, a slight figure dressed in black and perched on a wooden chair in the front row.
Woods’ management invited only a small group of journalists to the golfer’s appearance — they were seated at the back of the room. Embroidered curtains over the tall windows shielded the room from more media outside.
Barred from asking questions, reporters focused on body language.
Dressed in a blue blazer, ironed shirt but no tie, and with no sign of any sponsors’ logos, the 34-year-old American was somber and sometimes spoke in a monotone.
There was no sign of the million-watt smile that helped him parlay his skills on the fairway into becoming the richest man in sports with $100 million in annual earnings.
Woods has been absent from public view for 12 weeks since he crashed his car outside his Florida home and reporters searched for any repairs to his teeth, or scarring to his cheeks and lips, but could see none.
Woods’ hands hovered at his sides as he spoke.
After addressing the group drawn from his family, friends and life as the world’s No. 1 golfer, he looked over their heads to the camera at the back of the room, apologizing to millions of fans he could not see.
He spoke of feeling “entitled by money and fame,” bringing hurt and shame on himself, his family and fans around the world. Then his tone hardened to angry indignation as he spoke of the intrusion in his life from the media who have lampooned him, making him the butt of talk show jokes and tabloid headlines.
“These are issues between Elin and me,” he said, with rising indignation as he rounded on the media, which he said had “staked out my wife and they pursued my mom.”
The minutes stretched out. His tone softened as he sought to reconnect once more, first with the people in the room, and with the fans around the world.
“I ask you to find room in your heart to one day believe in me again.”
Stepping forward, he hugged his mother. Holding her tightly in his arms, he kissed her on the lips. There was no sign of tears.
As abruptly as he arrived, he turned and swept out between the blue drapes.
The last glimpse of him was a hand reaching up in silhouette to his brow, as he headed back to treatment at a rehabilitation center.
Editing by Frances Kerry