Not long ago, Sweden served as the ideal retreat for the famously reclusive Tiger Woods. There, the planet’s most transcendent athlete could escape the paparazzi’s constant gaze and enjoy snowy, low-key holidays in Parlstrom, at the family home of Elin Nordegren, his Swedish-born wife. He could stroll through tiny Vaxholm or Stockholm’s leafy, central Karlaplan plaza without raising so much as a blond eyebrow.
But since the world’s No. 1 golfer drove his Cadillac Escalade into a tree on Nov. 27 and his sexcapades became the biggest story of 2009, the golf-mad Swedes have unleashed a torrent of public support for his wronged wife, lashing out at Woods in the process. “ ‘Transgressions,’ ‘infidelity’ and ‘hiatus’ are not good enough,” wrote Lasse Anrell, a star columnist with Aftonbladet, the country’s biggest newspaper. Tiger, he says, should at least be man enough to admit to what he did. “Here’s a word that he should add to his vocabulary: ‘sex addict.’ That’s S-E-X-A-D-D-I-C-T, Tiger.” Meanwhile, Ann Söderlund, a leading Aftonbladet journalist, commended Nordegren’s “Swedish” reaction. “While Hillary and Posh Spice chose to keep silent, diet and become feminist doormats, Elin stood with both feet firmly planted on the ground and realized the shame was Tiger’s, not hers. Thank God for girls like Elin. Next time, I hope she uses a bigger club.”
In fact, Nordegren (who allegedly took a three-iron to her philandering husband) is being celebrated as a kind of modern folk hero. “Swing it again, Elin!” wrote Aftonbladet’s editor-in-chief Jan Helin on his blog. Yes, Woods, the planet’s blandest superstar, has inspired the progressive, famously peaceful nation to advocate for retributive justice.
Sweden, of course, remains a safe haven for Nordegren. In fact, she is believed to have retreated there over the holidays with the couple’s two children, two-year-old Sam and 10-month-old Charlie. And recently, she bought a US$2.2-million, six-bedroom hideaway on small, secluded Faglaro Island, a 45-minute ferry ride from Vaxholm, where she grew up.
Yet more than “she’s our gal” patriotic loyalty is driving Swedish support, columnist Britta Svensson told Maclean’s. Nordegren, after all, is no regular Swede; rather, her “well-known, upper-middle-class family” makes this “personal,” she says. Nordegren’s mother Barbro Holmberg, a former cabinet minister and current governor of Gävleborg county, made the front page of the country’s biggest papers, Expressen, Aftonbladet, and Dagens Nyheter, after being hospitalized in Florida with stomach pains in the early days of the scandal. And Elin’s globe-trotting journalist father, Thomas Nordegren, has been thrust into an even brighter spotlight than usual. “I do, of course, have an opinion about both the Internet gossip and media’s treatment [of the unfolding drama],” Thomas recently told his radio audience. “But my biggest task is to support my daughter and my grandchildren. To bring that up in my own program would be inappropriate. Enough about this!” Most of the Swedish media has politely respected the parents’ privacy.
But with their very own flaxen-haired party in the drama, Swedes are lapping up every juicy new detail of the golfer’s sordid affairs. Woods’s marital saga has been splashed on the front pages of the country’s papers for weeks, with some media outlets dispatching reporters to Florida to cover this most un-Swedish circus. The normally reserved country—wholly unused to the media digging into the private lives of its public figures—is gorging on its first real taste of paparazzi scrutiny, says Michael Winiarski, a U.S.-based correspondent with Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s largest morning paper. “Hour after hour,” he described in a recent report, “relationship experts, finger-waggers, weepers and D-list celebrities” were trotted out on network TV to comment on the latest, tawdry revelation.
Still, Swedes perceive celebrity, pop culture and gender entirely differently than the U.S., and some see this as an opportunity to punctuate that. Sweden’s “obsessively egalitarian” culture ensures that girls have a strong sense of self, experts explain (this is, after all, the country that in the ’40s gave us girl rebel Pippi Longstocking, who lived alone, sailed the seven seas, drank lemonade from the jug, and could outlift any man). “Swedish women like Elin are brought up to be independent and strong,” Aftonbladet editor Karin Magnusson explains. “We’re excited about this. We’re hoping Elin will file for divorce, and show Tiger—and the world—what Swedish women stand for.”
The country’s famed, cradle-to-grave welfare state, which offsets women’s unpaid work with state-funded child care and eldercare services, includes a state-paid allowance for 60 days of pappamanader—“daddy’s months”—to allow father and newborn to properly bond. And the gap in the employment rates between men and women in Sweden is half of what it is in the U.S. Swedes pride themselves on having created a more egalitarian culture, not just between rich and poor, but between men and women. “Our Swedish hearts are overwhelmed with pride, because our very own Elin didn’t take any s–t. Just like a tough Swedish girl shouldn’t,” Svensson wrote. “Elin is our heroine.”
Still, few believe Nordegren will take her young children to live in Sweden, away from their dad. Tradition dictates that child custody be shared, says Svensson (in Sweden, single-parent custody is “very rare,” she adds, generally granted only in cases of “incest or severe domestic abuse”). When a Swedish couple divorces, assets are typically halved, 50-50—“pre-nups and divorce lawyers are almost unheard of,” writes Swedish journalist Katarina Andersson. In fact, most Swedes were revolted by news that Woods had reportedly sweetened the pre-nup, offering Nordegren US$55 million more to stay for two more years, says Svensson: “We think a woman who marries for money is stupid—behaviour we connect with a typical American gold-digging housewife.” And Nordegren, poised, substantive, elegant, and born of an intelligent, well-to-do family, is, she insists, nothing of the sort.
What Nordegren has planned next is anybody’s guess. But while she has remained silent, some have picked up on signals—as when she was photographed pumping gas without her wedding ring. Though she was reportedly in talks with a top L.A. divorce lawyer before Christmas, it remains unclear whether she will “take the money, and kick him in the butt,” as per the suggestion of fellow Swede, Anna Anka, whose tumultuous marriage to Paul Anka has also captivated the country. If Nordegren does give Woods the boot—which several U.S. media reports she intends to—those supportive Swedes might make it a national holiday.