September 06, 2010 12:00 PM

“Give Daddy kisses,” says Elin Woods, cuddling her two children-one on each hip-in the garage doorway as they return from their father’s house a mile around the corner. In this moment, she and Tiger Woods are simply two parents working together, discussing when Sam, 3, last ran a fever and how long Charlie, 19 months, napped that afternoon. Sam, all smiles, wiggles to be put down so she can make her presentation: a pink Barbie Band-Aid that she tenderly places over a spot between her mother’s eyebrows. “For Mommy’s boo-boo,” the girl says.

Five days later, with the Aug. 23 execution of the couple’s divorce agreement, the fiercely private golden girl married almost six years to the world’s most famous athlete legally reclaimed her identity as Elin (pronounced EE-lin) Nordegren and hoped that healing the more profound hurts-those she won’t let her children see-would begin. About walking away with a settlement that neither she nor Woods will disclose but is estimated to be more than $100 million (nowhere near the rumored $750 million, which would be the bulk of Woods’ net worth), Nordegren says plainly, “Money can’t buy happiness.” She pauses. “Or put my family back together.”

Before she can close this chapter of her life, she wants, finally, to say her piece. But opening a window into her private thoughts was not a decision she came to easily. After the drama of last Thanksgiving weekend, when Woods, 34, crashed his car at the bottom of the driveway and she watched his double life unspool across months of tabloid headlines, the Swedish-born Nordegren, 30, faced down the press with silence. “My plan was to just stay the way I was,” she explains in her crisply accented voice. “For my kids, I felt that [remaining private] was the only normalcy I could give them, since they have a very famous dad. But after everything that happened and everything that was written and speculated-what I did or didn’t do-I felt like setting some things straight.” Most important, she wants the world to know that she was blindsided by her husband’s betrayal. “I’m so embarrassed that I never suspected-not a one. For the last 3 1/2 years, when all this was going on, I was home a lot more with pregnancies, then the children and my school.”

The final exam for a summer course toward her bachelor’s degree in psychology was looming-and both kids were battling a fever-when, on Aug. 15, she invited a PEOPLE reporter to the rented Windermere, Fla., home where she, Sam and Charlie have lived since the end of December. In 19 hours over four visits, Nordegren opened up about what she was feeling in the crucible that was her life these past nine months. “I’ve been through hell,” she says at her kitchen table. “It’s hard to think you have this life, and then all of a sudden-was it a lie? You’re struggling because it wasn’t real. But I survived. It was hard, but it didn’t kill me.”

In some ways, she says, it is almost liberating to be out from under the PGA schedule and corporate apparatus that grew up around her husband. She is now the ruler of her own world, living on her own for the first time in her entire life, and Woods needs her permission to get past the guard of her gated community. There were ground rules for the Q&A in these pages: Nordegren would talk through PEOPLE’s questions but then write out her answers, saying she is still not 100 percent confident in her spoken English. And she refused to allow Sam and Charlie to be photographed for this story: “I want to shelter them as much as I can.”

Shelter, for now, is the five-bedroom rental with its borrowed furniture that she originally intended as a temporary place while she and Woods worked on their marriage. “They asked me to sign a year’s lease, and I thought, ‘Whoa. I’m only going to be here a month!'” She won’t say when or why she decided that reconciliation wasn’t possible-only that “we tried for months and months” before she concluded that a marriage “without trust and love” was good for no one.

In those months she motored through the business of motherhood and generally stayed busy as a way of coping. The 21-year-old nanny, Marie (who, like the part-time housekeeper, moved with Nordegren in the split), taught her and the children to bake, and they all produced endless batches of cupcakes. In what had been a game room, Nordegren turned the wet bar into a diaper-changing station and removed the pool table to make room for dance parties to the Pippi Longstocking soundtrack. She read stacks of picture books to the children-in both English and Swedish-and whenever she could, she’d take off for a run or a bike ride. “I’ve not watched one minute of golf,” she declares.

Only at night, before Sam inevitably wandered into her bed, would Nordegren allow herself to be alone with an anguish that caused insomnia and weight loss. She sorted through her feelings by keeping a journal on her laptop (“I haven’t gone back to read what I wrote in December and January; I’m afraid to”) and undergoing intensive therapy that, as a psychology student, she strongly believes in and continues today. In the days before the divorce was final, she began to lose her hair, her body surrendering to the stress where her spirit would not. “I never cry. Unfortunately. I wish I could bring up my emotions more at the time, but it usually comes afterward. That’s one of my flaws,” she says wryly.

These days, though, she’s finding it easier to laugh again and admits that she did find the South Park and Saturday Night Live parodies of herself “pretty hysterical, even if they were totally untrue.” After months of difficult work on the divorce, she now teases and plays practical jokes on her Richmond, Va.-based lawyers Richard Cullen and Dennis Belcher at the firm McGuireWoods, where twin sister Josefin Lonnborg is an associate in the London office. Within the year she plans to relocate to southern Florida so that the children will be near their father-who has, under Florida law, “shared parental responsibility” or, effectively, shared custody-after he moves into the $55 million dream house that was built to be for the family of four. She’s excited about finding her own place. “I have visions of a great pool with slides,” she gushes, “a house you really live in-modern but cozy-and where all the kids want to play.” And she’s okay with being single. “It’s going to take time for me to start dating again,” she says. Only recently she’s realized that her instinct to believe in the good in people-and her ability to trust-has somehow survived. “It’s going to be just me and the kids for a little while. But I believe in love because I’ve seen it. I’ve been there.”

Q+A

Why speak up now?

Before today I haven’t felt ready, but now I see it as a step toward putting it behind me. I also see this as an opportunity to thank everyone who has reached out to me. I have felt tremendous support from family, friends and people I never met, and I want them to know that every encouraging letter, e-mail, text message or phone call has been a tremendous help. I have no intention of addressing these matters again after this interview. I hope that the kids and I will get the privacy we need to adjust to our new situation.

How are you doing?

As anyone who has gone through a divorce knows, it is never easy. Every day is a little easier than the one before, but I still have a lot of healing to do. I have been through stages of disbelief and shock, to anger and ultimately grief over the loss of the family I so badly wanted for my children. I have learned a lot about myself, about the world and about people around me. Even though I have been as disappointed as I have ever been, as sad as I have ever been and as angry as I have ever been, I also feel stronger than I ever have. I have confidence in my beliefs, my decisions and myself.

With everything that’s been said, is there anything in particular you’d like to set straight?

What comes to mind first is all the speculation that I had something to do with the car crash or that I had somehow used any kind of violence on Tiger. This was one of the things I had the hardest time with people thinking. There was never any violence inside or outside our home. The speculation that I would have used a golf club to hit him is just truly ridiculous. Tiger left the house that night, and after a while when he didn’t return, I got worried and decided to go look for him. That’s when I found him in the car. I did everything I could to get him out of the locked car. To think anything else is absolutely wrong.

What do you think when you read about yourself described as a “former swimsuit model and nanny”?

I did some modeling when I was younger. I was never very successful at it, and I didn’t intend to pursue it. It is flattering to be called a model, but I hardly think a few shoots in my teenage years make me a model. I’ve always loved children. I was a nanny for [Swedish golfer] Jesper and Mia Parnevik’s children for a year in between my studies. It is common in Europe to take a year or two off after gymnasiet [high school] to travel or go overseas to learn another language before you continue your studies. My initial plan was to go to Barcelona for a year to continue my Spanish studies, but I met Mia and came with them to the States to help them with their (then) three children. My intent was to go back to Sweden after a year and start my psychology studies. “Swimsuit model and nanny” isn’t accurate today, but they are things that I have done. They were both great experiences.

Tell us about your childhood dreams growing up in Sweden.

I grew up in a little town called Vaxholm outside Stockholm. I always loved sports and was an avid soccer player throughout my childhood. As a kid I dreamed of becoming a soccer professional and journalist (like my father) because I love to write. I knew after high school that I wanted to study psychology. I always loved children and I wanted to study something that could combine the two. After my year as a nanny, I planned to go back to Sweden. I was 21 when I met Tiger.

How did growing up a twin and as the daughter of two prominent parents-your mother a government official, your father a journalist-shape you?

I have huge respect for both of my parents. They gave me a base of trust, loyalty and love that I will always have and want to pass on to my children. There was an emphasis on respect for other people, and both my parents believed that there shouldn’t be too many “dos and don’ts” in a family, but instead a chance to make your own decisions.

Before my parents split up in 1987, they took my older brother Axel, my sister and me everywhere. My brother is 13 months older than my sister and me, so we were like triplets growing up. We were the kind of family that spent every little penny left over on travel. They stuffed us into a little Fiat Panda and drove all around Europe as often as possible. I have seen every country in Europe more than once. I have great memories of those trips. I think you teach your children a lot about the world when you travel.

Education and independence are very important in my family. I am an identical twin, so my parents stressed the importance of independence a lot more with me and my sister. They rarely dressed us in the same clothes, and if they did, I always wore red and my sister always wore blue so no one would say the wrong name. Everybody knew that red equals Elin and blue equals Josefin. They cut our hair differently and put my sister and me in different classes. Today I appreciate that they did that. My sister has been my best friend since the day we were born, and she is more than a best friend today. But we learned early on that we were two different individuals. I wish everyone on this planet could have an identical twin-the bond we have is something very special.

My parents split up when I was 7, and it was hard for me. I lived with each parent an equal amount of time after that, and I am thankful that I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with both of them. Despite the split, I feel like the base was still there. My mom showed me that it is possible to be on your own, be a mother and still pursue your career. My father moved to Germany in 1997, and my sister and I went with him for a year to study German and English. We did 11th grade at John F. Kennedy School in Berlin.

How did you and Tiger Woods meet?

I was traveling the PGA tour with Mia and Jesper, so we met through friends. I wasn’t interested at first, ironically. I had my opinions about celebrities. I got convinced that we were a lot alike and agreed to a date. The biggest reason I fell for him was because we had a lot of fun together.

What was it like adjusting to his world?

The hardest thing was being in the public eye. I am by nature a pretty shy and private person.

What was it about him that ultimately made you want to share your life with him?

I loved him, we had so much fun, and I felt safe with him. Our wedding day was one of the happiest days of my life.

We know you don’t want to discuss the things that led up to your divorce, but can you talk about how you first learned of his betrayal and what you felt at that moment?

Absolute shock and disbelief. I felt stupid as more things were revealed-how could I not have known anything? The word betrayal isn’t strong enough. I felt like my whole world had fallen apart. It seemed that my world as I thought it was had never existed. I felt embarrassed for having been so deceived. I felt betrayed by many people around me.

What have the last nine months been like for you?

It is hard to describe the emotional roller coaster I have been on, and it’s not over yet. I pretty much followed-and am following-the stages of grief that I have learned in my psychology studies: shock, bargaining, anger, depression-and I am still working on the last stage, forgiveness and/or acceptance.

Did you follow the news, or were you able to block it out?

I practically haven’t watched any TV from November to now. I had friends tell me what was going on, but I was also reading some of it on the Internet. So, yes, I followed some of it, but not all of it. It was too distressing.

In the middle of the crisis in December, your mother came to be with you and the children, then was rushed to the hospital by ambulance one night. What happened, and how is your mother now?

Charlie had a bad stomach bug and we all ended up getting it. My mom, who has very low blood pressure, collapsed at the house. She was unconscious for a while, and I called 911. She was fine soon after, but it got a tremendous amount of coverage because of the other things that were going on.

Did you ever think you could still make the marriage work?

You think of every way you can save a marriage when it is in a crisis, and I think you try even harder when you have children. So yes, initially, I thought we had a chance, and we tried really hard. I don’t want to go into details of why I didn’t think it was possible.

Did your childhood with divorced parents affect your thinking?

Absolutely. I really wanted my children to have a core family. I think my parents did a pretty good job as a divorced couple, but I can imagine that having your parents stay happily together would be the ultimate best thing for children. However, if there is no trust between the parents, I think it is better for the children that the parents split up. I am now going to do my very best to show them that alone and happy is better than being in a relationship where there is no trust. I want to show my kids what my parents showed me as a child.

Who helped you get through this?

First and foremost, the children are the reason I am getting through this. I try to shield them from everything as much as I possibly can, but of course they can feel something is going on even though they are so young. But just having them around, hugging me, kissing me, gives me the strength to get through every day.

My family has been unbelievable. Even though they are far away, they have been able to be there for me every step of the way. My sister gave me emotional support, but she also helped me a lot with practical matters.

I also have a lot of friends. And I have had counseling. It is important to have your friends’ and family’s support, but I also think it is very important to have objective help from a professional therapist if possible.

Another thing that got me through these last couple of months was working out and writing. I love to run and bike, and sometimes for me there is nothing more therapeutic than to go out for a long run. Also I do a lot of writing. To get my feelings down on paper is often a good way for me to release the anger and frustration.

Can you share one moment where, when you needed it most, the children really made you smile?

Every day with the kids is special. They truly are the reason I am feeling as strong as I am at the moment. Just to see them grow, take on the world and develop into these little people. Charlie was a baby last Thanksgiving, he had just learned how to walk, and now he is this little boy who is saying words and playing with his sister. I am so thankful that they have each other. But this has been hard on them too. Children sense any little tension that exists in a home, and despite our efforts to try to shield them from it, a situation like this doesn’t go unnoticed. There was one time when I was sitting at a table in the rented house we had just moved into. We had all of our things in boxes on the floor but had somehow managed to put a Christmas tree up, to feel somewhat at home. I wasn’t crying but I was thinking and was sad. Sam came up to me, put her hand on my cheek and said (in Swedish), “Mommy, where is your boo-boo?” I smiled at her and said, “Mommy’s boo-boo is in her heart right now, but it will be better.” She looked at me and said: “Can Sam kiss and make it better? Or maybe popcorn will.”

What does the future hold for you?

My immediate plan is for the kids and me to continue to adjust to our new situation. My main focus is to try to give myself time to heal. And I am hoping, by doing this interview and with the divorce becoming public, that this will be another step of putting it behind us. It is going to take some time, and I hope we will get the privacy to do so.

Will you and your children continue to live in the United States? In Florida?

Yes. As much as I love Sweden, I am an American too, and I have learned to love this country. My children and I are both Swedish and American citizens, we speak both languages, and I think we get the best of both worlds. The kids and I are also going to be spending time in Sweden so they get to experience the culture and have a close relationship with their grandparents, cousins and other family.

You’re going to be a very wealthy woman. How do you expect the money to affect your life moving forward?

Money doesn’t make you happy, but I have to be honest: It is making some things easier. I have the opportunity to be with my children as much I want, and I am able to travel to see my family and also have them come here as often as I like.

I was always going to have a career-with or without Tiger. Now that I will not be traveling and following Tiger around to golf tournaments, I will be able to finish my studies faster. Then I want to find a way to contribute and make a positive difference in people’s lives.

Have you-or can you ever-forgive Tiger?

Forgiveness takes time. It is the last step of the grieving process. I am going to be completely honest and tell you that I am working on it. I know I will have to come to forgiveness and acceptance of what has happened for me to go on and be happy in the future. And I know I will get there eventually.

I wish him all the best in the future, as a person and as an athlete. I know he is going to go down as the best golfer that ever lived, and rightfully so. I feel privileged to have witnessed a part of his golfing career.

We are going to be sharing custody of Sam and Charlie, which is a great thing. Tiger loves the children, and I want them to have regular and good contact with both of us. I will always have a working parenting relationship with Tiger.

After all that has happened, any regrets?

Not a single one. I have two beautiful children, I am an American, and I feel stronger than I ever have. I believe any crisis in life makes you more mature and look at life slightly differently. I know that I still have some more healing to do, but I am excited to start the next chapter of my life.

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