The hunt for Tiger Woods is on, or at least the first photographs of the golf superstar since his late-night car crash and damaging news of his marital problems.
The winner of 14 majors has virtually disappeared since driving his SUV into a tree during a bizarre accident outside his Orlando-area home last month. His wife, Elin Nordegren, has also laid low, though photos of her surfaced this week, her hand showing no sign of a wedding ring.
Except for a few posts on his Web site, where Woods apologized for "transgressions" and said he was taking an indefinite leave from golf, the world's best player has gone underground. And that, of course, has driven up the market value for his photographs.
"He's on top of the list," said famed paparazzo Ron Galella, who once had his jaw broken by Marlon Brando and is the subject of a documentary by Oscar-winning director Leon Gast that will premiere at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
"The only bigger one would be Brad Pitt with Jennifer Aniston, his former wife, if they ever got together," Galella said. "Tiger is hot now."
The word paparazzi comes from a character in the film "La Dolce Vita," although they often make life anything but sweet for athletes and celebrities.
The value of the photographs depends on several factors, said Frank Griffin of the Bauer-Griffin Agency, including things like quality and setting. If the picture were of Woods crying or contrite, it would be more valuable than one of him smiling.
Timing is also an issue, because many tabloids and celebrity magazines have maxed out their budgets for the year. A photograph that surfaces in a few weeks might generate more money.
The most expensive celebrity shots, according to a ranking by Forbes, were for the twins born to Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. The photos brought in about $14 million, although the couple allowed the photographer access in exchange for a donation to charity.
"Today my guys in Orlando get (Tiger) in the backyard, his head down, I would say $10,000 apiece," said Francois Navarre, who runs the X-17 photo agency. "Worldwide, I would probably make about $100,000. Now, if we get him with his wife, you can double that or more."
"It would have to be some clever marketing, and it would have to be worldwide," said Griffin, whose firm is considered one of the more established in the business. "A picture of Tiger Woods with a tooth missing being chased by 12 blonde females wielding golf clubs, name your price.
"Tiger Woods is a sad story," Griffin added. "It makes people unhappy to see that. The purpose of tabloid journalism has always been to cheer people."
That doesn't mean there isn't plenty of interest driving the Tiger Woods drama.
Yahoo Inc. chief executive Carol Bartz told financial analysts last week that the story is "better than Michael Jackson dying" for helping the company sell advertising. "It's kind of hard to put up an ad next to a funeral," she said.
Yahoo reported that searches for Woods' name were up more than 3,900 percent over the last 30 days, and Google Inc. said it also has seen a significant spike. Time Inc. said traffic to its Golf.com Web site has increased 600 percent since news of Woods' car accident broke.
"It's the biggest story of the year, even bigger than Michael Jackson and Rihanna — those are the three biggest dramas," Navarre said. "Tiger Woods is twice bigger, and it's going on and on. Usually we have a peak and it goes down, but right now it's like a plateau."