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Profile of a Champion: Changing His Stripes

16 minute read
Romesh Ratnesar

He can be smug. When a young girl in New Orleans last week asked Tiger Woods how much he makes, the world’s richest golfer gathered his thoughts, then said, “More than you.” Petulant? On occasion. “There isn’t enough time in the day or in my life to please everybody,” he told TIME last week. “Even if you do that every day for the rest of your life–I guarantee you haven’t done enough.” He is legendary among his friends as a cheapskate, rarely carrying cash and traveling, one says, “like the Queen.” Want more? He makes his bed every day, even when he stays in hotels, and he irons shirts that have already been pressed by the dry cleaners. Tiger Woods is a neat freak.

But if that’s the worst that can be said about him, then in life’s par-five Tiger is on the green in two. He is not merely the most accomplished and recognizable athlete alive; he may also be the most uncritically embraced person on earth. Talk to people who know him, and rhapsodies flow. “I love Tiger,” says fellow pro Hal Sutton. “He has always been cordial with me. He’s considerate when I play with him. He’s just a great guy.” Tiger’s agent and friend, Mark Steinberg, says that “as good a golfer as Tiger is, he’s an even better person.” O.K., so Tiger is Steinberg’s meal ticket. But even those who have nothing invested in Woods find it hard not to be effusive. “He is a tremendously well-balanced young man,” says South African veteran Gary Player, 64. “He is a gracious loser. He dresses well. He speaks well. He will be a great influence on generations of people throughout the world.”

That influence is already apparent. This summer Tiger has disrupted countless weekend itineraries. Last month 28 million Americans, a 32% increase over last year, watched one of the least dramatic final rounds in the history of the British Open. They stayed for a glimpse of golfing puissance–and to see a reflection of themselves. In an era defined by placid prosperity and cross-cultural, NASDAQ-obsessed Generation Y geeks who went to Stanford, it is only a minor coincidence that the national icon is a 24-year-old multiracial golfer who “plays around in the market” and could be worth $1 billion by the time he’s 30 and was geeky enough to be nicknamed Urkel by his college teammates–at Stanford.

Tiger has changed since he left school, but he has matured in the glare of intense public scrutiny that has at times proved painful. So Woods has adjusted, in some sense refining his personality in much the way he has his golf swing–purposefully and with great success.

It’s that personality almost as much as his athletic prowess that has allowed him to become all things to all people. He is youthful but not callow, self-assured but never cocky, intelligent without seeming intellectual. And he remains, in his megastardom, a wary and private man. Woods reveals little about himself that can be exploited and rarely offers opinions that might offend. When he speaks to reporters and fans, his voice stays in a single register, and he often rounds off well-crafted answers with vague platitudes. On the course, he doesn’t play to the crowds, even as they close in on him to be next to greatness. Woods has become the world’s most popular athlete by comporting himself with a decorous dullness that is almost quaint. “Tiger has made it cool to be a golfer,” says friend and rival David Duval. But Tiger’s biggest accomplishment has come in making it cool to be Tiger.

In an interview with TIME last week, dressed in his now signature loose-fitting, all-black ensemble, Woods practically boasted that his life verges on the quotidian. “I’m a professional athlete. That’s my job. That takes me around the world, so right there that’s not your average 24-year-old,” he said. “But in every other respect, I do everything the same. I may go out to a movie, to a restaurant, bars; the only difference is there are consequences for my doing it. But you can do the same things like anybody else. And that’s what people don’t quite understand. Do you have to live in a shadow or in disguises? No. You just be yourself.”

For Woods, that means being courteous to those who demand his time, without pretending to relish the interaction. In conversation, he fixes a hard stare on others in the room, allowing questions to unspool in full before he launches into a response. The approach was honed by Woods’ father Earl, who gave his son his first lesson in handling the media when Tiger was four: “Answer the question, and tell the truth.” It’s a technique that stresses directness, not warmth.

From the start, his life was dotted with feats of genius that even now seem incomprehensible. At 10 months, having spent his infancy watching his dad hit golf balls in the family garage in Cypress, Calif., Tiger picked up one of Earl’s clubs and smacked a ball into the practice net–left-handed. He won a putting contest against Bob Hope at two. By six he was playing and beating 18-year-olds.

But off the course there were struggles. At six, Woods developed a speech impediment that took two years of special reading classes to correct. “I couldn’t even read out loud to myself,” he told an audience last week in New Orleans at a golf clinic for inner-city youths, one of five he will give this year on behalf of the Tiger Woods Foundation. The speech impediment still prevents him from speaking foreign languages–though he reads Spanish and understands spoken Thai, his mother’s native tongue.

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While not exactly withdrawn, the young Tiger had a serene concentration. “He was a very calm individual,” says John Anselmo, 78, who began coaching Tiger when he was 10. “He seemed to understand everything in life. Everything we talked about he absorbed.” Tiger dabbled in team sports, but “the only [other] sport I truly loved competing in was track and cross-country. For some reason I loved it–I’m sorry, I liked it. I loved golf.” He was nearly as assiduous as a student. “I never had to ask Tiger to practice,” says Earl, “and I never had to ask him if he had his homework done.”

By the time he entered Stanford in 1994, Woods had won the first of his three straight U.S. Amateur titles, but there were volleyball players who were better known on campus. Woods loved it. “Anonymity was one of the best things about being at Stanford,” he says. “I was sort of a lower-tier athlete.” One college roommate, Yves Zinggeler, remembers that Woods “was a humorous guy who liked to have fun and go out on weekends”; he dated a couple of women, but “he wasn’t a skirt chaser.” He watched The Simpsons religiously and cued up videotapes of PGA tournaments. He made his bed, of course; but as a sophomore, when Tiger lived in a suite with Zinggeler and four other students, “he would get McDonald’s and leave the remnants lying around all the time.” And Tiger never paid his full share of the phone bill.

Still, he was a bighearted guy who offered friends his car keys and inquired about their classes and career goals. Though Woods, an economics major, left school after two years, he has promised his parents that he will get his degree. He told TIME that he is looking into finishing his undergraduate requirements through a University of California online-learning program. “I’d like to be able to do that,” he says. “We’ll just have to see if it’s realistic or not.”

After leaving Stanford, Woods electrified the PGA Tour. He joined the Tour in late August of 1996 and immediately won two tournaments that fall. He signed $60 million worth of deals with Nike, Titleist and others. And he became miserable.

At 20 he was suddenly living alone, in his own place near Orlando. “I feel completely overwhelmed,” he told a Stanford friend after his first pro tournament. Just before the 1997 Masters, an article in GQ quoted him telling a stream of off-color, racist and homophobic jokes. Woods thought the remarks had been off the record. Once burned, he has been cool with reporters ever since.

Woods was unprepared for the crush of attention that accompanied his astonishing debut. He had difficulty making friends with other players. “He couldn’t walk anywhere without being mobbed,” says golfer Lee Janzen. “So he didn’t spend any time in the locker room. Most of us didn’t even get the chance to see him.” The spotlight was blinding, Woods says. “It was a big change in my life. I turned pro, and suddenly, overnight, people knew who I was. I felt uncomfortable with it. There I was enjoying dinner with family and friends, and to have people run up to you and want to talk to you and have your picture taken or get your autograph–I didn’t think it was right for people to do that.”

There was also the unavoidable issue of race. It had been decades since race played so integral a part in an athlete’s career. But here was an Afro-Asian American dominating golf, traditionally the whitest of games. “Tiger is totally aware of [race] because he’s been taught from the get-go that he’s got to be above reproach or he’s going to get it,” Earl says. “In our society, whites and non-whites have not been equal, and they aren’t equal now. Do you realize there are people out there trying to dig up dirt on Tiger? Do you think they’re out there trying to dig up dirt on Jack Nicklaus? Give me a break.”

Tiger takes a more muted, progressive view of race relations–and of his own identity. “It is kind of neat to be able to be raised in two cultures and understand them both and fit in,” he told TIME. “In this country I’m a minority, but around the world I’m treated a little bit differently. We would be ignorant to say racism doesn’t exist. But I think things are changing, and changing for the good.”

By the beginning of 1998, Woods was so fatigued that some associates worried about burnout. “I told him, ‘You’re not enjoying your life right now. You need to refocus,'” says Greg Nared, a friend who manages Tiger’s business affairs for Nike. Just as he began to reinvent his golf swing, Woods redrew his inner circle–dumping his lawyer, his caddie and his agent. The new Team Tiger pared down Woods’ commitments and began reshaping his image. “We had an in-depth discussion about humanizing him, changing the perception that he was out on an island and untouchable,” says Steinberg. The early Nike ads, which depicted Tiger as foremost a racial pioneer, were replaced with spots that showed Tiger juggling a golf ball on a wedge and then knocking it into oblivion, to the rhythm of a salsa track.

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He also fired his parents, so to speak, their guidance no longer so necessary or offered. “My dad and I don’t talk as much,” Tiger says. “He’s doing his thing, I’m doing my thing.” Earl says he wants no part in decisions about Tiger’s finances or personal life. “It was part of the game plan that he would assume these things,” he says. “We’re right on schedule.” Tiger’s parents live separately in Southern California, and while Earl, who has battled heart disease and prostate cancer, often stays home during Tiger’s tournaments, Tida has become a more visible presence. But she doesn’t interfere either. “He’s a big boy now,” she says.

Stretched by the trials of his early 20s, Tiger is more at ease in his celebrity skin. “Over time, I got used to it to the point where I accept it and I understand it. And people have gotten to know the persona of Tiger Woods. That newness has worn off to a huge extent.” He is popular with fellow pros for his gracious manner. Even in the heat of the final round of tournaments, he flashes a thumbs-ups to opponents when they hit a good shot. Woods surrounds himself with a small group of friends and mentors–including Michael Jordan and Ken Griffey Jr.–and while some college buddies say they haven’t heard from him in two years, he is not sealed off. Last month Nared was stunned to receive a bouquet of flowers from Woods, consoling him on the death of his grandmother. Woods was in the middle of playing the British Open when he had the flowers sent.

The obsessive child prodigy still calibrates the details of his life to maintain a Zen-like calm. “There are things in your life that you don’t feel are quite right, so you change them,” he told TIME. “And you’ve got to tweak them every day–because it’s very easy to get out of balance and not have everything exactly as you would like to have it. It could be that you’re sleeping too much or not sleeping enough. Or you’re not eating enough or eating too much. You’ve just got to keep the right balance.” Friends say he does. “He’s more open and more accepting,” says Mark O’Meara. “I’m proud of him as a friend for the way he’s conducting himself off the course.” At 24, Tiger’s still evolving. “Each year I’ve learned that much more about myself. I guarantee I’ll be a totally different person next year from who I am now.”

Tiger is building a new home in Isleworth, Fla., and has found a steady companion in Joanna Jagoda, 22, a law student at Pepperdine University. They met on a blind date. “She’s a good girl,” Woods says. Jagoda has adjusted to the cameras and scrutiny. “It takes time to understand–you’ve got to experience it,” Tiger says. “It’s not an easy life, but we’ve gone through it pretty good.” But he professes to have no “timeline” for marriage or kids: “When the time is right, you’ll know it.”

His passions remain prosaic. Between tournaments, he passes time by fly-fishing, playing video games–preferably ones with “a bit of fighting and a bit of blood”–and watching sports with his friends. But he rarely sits still. Before dismantling the field at the British Open, he went salmon fishing in Ireland with O’Meara. The week after his triumph, Tiger scuba-dived in the Bahamas. Like Jordan, he will place a friendly wager on just about anything–but forget about getting him to pay up. Kelly Manos, one of Woods’ childhood golf partners, won $20 from Tiger the last time they played together, in 1995. Manos hasn’t seen the cash: “Whenever I ask him about it, he always says, ‘I’ll play you for it.'” As a betting man, he can get excited when discussing the stock market, reveling in a couple of recent winners. “Anytime you can pick a stock…that grows 50%, you feel pretty good,” Tiger says.

And when you can pick the pockets of the world’s best golfers anytime you’re on the course with them, that must feel pretty good too. Also, it is surely gratifying to know that you can make any child’s day by merely flashing a smile or a wink. The danger will come if Tiger copes with the planet’s increasing demands on him by turning inward. When asked by TIME, Woods said he doesn’t worry much about how the public perceives him. “When I’m out there, in life in general, I just want to be me. Tiger Woods. The person I am. That’s all I need to do.”

He’s right. Most of us don’t need him to be a savior or a hero or a role model. We simply want the spectacle: Tiger gliding down the fairway, Tiger hitting rainmaker drives, Tiger pummeling his opponents and then putting his arm around them, Tiger hugging his mom. If he turns and winks back at us every once in a while, that will be good enough.

Highlights from 24 months to 24 years

Beats Bob Hope at putting on The Mike Douglas Show

Shoots 48 for 9 holes at the Navy Golf Club in Cypress, Calif.

Wins Optimist International Jr. World tourney; will win five more before turning 16

AGE 14
Finishes second in PGA National Junior (age limit: 17). Plays the Southern California/ French Junior Cup in Paris

AGE 15
Becomes youngest ever to win the U.S. Junior Amateur. Will win it the next two years for a record-setting three times

AGE 16
Plays in his first PGA Tour event, the Los Angeles Open, as an amateur, shooting 72-75 but missing the cut

AGE 17
Begins working with his current coach, Butch Harmon. Accepts scholarship to Stanford for fall of 1994

AGE 18
Comes back from 6 down after 13 holes in 36-hole final to become youngest to win the U.S. Amateur Championship

AGE 19
Competes in the Masters, his first major tournament. Only amateur to make the cut; finishes tied for 41st

AGE 20
Establishes Tiger Woods Foundation; wins record third straight Amateur title; turns pro; wins twice; earns $790,594

AGE 21
Dons green jacket after winning Masters by record 12 strokes; is youngest to win title; begins swing change

AGE 22
Has 13 Top-10 finishes in 20 Tour starts; is fourth in money while changing swing; makes Blackwell’s best-dressed list

AGE 23
Triumphs in 11 events; is first since Ben Hogan in 1953 to win four straight; PGA Championship gives him second major title

AGE 24
Celebrates mark of becoming fifth and youngest to win career grand slam with victories at U.S. and British Opens; is only one to have won U.S. Jr. Amateur, U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open titles; is ranked No. 1 in world. All-time career earnings: $17,050,710

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