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A Sense of Who He Is

Popular culture—from Golf in the Kingdom to Caddyshack—has frequently tried to draw connections between golf and Zen, a branch of Buddhism. The notion is that Zen emphasizes golf-friendly concepts like being in the present and reacting to the world intuitively rather than with the conscious mind. But Woods doesn't buy into it. "Things just need to have the right balance," he told me, shaking his head. "I think that's all people are trying to say. They just go over the edge in saying it."

We golf fans may have projected way too much complexity onto Woods, it occurred to me. The first thing most of us heard about Woods's upbringing was from his father, a complicated man if ever there was one. Earl has written two polemical books about raising Tiger and sometimes speaks to the press about his son's messiahlike potential. To this notion of Woods most of us added our own peculiar assumptions, based largely on how we imagine we would fare (not well) in the intense competitive arena where he performs, concluding that since he succeeds so brilliantly, he must be very complexly wired indeed.

But maybe the better prism through which to consider Woods is his media-shy mother, with her simplifying Asian religion and unequivocal discipline. What if, just for the sake of argument, Woods was in fact a supremely simple individual?What if the "secret" of his success was that deep down inside he has an extraordinarily brave but uncomplex heart and a strong but unneurotic mind?Maybe Woods is simpleminded the way Einstein was simpleminded when he came up with E = mc2.

This isn't to say that Woods is some kind of Buddhist saint. At the Western Open last year, he angrily broke one of his clubs in half after dunking an approach shot in the pond on number eighteen, and he can curse with the best of them. (This is a trait he picked up from Earl, who once bragged that his father could swear for thirty minutes without repeating himself.) But Tiger's anger, like his fist-pumping elation, is a simple by-product of the all-encompassing emotion with which he plays. It blossoms briefly like fireworks against the sky and usually dissipates long before the next shot.

No athlete, perhaps no one in any walk of life, has ever become so famous and so powerful so fast as Tiger Woods, who is still only twenty-six. In sports, Michael Jordan might have risen to this level, but he burst into public consciousness in the 1980s, and that was a different era. The global reach of the media, the stunning value of endorsement deals and the ubiquitous interjection of celebrity into everyday life through branded products have changed the nature of stardom in the last half-dozen years or so—coinciding exactly with Woods's emergence as the world's most marketable athlete. And the personal implications for Tiger are already clear.

Woods grew up in the media eye, of course, so he did have some preparation for what his life has become. When he was two, his mother called a local TV station, which did a cute report on his golf prowess, which got him on The Mike Douglas Show putting against Bob Hope. At five he appeared on That's Incredible. At fifteen, Sports Illustrated's first full feature about him appeared, and he has been golf's dominant story ever since. But no one, not even Earl, could have predicted the unprecedented international celebrity that Woods has become.

"For Tiger, there really is no such thing as getting away anymore," says his IMG agent, Mark Steinberg, who makes most international trips with Woods and knows him well. "Wherever he goes, people are stopping and ogling in a way that only he could understand."


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