To create a zone of privacy for himself, Woods, like many big-time celebrities, maintains a circle of close friends he can trust not to gab. Mostly they are old chums from childhood and from college, like his former Stanford teammate Jerry Chang, along with a few new pals like Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley. His friends from the Tour include Mark O'Meara, John Cook and David Duval. The preferred activity is simply hanging out. In Butch Harmon's office, I asked Woods what his absolutely favorite, get-away-from-it-all dream vacation would be, and he said: "The best times are taking all my buddies and just going away somewhere together. Whether we're going fishing or we're going scuba diving or we're playing golf, just so wherever we are and whatever we're doing, we're doing it all together. I may be kind of cynical, but as I've gotten older, I am certainly appreciating the time I spend with them a lot more." Woods's fishing trips are likely to be to Ireland (before the British Open) or Alaska (where last year he, O'Meara and Cook ended up fishing the same stream as a number of bears) and his scuba expeditions to remote islands in the Caribbean. One thing Woods likes about the fish he meets, he has said, is that not one has ever asked him for an autograph.
Exactly what goes on during Woods's down weeks—maybe four to six weeks a year—is closely guarded, but clearly he and his pals don't sit around knitting. Two years ago, after taking a few weeks off, Woods returned to the public eye sporting blond hair; last year he had a goatee. This spring some of the inner circle had a competition to see who could go the longest without eating meat. In 2000 he made a guest appearance as Chang's caddie at a U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship qualifier. At Tiger Jam V, he descended from his suite at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino for a few hours of gambling with Barkley and others, part of the time with Elin Nordegren sitting in his lap.
Nared thinks that Woods's hang time with friends, in addition to being fun, is an important part of his athletic regimen. "The majors and the weeks leading up to them really take a lot out of Tiger," he says. "When they're over, he's exhausted." Although Woods continues to work out during his downtimes, Nared says that he has an amazing ability to release himself psychologically from golf and that this is what allows him to recover physically. Steinberg agrees: "Where Tiger is when he takes time off, and what he does, isn't as important as his frame of mind. When he knows in advance he's going to be pursuing one of his hobbies or whatever, he can turn everything else off. To his credit, he does just the opposite in the middle of tournaments: He turns everything off that doesn't relate to golf. He has the most fantastic ability to focus on the present I have ever seen."
The downside of Woods's focus—for his fans, at least—is that he can come across as remote. In interviews, he is a master at smiling politely while saying little. Woods's pro-am partners sometimes describe him as a man who is there but not there: Perfectly polite but distracted, and the moment the round is over, boom, he's gone.
But the more I thought about his life, the more I came to realize that Woods's inaccessibility is just the price we have to pay if we want to see him do what he does best, which is to win golf tournaments. Sure we'd like to see Woods sign as many autographs as Phil Mickelson, party till dawn like Tommy Armour III or sing in a rock band like Peter Jacobsen. But we don't want to see him do those things if it means we have to watch him finish thirtieth week after week. Becoming the greatest golfer who ever lived is very demanding work, and those of us who want him to succeed at this goal have to give him the space he needs to do it.
Consider, for example, this never-before-told tale about the immediate aftermath of Woods's first victory in a major, the 1997 Masters, which he won by an astounding twelve strokes. The win created a kind of international hysteria, even in the nonsporting press, and it was nearly ten o'clock Sunday night before Woods was able to get through the green jacket ceremony and fulfill his other interviews and responsibilities at Augusta National and return to the house he had rented for the week with his family and friends. "We all toasted him the minute he walked in, and he was very moved and raised a glass with us," recalls Nared. "Then he said he would be right back, that he wanted to go upstairs and take a quick shower and change." But twenty minutes passed, then thirty, and no Tiger. So Nared and a few others went upstairs.