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.