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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
Finishes second in PGA National Junior (age limit: 17). Plays the Southern California/ French Junior Cup in Paris
Becomes youngest ever to win the U.S. Junior Amateur. Will win it the next two years for a record-setting three times
Plays in his first PGA Tour event, the Los Angeles Open, as an amateur, shooting 72-75 but missing the cut
Begins working with his current coach, Butch Harmon. Accepts scholarship to Stanford for fall of 1994
Comes back from 6 down after 13 holes in 36-hole final to become youngest to win the U.S. Amateur Championship
Competes in the Masters, his first major tournament. Only amateur to make the cut; finishes tied for 41st
Establishes Tiger Woods Foundation; wins record third straight Amateur title; turns pro; wins twice; earns $790,594
Dons green jacket after winning Masters by record 12 strokes; is youngest to win title; begins swing change
Has 13 Top-10 finishes in 20 Tour starts; is fourth in money while changing swing; makes Blackwell's best-dressed list
Triumphs in 11 events; is first since Ben Hogan in 1953 to win four straight; PGA Championship gives him second major title
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