The last time it happened, his son stood over the ball on a blistering Sunday at Medinah (Ill.) Country Club. Sergio Garcia, young and eager, threatened disaster from just one stroke back. Tiger Woods held the lead at the 1999 PGA Championship, but his putter had let him down again and again. For once he looked vulnerable. Eight feet from the cup on 17 now. Holing the par putt would erase the pressure, would virtually clinch the victory. His second major. His reputation intact.
Tiger stood over the ball. He heard the voice of his father, Earl, high and hollow, sounding in his head. He didn't know where it was coming from. Memory? Fear? Earl insists that he can do this anytime, talk to his son when he's on the other side of the course, talk to him through a television set all the way at the other end of the earth. Earl did it that day from his hotel room in Chicago, softly speaking to his son's image as it glowed on the screen: Tiger. This is a must-make putt. Trust your stroke. Trust your stroke.
Tiger heard, trusted, sent the ball rolling. It dropped into history. That night at the victory party, Tiger smiled at Earl and said, "I heard you, Pop."
The first time it happened, Tiger was 12. San Diego, junior world championships, final hole: He hit an approach shot over the green, needed to get up and down for the win. Earl, standing behind the green where Tiger couldn't see him, began muttering to himself, Don't do anything stupid. Put the ball on the green and trust your putting. Tiger pitched, putted, won. He came sprinting over the grass, yelling, "I heard you, Daddy! I heard you!"
"That's when we knew," Earl says. "He knows where I am at all times."
Everything bends to him now. Parents, opponents, friends, interviewers, tour flacks, sponsors, tour directors, TV networks—all wait for Tiger to make the call. All hope he will give a minute, pay them just a little more attention, but they understand if he can't, and they wait some more. Greatness gives you power, and power allows you to control your world, and if your world keeps expanding beyond the wealthy little fiefdom of professional golf and into the mad plastic nation of pure celebrity, so be it. Woods is 24 years old and the biggest, richest, most powerful athlete in his game. He doesn't worry about money. He doesn't worry about what people think. His greatness has set him free.
Last fall, during a Ryder Cup practice round, Woods and Tom Lehman were playing alternate shots—one teed off on the odd holes, the other on the even—and Woods stood waiting for Lehman to tee up on the sixth. A fan with a thick Boston accent rasped, "Come on, Tigah! Hit one!" Woods stared into space. "Hit a ball, Tigah! Come on!" Woods waited for Lehman to drive and then strolled away. "Hit one for me, Tigah!" Woods didn't turn, wave, shrug. Nothing. Finally, here it came: "Tigah! You suck!"
"You get that a lot?" Lehman asked.
"Every day," Woods said.
"Most guys, it'd bother them or piss them off, but with Tiger it's just water off a duck's back," Lehman says. "It didn't even faze him."