As the eight-deep throng surged forward into the outstretched arms of ear-pieced security personnel, Tiger Woods reared back and let 'em , rip. For a moment the pack was hushed; then Woods threw his hands into the air and turned into the embrace of his friend Jerry Chang. Behind them Elin Nordegren, Woods's girlfriend, expressed her delight by twitching her meticulously groomed eyebrows. Beyond the security line the now raucous crowd exchanged high fives. Woods punctuated the moment with his signature fist pump. "Yo, eleven!" a spectator cried.
The thick-necked man at Woods's side at the craps table shoved a toppling, kaleidoscopic stack of chips in front of Tiger. It was almost 11 p.m. on Friday, April 19, but Woods was just getting started. That night, as he threw dice and later tried his hand at blackjack at Las Vegas's Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino—home base for Tiger Jam V, the Tiger Woods Foundation benefit that was to begin the next morning—the scene on the casino floor was chaotic as word spread of the Masters champion's presence. Yet the pandemonium never fazed Woods, who seemed oblivious to the crowd around him. At the tables and during the 24 hours of golf and goodwill that followed, Woods offered a glimpse of his particular genius: how a man can be the world's most famous, most charismatic athlete, and simultaneously be robotic and detached from the public that adores him.
Not that Tiger hasn't reached out in other ways. Having raised about $4 million since 1998, the Jam has helped the Woods Foundation support programs like Start Something, a youth leadership program that promotes community activism. For years die foundation, through a series of clinics featuring Woods, has also been active in kids' golf, particularly in areas where access to lessons is limited.
Woods, though, was as inaccessible as he was omnipresent during his fifth Jam, gliding from a three-hole celebrity golf match on Saturday morning through a mingle-with-role-models session for children in the afternoon, to a concert (featuring VH-1 darlings Train and Woods's longtime favorite, Don Henley) in the evening. The day was, in the words of Woods's MTV pal, Carson Daly, "a chance to do the right thing with Tiger. And the golf and the gambling didn't hurt."
That said, if you still believe that Michael Jordan, retired or no, is the athlete atop the celebrity A-list, consider Tiger's stroll through Mandalay Bay to the craps table on that Friday night. He shone like the Bat Signal, drawing scores of spectators and every celebrity in the joint, even as he ignored almost every one of them. Daly, who only minutes before had been the crowd's focus, yelled repeatedly to Woods from a nearby table, eliciting no response. Opposite Daly, Dylan McDermott, star of The Practice, coolly nodded hello. Zip. Elton Brand and Corey Maggette of the Los Angeles Clippers pointed as they slid past Woods's table completely unnoticed, though they stand 6' 8" and 6' 6", respectively. King of Queens star Kevin James and ESPN anchor Stuart Scott seemed content merely to be on Tiger's side of the rope, eclipsed though they were. Meanwhile, the posse's lesser cling-ons beamed with once-removed pride, basking in the glow of those basking in the glow.
Around midnight the pack swelled considerably when Charles Barkley and former volleyball star and aspiring pro golfer Gabrielle Reece caught up to Horde Tiger in the baccarat-blackjack lounge. (At blackjack Tiger stationed himself at first base with the Amstel-toting Nordegren in his lap. Woods's father, Earl, was the third-sacker.) Perhaps sensing that the collective Q rating was reaching critical mass, Daly quietly slipped away. "It's amazing what he has to deal with, all those people coming at him," he said before leaving. "We were supposed to play golf today, but he flaked. Guess it was a family emergency or something."
In the night's wee hours, long after Tiger, Nordegren & Co. had departed, Barkley stood by a roulette wheel and gave his spin on his famous friend. "I knew five years ago that Tiger was the best ever," he said. "I've played with Phil [Mickelson] and all those guys, and Tiger does things they can't do. They're intimidated by Tiger. They're soft as s—. Black Jesus scares them." Everyone within earshot nodded.
Earshot expanded considerably on Saturday with the celebrity golfers miked for the morning's match, a better-ball against Woods, during which Barkley (teamed with James, McDermott and Reece) dominated with his mouth, if not his play. Before the match got under way at the par-3 16th hole at Rio Secco Golf Club, Woods spent less than a minute posing for pictures with the 30-odd children intent on meeting him, leaving the handshakes and hellos to his fellow celebs. Barkley and Reece, especially, complied with infectious good cheer, taking turns posing for pictures with the disbelieving Start Something kids, tousling their hair and teasing them playfully. Off to the side Tiger huddled with his coach, Butch Harmon, who would emcee the proceedings, and took some practice swings with his driver, one of three clubs (along with a nine-iron and a five-iron) he'd be allowed to use. Somebody in the 200-strong gallery made an off-color remark, and Tiger briefly flashed his famous grin before taking a few more practice swipes, refusing to let the merry ruckus upset his focus for long.
Tiger could afford to be his retiring self, what with the irrepressible Barkley on hand. When McDermott skanked his opening tee shot all of 20 yards, Barkley couldn't help himself. "You're definitely on the right show," Barkley cried, "because you need some practice." The sound track to much of the exhibition was innuendo-filled, Reece-specific banter that, given the setting, was inappropriate even by Barkley's standards. As Reece stood over a putt on the second hole, Harmon asked Barkley for a read. "I see a big, tall, sexy man for you," he said with a leer. "I've got one of those already—my husband," she replied. "Then pretend you're Mormon," Barkley shot back, "and get another one." All the while, Tiger's concentration never flagged. He mostly kept his distance from Barkley and the rest, even on the greens, content to read his putts and smile at his opponents' miscues. Though equipped with a microphone, Tiger rarely spoke if not spoken to.
There weren't a lot of yuks for the kids, either. During the march down the first fairway, one of the five lucky children picked to caddie was asked if he played golf. He shook his head no, and was then asked for whom he was looping. "I'm not sure—I think it's the guy on TV," he said, meaning McDermott, who was standing by the green waiting for his putter. The marshals noticed the delay and hurried the kid along. Sagging under the bag's weight, he double-timed it down the fairway.