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TEAM TIGER

2/27/2008

Golf is a team sport. Has been for quite some time, in fact. Don't believe it? Go ahead and rewind the tape until you get to the part in the history of golf where every guy on the PGA Tour is wearing a cap or a shirt (or both) emblazoned with logo(s) of some type, and you'll see when the most solitary of games began to evolve into a team thing. That's not to say that golf's a team sport in the traditional team sport kind of way. The guy who hits the shots and rolls the putts is still Da Man. And if he screws up, he's got no one to blame but himself, unless he wants to sound like a chump. But if you think of golf as, say, NASCAR, you'll see what we mean by the Team Golf concept. Just take a look at the bags that will be lined up at the driving range at Bethpage Black when the US Open commences on June 13, each bedecked with colorful advertising. Don't they remind you just a little bit of the race cars you see on the NASCAR circuit?

Sponsors and logos are just the beginning. To compete at the highest level on today's PGA Tour, you need engineers to take care of your equipment and designers to take care of your threads, a coach who sees your swing in his sleep and (for many players, at least) a psychologist to help you find your happy place. You need someone to schedule your interviews and book your appearances. Most important, you need someone to say "No" to most of the army of people trying to get a piece of you. The list goes on and on: from nannies for your kids to pilots for your private jet, from a trainer to keep you fit to—oh, yeah—a caddie. Basically, you need people who work so that all you have in your brain come Thursday is your swing thoughts. This is what it takes to compete. But to be Tiger Woods, you need even more. For Woods to do what he does and be who he is, his team has to be bigger, badder and better than any other team in golf. Why? Because no one has to deal with what Tiger has to deal with. Not when it comes to scrutiny. Not when it comes to adulation. Not when it comes to the adoring mobs that follow him. And not when it comes to the security needed to keep those fans close enough, but not too close, to The Man.

Woods craves all this attention, in a way. "Money, notoriety," says Tiger, "all that stuff comes with winning championships. And to me, that's what gives me the most joy, beating everybody in the field. That, to me, is fun." Woods demands a lot out of Team Tiger, as you'll see. He is, in fact, very much like the NASCAR driver who can feel the slightest vibration on the steering wheel, hear the high-pitched sound that only dogs can hear in the engine and smell the slight odor that sends off an alarm that something is not perfect. Woods is meticulous. "Around here, we say he's a space alien," says Tom Stites, Nike's director of product creation, who designed Tiger's driver. "He has tactile skills we cannot comprehend." Tiger demands his teammates' trust, honesty and loyalty. And all the Team members seem to carry the understanding that it's their job to sweat over the smallest details so Tiger, now 26, won't have to. Team members also seem to believe that if Tiger looks good, they look good, and vice versa. If there were a vice versa, that is.

THE MANAGER
It was at a 1998 event in London that Mark Steinberg of the International Management Group officially took over as Tiger's agent, replacing IMG's first Tiger rep, Hughes Norton, who'd had a mutual parting of ways with Woods after two years. "I remember walking with him through a mob of people," Steinberg says. "There were thousands of people screaming Tiger's name, trying to touch him or just trying to see him. Finally, we got to our car. We hopped in the back seat. He looked at me and said, 'Welcome to my world.' Until you've seen it, you can't possibly understand it." What Steinberg, a former U. of Illinois basketball player who looks like he could still lead a fast break, took away from that experience—and every subsequent rock star moment with Tiger—is this: In a sport where a guy in the gallery with the sniffles is enough to distract most players, what Tiger faced every week was absolutely unfair. And it was going to be up to Steinberg, in large part, to keep things from getting out of hand. "We handle Tiger Woods' business interests from soup to nuts," Steinberg says. "And, yes, anything you can think of that could be a distraction—we try to limit it." That includes media. Way back when (1997), Charles Pierce of GQ wrote a profile on the then-21-year-old Woods that included some PG-13 (not even R!) jokes that Woods had shared with the writer—then tried to retract—while they rode together in a limousine. When the story came out, it unleashed a small firestorm of overreactions and demands for apologies. For Woods, most likely, it triggered the realization that he didn't want or need to deal with this kind of garbage on a regular basis. Steinberg has become known affectionately (or not) to a lot of golf media people as "Dr. No." This is not to say Tiger doesn't meet, at the very least, his professional obligation to attend pre-tournament and post-round press conferences. It does mean that the chances of any reporter getting him one-on-one and unmonitored range from slim to none. Says ESPN's Scott Van Pelt, who formerly worked as a reporter on the Golf Channel: "I've known Tiger since he was a freshman at Stanford. We've developed a relationship that is work-related, but we are also friends. And while Tiger has had to tell me no on occasion, it's easier to let Steiny do it. No hard feelings on my part. You understand what he's trying to accomplish. Steinberg does whatever he has to do to insulate his guy so he can focus on golf." In other words, so he can be Tiger Woods. Says Tiger: "Steiny, what he's done as far as organizing my life? Not exactly easy."

THE SWING GURU
Do you think Butch Harmon, Woods' swing coach, has the easiest job in sports? Or the hardest? The answer is probably a little of both. Sure, it's cake when Woods is swinging well, scoring well, feeling well and winning. But eliminate just one of those things from the equation—then it gets hard. Harmon, 58, who with a whistle around his neck could pass for an offensive line coach, tells a story about Tiger walking off the course leading the 2000 Memorial after shooting a 63 and grabbing him to say, "Meet me on the range, everything feels wrong." That should tell you right there how demanding, and trusting, Woods is of Harmon. But if you need further illustration, consider that in 1997, after winning his first Masters (as well as the Mercedes, the Byron Nelson and the Western Open), Woods permitted Harmon to "rebuild" his swing to sharpen his distance control and his consistency, with an emphasis, Harmon says, on "consistency under pressure." And when he won only once on the PGA Tour in 1998, Tiger didn't second-guess his coach—he stuck to the plan. As legend has it, Woods called Harmon one day from the driving range early in the 1999 season and said simply, "I've got it." What's happened since is history.

THE CADDIE
Once upon a time, Tiger had an outstanding caddie who, in name and appearance, seemed to be a cartoon character. Mike "Fluff" Cowan, with his bushy mustache and sizeable girth, looked like he would carry Tiger's bag into his own mini-empire, complete with Comfort Inn TV commercials and his very own video called Secrets to a Better Golf Score. Then, one day in 1999, Fluff showed up at a tournament wearing glasses, whispering to people, "My Man thinks I need them." A couple of weeks later, he was no longer carrying Tiger's bag. Fluff was ultimately replaced by a rugged New Zealander named Steve Williams, now 38, who, according to Tiger, has a terrific sense of humor and a special "way about him." Exactly what Tiger means when he says "typical Stevie," we're not sure. See, Williams doesn't talk to the press and doesn't say much more than "hi" and "bye" to his fellow caddies. Needless to say, he doesn't do commercials or instructional videos. What he does do, apparently, is judge distances, select clubs and read greens superbly. He also joins Tiger in the workout trailer instead of joining the other caddies at the Waffle House. Don't hold your breath waiting for him to do or say anything to upset Team Tiger. And when all is said and done, he'll be rich beyond any looper's wildest dream, even if you only consider his roughly 10% take of Tiger's wins—not counting bonuses.

THE TECHIES
According to Greg Nared, business affairs manager of Nike Golf and Tiger's personal business liaison since the day Woods signed with Nike in 1996, Tiger is a pain in the butt. And that's what the people at Nike love about him. "Everyone's got a story about how Tiger perfected one of our products," says Nared, a former guard on the U. of Maryland basketball team. "We sent him six drivers to try out," says club designer Stites. "He told us, 'I like the heavy one.' I was like, what? There couldn't have been a difference of more than a gram in any of the drivers we sent him. When we reweighed all the clubs, sure enough, he'd picked the one that was maybe a half-gram heavier than the rest. That's like if I gave you two stacks of 150 $1 bills, then tore one bill in half and told you to pick the heavier pile." During ball testing, says Stan Grissinger, Nike Golf's category (golf balls) business director, Tiger was given four balls to try. Before he hit any, he took them one by one and bounced them off the face of his sand wedge four times. "And he'd tell us, 'Here they are, hardest to softest,' " says Grissinger. "And he was always right. We're talking about a compression point or two, something only a machine can detect accurately." When Tiger finally decided to switch to a Nike ball two years ago, during his final tests he narrowed the field to four balls. He then hit a series of 30-yard wedges. "He was spinning the ball around the green like a pool shark doing trick shots," says Kel Devlin, Nike's sports-marketing director. "I remember when he found the ball he liked, he spun a few more, looked at us with a smile and said, 'You see that shit?'" The test, however, was not done. Woods took out his putter, stroked a few and decided—get this—that the sound of the ball coming off the face of his putter wasn't perfect. He said it sounded "broken." The Nike techies brought out an instrument to measure the pitch (to evaluate the purity of the tone), then went back to the lab and tinkered with the ball's finish until it was right. "He makes us work hard because his standards are so high," says Devlin. "But for us, it's fun trying to bring our game up to his level."

THE FASHIONISTA
Tiger has his personal logo on his cap now, an upside-down flag with a minuscule TW inscribed on it. It's still a Nike cap, of course, part of the Tiger Woods Collection, and his contract allows him to wear the TW only on weekdays. On weekends, a.k.a. Money Time, he switches back to his Swoosh cap. Woods' apparel deal with Nike is actually kind of amusing. You may see him wear the same shirt twice. But, in all likelihood, you'll never see him wear it a third time. That's because he's required to turn everything over every 90 days. "Pushing product" is what they call it in the business, and that's what Woods and Nared do at almost every Tour stop. David Hagler, Nike Golf's category (apparel) business director, says Woods is known as "an incredible hanger" for his team's designs. Nike begins to work on the clothes Tiger will wear in majors up to a year in advance, then provides him with a "script" well before the competition. He's not allowed to change for, say, good luck. Of course, none of this would fit into the story of Team Tiger if there weren't some performance-related issues, so here goes. "Tiger is very concerned with moisture management," says Hagler. In other words, he wants his shirts to wick the perspiration rather than absorb it. (Duffy Waldorf, are you reading this?) Speaking of moisture, Tiger hates rain jackets. Why? "Because they're noisy," says Nared. But he has to wear one now and then, so Nike's busily trying to perfect a "Tiger Tech Mock" and an "Ultra Light Sleeveless Rain Piece" in time for the British Open. Also, in case you were wondering, Tiger won't wear two-tone saddle shoes because he finds them distracting when he stands over the ball to putt. And he buttons his shirts to the top because when the top button is undone, he feels like the shirt is slipping off his left shoulder. "A polo may be a polo," says Hagler. "But when Tiger's wearing it, the shirt has to perform."

THE DAD
Not as visible a fixture as he was early in Tiger's career, Earl Woods is still a vital member of Team Tiger. People once rolled their eyes when Earl said his son would "change the world." Now they're more apt to listen. A couple of days before this year's Masters, Earl played golf with a group from Nike. Actually, in the aftermath of multiple bypass surgeries, he's not always up to playing 18 holes. So on this day he played every other hole and found time to dispense some nontechnical golf tips to his partners, who instantly began hitting Tour-caliber shots. At the end of the round, they were calling him (not to his face) Obi-Wan Kenobi. No wonder Tiger still leans on Dad for advice.

THE MOM
Earl was the Green Beret, but Tiger says it's his mother, Kultida, who taught him about focus and mental toughness. "My mom was the tough one," Tiger says. "Dad was more lenient. Obviously, she's of Asian heritage, and that culture is a lot different than it is here." When she attends tournaments, Kultida still walks the course, usually dressed in red so Tiger can see her. And her mangoes-and-rice dish is one of the few deviations Tiger makes from his strict, high-protein training diet.

THE BIG BROTHER
Mark O'Meara's role on Team Tiger has changed over the years. O'Meara, like Woods, was a highly decorated amateur out of Southern California. He was generous in showing Tiger the ropes when the kid first came out on the Tour, which Tiger's never forgotten, and they soon developed a close bond. They still fish together, hang together and play practice rounds together before just about every major. Early on, when it was learned that O'Meara, 18 years Woods' senior, was Tiger's best friend on Tour, the veteran was more than happy to be the window on Tiger's World. He'd talk about how Tiger, his neighbor in the Isleworth community of Orlando, would airmail him on every drive during a friendly round. He'd mention that Tiger had come over to the house to play video games or shoot baskets with his kids. Nothing earthshaking, but a nice, steady update on Tiger's life. But as Tiger has grown up these past five years, O'Meara has offered up considerably less information to the public. And he and Tiger have only grown closer. One big reason is that O'Meara is comfortable with who he is—an established and successful pro. That self-esteem appeals to Tiger and makes O'Meara a model teammate.

THE OLD BUDDY
Every so often, Tiger's best friend in the world, an old Stanford teammate named Jerry Chang, turns up in public with Woods. Last year, when Williams went home to New Zealand for a week, Chang—an MBA student at UCLA—caddied for Tiger. In 2000, after Tiger won the US Open at Pebble Beach, it was Woods who carried the bag for Chang in the US Amateur Public Links Championship. Tiger and Jerry are also a fixture as teammates at the AT&T Pro-Am. Going back a long time now, there's been this buzz that if anyone has some good Tiger Tales to tell, it's Chang. Forget about it. A year ago, when The Magazine tried to talk to Chang about the 1995 Stanford team, he politely replied via e-mail that he would not have the time for an interview, then offered up (again via e-mail) a statement that read as if it had been written by Ari Fleischer. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call a loyal—and very discreet—friend.

THE NEW PALS
For that same story about the 1995 Stanford team, former Cardinal golfer Will Yanagisawa was asked if he still got to play an occasional friendly round with his old teammate. "No," he responded amiably. "Tiger's foursome of choice these days is Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Ken Griffey Jr." True. MJ, Sir Charles and Junior form the celebrity portion of Team Tiger. Maybe it's because Tiger can hang with them and not feel like the only fish in the bowl. Or maybe it's because those guys finally found someone they can idolize. Or maybe both. Whatever, they're buds. Throw Sting into that mix too. No, he doesn't tee it up with Tiger, but the former lead man for the Police and Tiger swap face time (dinner with Sting/round of golf with Tiger for each other's charities—Sting's Rainforest Foundation and the Tiger Woods Foundation). Woods' foundation recently raised more than $1 million at its one-day "Tiger Jam V" in Las Vegas to help "empower young people to reach their highest potential." The TWF is run by a fellow named Greg McLaughlin, who happens to be the first person ever to grant Tiger a sponsor's exemption to a PGA Tour event—the 1992 Los Angeles Open, when Tiger was 16. Just goes to show you, Tiger never forgets a good teammate.

THE GIRLFRIEND
We saw in a New York tabloid (front-page headline: "Sexy Swede is Tee-Rific for Tiger") that Tiger's dating a woman from Sweden. We think it's Jesper Parnevik's kids' former nanny, who's now a model. We may have seen a few swimsuit shots of her on some Web site. Or something. Really, we were so busy studying Tiger's medium-distance wedge game, we hadn't noticed. We do know that Earl was quoted last year in TV Guide saying, "A wife can be a deterrent to a good golf game." Guess maybe we'll have to start paying a little closer attention to this story. But for now, we'll just keep an eye on how Tiger is functioning heading into the US Open. After the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio (where he finished at 282, eight strokes behind Jim Furyk), Tiger was going to try to get in a couple of practice rounds at the Black Course in Bethpage State Park in Long Island—site of this year's Open—so he could go back to Isleworth with an idea of what types of shots he had to practice. Woods, fresh off a playoff victory over Colin Montgomerie in the Deutsche Bank Open in Germany, where he hit an amazing 67 of 72 greens, said at the Memorial that he was feeling "pretty close" to as good as he felt at this time in 2000. You'll recall that at this same juncture in 2000, Woods went to Pebble Beach and shattered the US Open record, winning the first of four consecutive major championships—his "Grand Slam*." One huge difference between then and now, of course, is that Tiger already has this year's Green Jacket hanging in his closet. Now if he wins three straight majors, there won't be any asterisk. For what it's worth, Team Tiger looks ready.