The young man had come to the United Center in Chicago because he needed help. At the age of 21, Tiger Woods had just won the '97 Masters--by an amazing 12 strokes--and the rush of fame was overwhelming. So he sought the advice of the only other person who he thought could relate: the world's greatest basketball player. Woods waited patiently for Michael Jordan to shower, complete his postgame interviews and sign the obligatory autographs. Then the two sped away in Jordan's black Porsche to Lake Michigan, where they boarded a luxury casino boat to relax away from the glare of the spotlight. The two men, who had previously chatted only in passing, talked into the wee hours about the pressures of fame, the strain of competition and what it means to be in the select group of people known as the "greatest ever."
A friendship was struck that night, and soon Tiger found himself part of Jordan's inner-inner circle, along with former basketball player Charles Barkley and pro-foot ball star turned announcer Ahmad Rashad. The Brothers, they like to call themselves. "Our bond is that we're black, famous and rich, and living in a fishbowl," says Barkley. "Tiger is our younger brother--that's the best way to describe him.'' Says Jordan, "We have a lot in common, and we talk about that: the competition and the love of playing our games... Even though we played different sports, the level of commitment was there, and you can bond over that. I see him as a brother, handling a lot of the same pressures that I did.''
The four men depend on each other for support. Daily calls and e-mails keep them connected. Regular visits keep them sane. This bond speaks volumes about how Tiger Woods copes with fame and manages to keep his personal life private: in short, the same no-nonsense way he plays golf. Take stock of the situation. Seek advice. Then do whatever it takes to end up on top. "I have business advisers I rely on for some things and celebrity friends I talk to about other things. But I need both perspectives," Woods told NEWSWEEK at the recent Tiger Jam, an annual fund-raiser for his private charitable foundation. The support isn't just one way: as Barkley and Jordan, both 38, ponder returns to the NBA, Woods has been an ever-present sounding board. "I worry about Michael and what an 82-game schedule would do to his health, and I've let him know that," Woods says bluntly. "I just want to make sure it's the best decision for both of them--whatever they decide." Even as he heads into the U.S. Open this week, Woods has made a habit of calling Jordan and Barkley every day to wake them up and get them motivated for their intense morning workouts.
The Brothers also challenge Woods on the issue of race. Woods, whose father is black and whose mother is Thai, has taken a lot of heat in the African-American community for identifying himself as multi-ethnic rather than black. "People like to nitpick on everything," Woods says. "I know that, and I accept the fact that you can't please everybody. I get criticized for my charities' not being as 'ethnic' as they could be, but I can't get caught up in that either. I have a vision of what I want to do with my life and how I can give back with what I have, and that's what I do.'' Barkley, not known for his verbal restraint, is quick to challenge Tiger on the race question. "Tiger likes to be OK with everybody, to appeal to all people. And I tell him, 'That's cool, but the race card is here to stay. So he knows he's black. Enough has happened to him to see that--the playa hatin' on the all-white PGA tour and the hate mail and death threats he gets. I tell him that Thai people don't get hate mail, black people do.''
As on the links, negotiating such sensitive terrain takes expert skill. Jordan, in particular, is an invaluable influence. Known for his smooth handling of almost any incident, controversial or otherwise, Jordan's brand of intoxicating charm is something Woods has desperately wanted to emulate, people who know him say. "He looked to pattern himself after Michael, and the way Michael so carefully stays in that gray area--that in-between area where everything is neutral,'' says a former Nike executive. "You need look no further than the Casey Martin incident to see Jordan's influence." Martin, who was Woods's roommate his first year at Stanford, sued the PGA tour to be allowed to use a golf cart because of a handicap; he won his case late last month. "Tiger was very middle-of-the-road, supporting Martin and the tour but ruffling no feathers. That's classic Michael."
Despite their hectic schedules, the four Brothers find time to hook up and blow off steam. Last December it was a weeklong romp at the new Atlantis hotel in the Bahamas, where Jordan has a $25,000-a-night suite named after him, to celebrate Tiger's 25th birthday. (Tiger got a portable DVD player from Barkley.) Joined by Texas Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez, the $252 Million Dollar Man, the group golfed, gambled away tens of thousands of dollars and puffed on the Cuban cigars they always give each other for Christmas. Tiger even dyed his hair blond for the week. His childhood friends were there, too, some from his high-school days in Orange County, Calif., some former roommates from Stanford. They routinely accompany the golfer while he indulges his other favorite pastimes: fly-fishing and scuba. (His coach, Butch Harmon, recalls how Tiger once told him he loved diving because "the fish don't know who I am.'') This low-profile crew provides Woods with a few things the Brothers can't. "He does that scuba-diving stuff with his white friends," says Barkley, "so we're glad they come along, because Michael ain't getting in no water and neither am I. We don't swim or fish.'' He laughs. "But he has a good group of young people around him who keep him grounded. We can't do that.''
Highly protective of his privacy, Woods demands that his not-so-famous friends shy away from the spotlight; he cut ties with friends and a caddy some years ago after they spoke with the media. In return for loyalty, Woods shares his friendship and frequent-flyer miles, scooping pals up from their nine-to-fives to join him at tournaments and fund-raisers around the globe. "That is really something I look forward to, the times when I can just hang out with any of my friends and relax and do nothing--which is not often,'' says Woods, who likes to watch the Discovery Channel for hours on end, play videogames, eat gourmet Chinese food and listen to his favorite rock group, Third Eye Blind. "None of us have a lot of free time, so when we all are able to get together, it's special to me, because I know some of my friends will be getting married and having families soon and this kind of fun will be a thing of the past.''
Woods slyly takes himself out of the "soon to be married" category. "I want to get married and do the family thing at some point. I'd like that a lot. But right now my focus is golf. That's where all my energy goes.'' The Brothers have a lot to do with Tiger's position on marriage: they've all encouraged him to wait until he's at least 30.
When Tiger's intensity kicks in on the course, it can seem as if there's hardly room for anyone else. Most friends understand his single-mindedness, but Barkley admits to being a little put off by it initially. "Tiger can be just downright rude during a tournament,'' says the former basketball star. "We all call him before a tournament to wish him luck, and he doesn't return our phone calls once he takes to the links," Barkley says. "I was a little insulted at first, but now I understand. That's the way he works.'' And boy does he work it--with a little help from his friends.