Tiger Woods had just won his first pro tournament in 1996 when he walked into the press room at the Las Vegas Invitational and glanced at a story a reporter was writing.
''Like it?'' the writer asked.
''I like this,'' Woods replied, pointing to a mention of the $297,000 winner's check.
Woods had been a pro for only a month or so and he was already rich, thanks to deals with Nike and Titleist that would pay him $60 million for five years. But to a 20-year-old who couldn't even legally drink, the winner's check was what really mattered.
''That other stuff was paper money,'' his father, Earl Woods, recalled.
Four years later, Woods has come to understand that paper money can really add up. He's the biggest moneymaker in sports and well on his way to becoming the richest athlete ever.
At the age of 24, he both dominates and transcends the sport of golf. Companies throw money at him to get him to endorse their products, while tournament directors and TV executives pray for him to play in their tournaments.
America is in love with Tiger Woods and, as evidenced by the ratings for his suspenseless 15-stroke rout in the U.S. Open, this affair is in no danger of waning.
''He's Elvis. We've found Elvis and he looks like Tiger Woods,'' said Rick Burton, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.
Not quite, but Woods certainly has staked his place in line to surpass Michael Jordan as America's most recognized -- and well-paid -- sports hero. Fans who wouldn't know Davis Love III from Fred Funk know Tiger Woods, and his reach has already spread far from the sport of golf itself.
The money is coming in so fast that he's already well on his way to becoming sport's first billion-dollar man.
''The easy answer is that if anybody can, it's Tiger,'' his agent, Mark Steinberg, said.
Estimates vary -- and his handlers won't give specifics -- but Woods will easily earn tens of millions of dollars this year from a select group of deals topped by a contract with Nike. He's already won $5 million this year on the golf course alone, money he puts into a fund to build a house in Florida while his other millions are invested by his father.
Woods' agents are wrapping up the details on a new five-year Nike contract that published reports value at $100 million or more. He will also reportedly get a piece of the revenues on the new Nike golf ball that he began playing shortly before the Open.
''He is the most remarkable athlete in the world right now and certainly deserves the comparison to Michael Jordan,'' said Nike Golf president Bob Wood.
Just how big Woods is becoming is hard to imagine. But everyone, it seems, wants to be a part of it.
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