When Tiger Woods speaks, people listen

He remained 5,000 miles away from the PGA Tour season opener in Maui and yet Tiger Woods still found himself the center of attention when Golf Channel announcer Kelly Tilghman said his fellow competitors should "lynch him in a back alley." The world waited for Woods' response, which was proffered by way of a carefully prepared statement through his agent: "Regardless of the choice of words used, we know unequivocally that there was no ill intent in her comments."

Woods was lauded by some for his forgiveness toward a friend, for not inflaming an already provocative subject. He was forsaken by others for his resolution to neglect such an insensitive comment, for rejecting a leadership role when it came to a social issue.

Either way, one message came across loud and clear: When Tiger Woods speaks, people listen.

His riposte became the type of fodder talk shows are founded upon, a seemingly endless debate with a seemingly inconclusive solution. But that controversy was only one stop on the wild ride that could have been the basis for a Woods essay titled, "What I Did on my Winter Vacation."

There was the un-Tiger-like proclamation that winning the Grand Slam is "easily within reason" this year. There was the dedication to his late father, Earl, in the form of a statue at the Tiger Woods Learning Center. In each instance, Woods' off-course machinations caused a greater ripple than anything produced by Daniel Chopra, K.J. Choi or D.J. Trahan, who just happened to be the first three winners of the young season.

Now might be a good time to mention that while Woods has been in the news more in the past month than most golfers are in their lifetimes, there has been one thing missing: golf. That's right -- through all the quotes and headlines, the cogitation and conjecture, the world's No. 1 player has yet to hit a single shot in competition this year.

That will change Thursday, when Woods begins his three-time title defense at the Buick Invitational in La Jolla, Calif. The man known for speaking cautiously, if not softly, and carrying a big stick will return to the more familiar and comfortable confines of the golf course, where he once again will try to let his scorecard do the talking.

But the question remains: Has Woods become the unique athlete whose words are more cherished than his actions? Have we become so numb to the man with 13 majors and 61 PGA Tour victories that we seek more from him off the course?

"I know there are people who want me to be a champion of all causes," he said Wednesday. "I just can't do that."

Foremost among those was Earl Woods, who died May 3, 2006. "Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity," Earl told Sports Illustrated in the winter of 1996, just months after his son unleashed the words, "Hello, world," as part of an international marketing campaign. "He is the Chosen One. He'll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations. The world is just getting a taste of his power."

Less than a dozen years later, his power is thoughtfully wielded in bits and pieces. Woods is neither a civil rights leader nor a social policy enforcer, but he is quick to remind of his passion for working with young people.

"I am socially active every day of my life, and that's with my foundation, what I try to do with kids," he said. "We bust our tails to try and give as many kids the opportunity to better their lives and go to college, and teach them how to lead and give back. That's my directive. That's my focus."

Perhaps following Earl's lead, the public heaped great expectations upon him by age 21. Immediately after Woods tapped in on the final hole of the 1997 Masters, he became something bigger than a golfer. The first player of African-American and Thai heritage to join the ranks of the green jacketed in the Champions Locker Room at Augusta National Golf Club, he transcended the sport, emerging as one part world champion, two parts worldwide icon.

"He lives under so much more scrutiny and media attention and hype than any other player that's ever played the game," Mark O'Meara, one of Woods' closest friends, said Tuesday. "Jack [Nicklaus] played under some and Arnold [Palmer], but I don't think they played under near the expectations that this young man is being placed under, and the guy keeps delivering. Other guys come and go; they'd come in, they'd be the No. 1 player and all the things that come along with that -- it's hard to deal with. But yet, he keeps dealing with it."

Don't believe it? Look again at Woods' commanding impact on golf over the past month -- achieved without ever picking up a club. It can be debated whether his words speak louder than his actions, but it's all too apparent that his words speak louder than the actions of any of his peers in the golf world.

Ask him again about the recent controversy, about why he doesn't always use his position as a platform for reform, and Woods will respond with a precise, calculated acknowledgment: "This is not the first time this has happened."

It won't be the last, either.

Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com