To understand Elvis Presley, skip kitschy Graceland in Memphis and visit Tupelo, Mississippi. The two-room cabin there where the king of rock ‘n’ roll was born is a world away from the glitz of his later years. Likewise, to understand Tiger Woods, bypass the grandeur of Augusta National and Pebble Beach for Orange County, California. The crowded, colorful munis there are full of clues to what makes Tiger tick. Raised in Cypress, a middle-class Los Angeles suburb, Woods first teed it up as an
18-month-old at the Navy courses in nearby Los Alamitos. His father, Earl, a former Green Beret, had playing privileges there. But Tiger’s first home track was Heartwell Golf Course, a par-3 layout in Long Beach. The parking lot at Heartwell is only slightly less crowded than the driving range, where on one recent Sunday afternoon all 31 mats were taken and a dozen-plus golfers were waiting their turn. “Golfers” may be a generous description since many of those taking their whacks could’ve hit the ball better with a hoe. “Ball” is even a stretch, as $6 buys a bucket of dimpled Cream of Wheat lumps. Yet every weekend there’s a line at the 1st tee when the lights come on at 5 a.m.
Young Tiger spent many summer days at Heartwell. “He’d practice hitting, chipping and putting all morning, take a break for lunch, then go play in the afternoon,” says former assistant pro Rudy Duran, who signed on as the 4-year-old cub’s first coach. Heartwell measures 2,143 yards with a par of 54, but Duran had Woods play it at a “Tiger par” of 68. Hanging on the lobby wall between the restrooms is a replica scorecard dated August 27, 1980, the day Woods — still four months shy of his fifth birthday — made a deuce on the 91-yard 3rd hole for his first birdie. He won that battle but not the war. The final tally reads, mom-66, tiger-70.
Woods cut his golfing teeth on Long Beach’s munis, which are operated by American Golf and are in surprisingly decent shape considering they get almost as much traffic as the nearby Interstate 405. I checked in before 7 a.m. on a Monday at El Dorado Park, and the guy behind the counter told me to join a foursome warming up on the 1st tee.
“Make a fivesome?” I asked. “Are you sure?”
“That’s how we do it here in Long Beach,” he said.
|Facts & Contacts|
Greens fees $12-$13; 562-421-8855
|El Dorado Park |
Greens fees $29-$34; 562-430-5411
|Recreation Park |
Greens fees $24-$29; 562-494-4424
|Dad Miller |
Greens fees $23-$38; 714-765-3481
Greens fees $27-$50; 714-846-1364
|Web site for all but Dad Miller is americangolf.com.|
El Dorado’s tight fairways — and a manageable layout of just 6,461 yards — render driver a liability on most holes. Wander into the tree-lined rough and hacking out is like playing Pachinko. Straight, smart irons are the key to scoring here. As I struggled to absorb this lesson, it struck me as unsurprising that so many of Tiger’s most memorable shots involved neither his driver nor his putter: the holed approach on the 15th at Pebble Beach during the 2000 AT&T, the miraculous 3-iron in the 2002 PGA and that awe-inspiring 6-iron from the sand on the last hole of the 2000 Canadian Open.
Recreation Park is the 6,405-yard incubation chamber where Woods honed his intense concentration — a remarkable feat since a course that hosts 124,000 rounds a year will stretch anyone’s focus. Course management is also put to the test at Rec Park. Shortly before one of his first matches for the Western High School Pioneers, Woods was advised by coach Don Crosby not to hit the big stick at the 295-yard 1st hole, a downhill par 4. “He hit driver pin high but left, off the cart path and across the street,” says Crosby. “I asked him why he hit driver, and Tiger said because he’d hit it safely the last time he’d played the course. So I ask him when was the last time he played there, and he shrugged and said, ‘About six years ago.’ “
When Woods was 10 years old, Earl introduced him to Meadowlark Golf Club in Huntington Beach and pro John Anselmo, who coached Tiger until he flew the coop for Stanford. Asked what he sees as the biggest difference between Woods then and now, Anselmo says, “Tiger was 139 pounds when he went off to college.”
Meadowlark’s opening hole is dominated by a massive tree that fronts the green. “What kind of tree is that?” I asked Al and Dean, two friendly old regulars with whom I was paired. “I dunno,” said Al, “but I wish it would die.” The course is just 5,609 yards, but it’s fun — except for the overgrown rough and a few crowned greens that make it feel like you’re hitting your ball onto a balloon. At the 370-yard 12th hole, I hit an easy wedge that landed on the green and rolled off the back, never to be seen again. Charlie Brown’s kite-eating tree has nothing on this rough.
Woods’s most tigerish trait is his love of the kill. He not only wants to beat you today, he wants you beaten before you even show up next week. That was also the case back in high school, when he played matches at Dad Miller Golf Course in Anaheim.
Dad Miller is the future home of the Tiger Woods Learning Center (twlc.org), which is scheduled to open next summer. The facility will include a 35,000-square-foot education complex and a 23-acre teaching area designed by Tom Fazio. But Woods first stamped his name here long ago. Before his final tournament as a high school senior, Tiger’s teammates talked him into swapping his trusty Titleist ball for a denser Top-Flite on the 326-yard 1st hole. He promptly drove the green.
Pitted against Tiger’s prodigious length, his pimpled prey must have been utterly demoralized on the short 4th and 5th holes — par 4s measuring just 259 and 300 yards, respectively. “The 17th hole is a par 5, over 600 yards,” says Anselmo. “Tiger once reached the green hitting driver, 2-iron.” The president of the chess club had a better chance with the prom queen than the best golfer from a rival school did against Tiger.
For all of the trophies and attendant glory that Woods has accumulated, he has lost something along the way. Long gone are the days when he could stroll unnoticed onto a Long Beach muni and relive his childhood. Tiger can go home again no more than Elvis could have shed the sunglasses and kicked back in Tupelo. And in a way, that’s too bad, because behind the fame and fortune is a kid who once played a game with which we are all familiar.
subheadbody Tiger sightings are not unheard of at Tustin Ranch Golf Club, 20 minutes east of Long Beach in Tustin, California. Tiger’s mom, Kultida, lives across the street from this high-end daily-fee, and Woods has been known to pop over and play a few holes (Greens fees $95-$145; 714-730-1611; tustinranchgolf.com).
Woods’s hometown of Cypress is also the headquarters of Cleveland Golf, the only major clubmaker based in Orange County. You can go through the same custom-fitting center used by the pros. Have your local pro or equipment salesperson call Cleveland customer service.
One good option for getting to Long Beach is Jetblue, the low-fare carrier that offers DirecTV at every seat (American, America West and Alaska Airlines also serve Long Beach). JetBlue has nonstop flights from Boston; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Las Vegas; New York; Oakland, California; Salt Lake City and Washington, D.C. (jetblue.com)
Ask For: John Anselmo. Tiger’s former teacher, now a spry 83 years young, still gives lessons at Meadowlark Golf Club. And he charges a lot less than Butch Harmon does: $40 for a half-hour (714-846-1364; americangolf.com).