Cheyenne Woods impresses at Pinehurst despite opening-round 78

Cheyenne Woods impresses at Pinehurst despite opening-round 78

Cheyenne Woods with some budding golf fans after the first round of the U.S. Women's Open at Pinehurst.
Michael Bamberger

PINEHURST, N.C. – This story is sponsored by the legacy of Earl Woods. He taught Tiger how to putt, and he must have been some teacher, and Tiger some student, because in the history of putting nobody has covered more ground with fewer putts than the fourth of Earl’s four children.

Earl tried to impart another lesson on Tiger, and he was heavy-handed about it. At a 2002 fundraising event in Las Vegas, sounding a theme he did on many other occasions, Earl said, "As for his golf, you ain't seen nothin' yet. It'll keep getting better and better. But his impact on this world can be so much greater. It's a hell of a responsibility, to make that impact. So there's your task, son."

And now — digging the scene, no gangsta lean — here comes Earl’s granddaughter, Cheyenne Woods, who on Thursday played the first round of her second U.S. Open. Her father is Earl Woods Jr., Tiger’s half-brother. In her life, she received one putting lesson from her paternal grandfather, who died in May 2006, when Cheyenne was 15. That was at the Navy Golf Course in Seal Beach, where Tiger and Earl played often when Tiger was learning the game.

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On Thursday, Woods played with Natalie Gulbis and Juli Inkster in an all-celebrity threesome. Inkster, 53, has won 31 times on the LPGA tour and is playing in her 35th, and likely last, U.S. Open. A Hall of Famer and a true legend. Gulbis has one win in her 12 years on the LPGA tour, but she is notably . . . telegenic. Woods, who graduated from Wake Forest in 2012 and who will turn 24 next month, won the Australian Ladies Masters in February. She’s a promising young player. Plus, her paternal grandfather was Earl Woods. In our culture, like it or not, that puts in her special box. The boxes on her scorecard won’t care, but she’s been looked at differently from the time she first played in national events as a teenager. She’ll be looked at differently for the rest of her public life. It may be not be fair but it’s the truth.

On Thursday, she shot 78, eight over par. Earl would not have been pleased with the putting. (She took 35 swipes.) He would not have been pleased with bunker play. (She was in 0-for-4 from greenside traps.) He would have been thrilled — absolutely thrilled — with everything else.

I’ll get to the everything else in a minute, but first this brief message from Earl: he gave Cheyenne (she told me) one major thought in their one one-on-one putting session, and that was to picture the hole in her head as she stood over the putt. I’m gong to try it. For one thing, I’ll try anything. For another, this guy had to be one of the best putting teachers in the history of putting teaching. As for Cheyenne’s putting, she is a righty putter who putts left-hand low, like Jim Furyk. She is much faster than Uncle Tiger in terms of reading the putt and getting down to business. She has perfect posture but is much more bent at the waist than Tiger. (She’s also a half-foot shorter.) She’s much less responsive to her good putts and poor ones than Tiger.

The Woods-Gulbis-Inkster threesome took five hours and 25 minutes to play yesterday, in the 90-degree heat. As Woods was finishing, Lydia Ko, with Mike Cowan on her bag, was teeing off. Tiger Woods won his first Masters with Fluff caddying for him, and this week, with Jim Furyk not playing in Hartford, Fluff is giving the No. 2 a second go. When her workday was done, Woods dispensed sweaty hugs to her playing partners and the three caddies, she shook hands with officials and went into the scorer’s room.

The scorer’s room is right beside the bag room, and on the bag room door there’s a photo of Tiger from the 1999 U.S. Open. Wherever she goes in golf, Cheyenne Woods is going to run into photos of Tiger Woods. This one is from the ’99 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, when Tiger was still so skinny and was till wearing those baggy cotton shirts that Earl could have fit in. (Hey, where was that MusclePharm deal when he need it!) In this ’99 shot, he’s posing with the Pinehurst caddiemaster and his assistants, all of them African American. Tiger used to do that sort of thing a lot, or some, anyway. He didn’t hang and he didn’t need to, but he stopped long enough to say hello to the men and women who toil in the game’s back rooms. It wasn’t his natural move, to press flesh and grip-and-grin, but he did it. Maybe he made those stops for Earl, I don’t know. It wasn’t natural for him. He’s shy.

Cheyenne Woods is different, much more outgoing. Earl Sr. was outgoing. She can light up a room and seems comfortable in the presence of strangers in a way her uncle is not. Last year, at the men’s U.S. Open at Merion, she had press credentials as a reporter for the Back9Network, and, with considerable poise and in a calm voice, she posed a question to her uncle in a packed pre-tournament press conference. In fact, she asked an interesting question he would have likely dismissed from anybody else.

She asked, “The U.S. Open is usually one of the most grueling weeks of golf, so what would you do off the course in order to be at ease and relax?”

“Didn’t expect that,” Woods said. He broke into the kind of warm genuine smile that made you reminded you all over again of what he is capable of. “Well, off the course, we have a great crew at the house and we’re going to have fun. Tomorrow, make sure you’re there for it, 6:30 dinner. Is that all right? Okay. Perfect.”

When I asked Cheyenne about that exchange on Thursday, she said, “I was so nervous! I had no idea how he would respond. But it was great.” It was. He showed some warmth. He looked his neice in the eye and seemed comfortable.

There’s something special about this young woman, there really is. Her golf may or may not get better. But you have the sense she will do something impressive, something that would make Earl, in all his change-the-world bluster and glory, proud.

After Woods signed her card, for a score that could not have pleased her, she went upstairs to a clubhouse porch that overlooks the 18th green. There, she met with about 20 young black girls from nearby Durham. They were almost all from needy families. Cheyenne’s mother, Susan, watched from the wings. The girls were part of a one-week sleep-away camp on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus called Healthy Girls Save the World. The program was started by two current college basketball players, sisters named Camille and Rachel McGirt. (You may check out their impressive website here.)

“I’ve never been on a court — I mean a course! — before in my life, and I’m sure most of these girls have not, either,” Camille told me.

Cheyenne lit it up for the girls. Lit it up! She’s a beautiful young woman with an incredible smile and there was so much buzzing from these young girls they had to be quieted so that the golfers on the nearby 18th green would not be disturbed.

Cheyenne told the campers about the other sports she played and her scholarship to Wake Forest. She said, “Golf has a lot of opportunity for females.”

Yes, yes it does! Golf offers a lot of opportunities, period! It is amazing, the places golf will take a person.

There was no great plan in place, to make this little moment with Cheyenne and the campers happen. Somebody spoke to somebody and Cheyenne jumped right in.

She is not those girls. Her paternal grandfather was Earl Woods and her uncle is Tiger Woods. But it was like she knew, maybe on instinct alone, that if Earl Woods did not like golf, and if he and Tida did not have Tiger, and if this didn’t happen and that didn’t happen, she would not be playing in the 2014 U.S. Open. She would not be leading the life she was leading. She was paying it forward, 78 on her card and all.