The legend of Tiger Woods is so tied to his father that it’s sometimes hard to decipher exactly who is responsible for what amid golf’s radical new landscape. Earl Woods, who died at the age of 74 on Wednesday at his home in Cypress, California, after a lengthy battle with prostate cancer, was from the beginning bound by golf to his fourth child.
Earl was never a pro; he didn’t even pick up golf until he was almost 40, and then only at the suggestion of a friend in the Army. But he worked at it and got down to a 3 handicap. Tiger was 6 months old when he was plopped into a high chair in the garage in Cypress while “Pops” smacked balls into a net. According to “Tiger” (Broadway Books, 1997), a biography that covers Woods’s upbringing and early years on the PGA Tour, the infant was so mesmerized he refused food brought by mom Kultida. The compromise: For every shot he watched, he’d take a bite.
The rest, as they say, is history. Tiger taking his first swing at 9 months, and showing such solid form Earl later called it, “the most frightening thing I’d ever seen.” Tiger the toddler putting with Bob Hope on the “Mike Douglas Show,” his appearance on “That’s Incredible,” and so on.
But for all the coaching, companionship and life lessons that Earl Woods bestowed upon his son, what stands out is that he knew when to exit the stage. Almost from the day the son turned professional, in the fall of 1996, the father let him go. A famous photograph shows the two hugging behind the 18th green after Tiger won the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes, but after that Earl was seldom seen on Tour. This was due in part to his poor health (he smoked, and in addition to the cancer he had diabetes) and in part to his better instincts.
Earl showed restraint as a proud father even in the junior ranks, where officials were more likely to find him dozing under a tree than charting the kid’s strokes. During a 2002 interview, he admitted he hadn’t spoken to Tiger in weeks and added, “We have the kind of relationship that doesn’t need validation every day.”
He was, of course, exceedingly proud of his son, and sometimes he got carried away. He boasted in a Sports Illustrated interview in 1996 that Tiger would transcend the sport and change the world in a way that Nelson Mandela and Gandhi never did. But for the most part Earl Woods knew his place and took it with a smile, content to watch the kid do his thing. Earl Woods was no Little League dad.
A decorated Green Beret who did two tours of Vietnam, Earl had the perspective that comes from cheating death. Earl first bestowed the “Tiger” nickname to Nguyen Phong, the South Vietnamese soldier who saved his life, and later to his son, who legally took it over his birth name, Eldrick.
Earl’s connection to Tiger the man, Tiger the pro, was largely through the Tiger Woods Foundation, which Earl chaired and cherished. It was a sign of his failing health that he did not attend the opening of the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim, California, in February. The Center, which provides free enrichment programs in math, science and technology for 5th-12th grade students, was the beneficiary of Tiger Jam IX, which featured headliner Sting just last weekend at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. The event was a sell out.
Woods has not played a competitive round since last month’s Masters, where he tied for third, three strokes behind winner Phil Mickelson. He was not entered in this week’s Wachovia Championship in Charlotte, North Carolina, and may not play again until the U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club outside New York City, June 15-18. Still, he has been busy.
Before Tiger Jam, he was the best man at the New Zealand wedding of his caddie, Steve Williams, the end of a whirlwind week that saw the two race cars and bungee-jump 440 feet off a bridge. Woods also recently purchased a home in Jupiter, Florida.
He said in a statement on Wednesday: “I’m overwhelmed when I think of all of the great things [Earl Woods] accomplished in his life. He was an amazing dad, coach, mentor, soldier, husband and friend. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him, and I’m honored to continue his legacy of sharing and caring. Thank you to all who are sending condolences to my family and our Foundation.”
Earl’s hope for the family’s modest house in Cypress is that it be turned into a national historic monument, a sort of golf Graceland. “All the floors in here are granite,” he told an interviewer in 2002. “They are not hardwood or any of that other stuff. Granite-the hardest stone. All the wood you see is walnut. It’s built to last.”
So, too, is Earl Woods’s legacy, thanks to his son, whom he spoke about movingly at the Fred Haskins award dinner for the nation’s outstanding college golfer of 1996:
“He will transcend this game and bring to the world a humanitarianism which has never been known before,” Earl said haltingly, choking back tears. “The world will be a better place to live in by virtue of his existence and his presence. I acknowledge only a small part in that I know that I was personally selected by God himself to nurture this young man and bring him to the point where he can make a contribution to humanity. This is my treasure. Please accept it and use it wisely. Thank you.”