Playing Through

Winning and losing have taken on a deeper meaning for Tiger Woods since he emerged from his six-week hiatus
February 06, 2006

These should bethe best of times for Tiger Woods. He remains happily married to a Swedishbikini model. Golf Digest recently ran the numbers and projected that by 2010Woods will be the first athlete to earn a billion dollars, and he is certainlyenjoying his money. He just closed escrow on a $38 million estate on a fingerof land on Jupiter Island, Fla., that is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and theIntracoastal Waterway, the latter being the perfect place to park his $22million yacht, Privacy.

But Woods isabout more than just conspicuous consumption. On Feb. 10 he will preside overthe grand opening of the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim, a35,000-square-foot complex designed to prepare youths for careers in math,science, technology and language arts. (For study breaks there will be a10-acre driving range and putting course.) Woods describes the completion ofthe $25 million project as "monumental," adding, "With thisbuilding and hopefully subsequent buildings down the road, I think we canreally make a tremendous impact on kids' lives and futures."

He still plays alittle golf, too. At last week's Buick Invitational, Woods kicked off his 10thseason as a pro with his 47th PGA Tour victory. The performance was all themore noteworthy because it followed the longest break of his career: six weeksbetween events, including a 24-day stretch during which he didn't touch a club.But in victory Woods was strangely subdued, and not because he was handed thewin when his friend José María Olaàbal whiffed a four-foot putt on the secondplayoff hole at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif. Having recently turned 30,Woods is now facing one of life's most sobering realities, the mortality ofone's father.

Earl Woods haslong been his son's guiding force on and off the golf course. When Tiger was apeewee prodigy, his father famously jangled the change in his pocket and flungtees at his son in mid-swing, the better to instill mental toughness. It wasEarl's dream that Tiger make a contribution to society beyond winningtournaments, and as chairman of the Tiger Woods Foundation, Earl has beenactively involved in the creation of the Learning Center. But now the formerGreen Beret is fighting for his life, due to a relapse of prostate cancer thatwas first diagnosed in 1998. It was thought to have been eradicated byradiation therapy, but in 2004 Earl revealed that the cancer had returned andspread throughout his body, causing lesions on his back and a tumor behind hisleft eye. "My eye was literally pushed out of the socket," Earl toldthe Boston Herald in September 2004. "The pain was so bad, it was pastbeing a headache. There's no such thing as a headache like that."

More radiationtherapy followed, and last spring Earl was given a clean bill of health, thoughTiger--a noted exercise freak--was not impressed by his father's lifestyle."He doesn't exactly take care of himself," he said last May. "He'sstill puffing away, and that's just the way it is. He's been real stubbornabout everything. It's got him this far, so we'll just kind of leave himbe."

The cancerreturned near the end of 2005, and soon Earl's condition becamegrave--"touch and go," according to an intimate of Tiger's. The 24 daysin which Woods did not touch a club were spent by Earl's side. "He's mydad, and I love him to death," Tiger said. "He's my best friend, andanytime [I] can spend that much time [with him], especially when he wasn'tfeeling all that well, it meant the world to me."

At the Buick,Woods honored his father the best way he knows how, with superb golf. It wasn'tthe first time that's happened. After shooting a 63 at last year's FordChampionship, Woods said he was merely granting "a birthday wish" tohis old man, who had turned 73 that day. A month later Tiger dedicated hisMasters victory to Earl in a tearful green jacket ceremony. It was a rareoutpouring of emotion, and last week Woods kept his feelings mostly out ofview, his grim resolve on the golf course matched by a stoic pressroom demeanorwith which he tersely deflected questions about Earl. With a nod to Earl's oldmind games, Tiger's friend Charles Howell observed the obvious last week,saying, "He's good at blocking things out."

Yet Woods's Buickvictory owed more than a little to his willingness to let his father in. Whenit comes to golf they share an almost mystical connection. Earl is confined tohis home in Cypress, Calif., the same modest dwelling, tucked into amiddle-class neighborhood, in which Tiger was raised. When facing a crucialputt in his playoff against Olaàbal, Tiger later said he could picture Earl"sitting on the couch saying, 'Just lag it up there.'" To that pointWoods had been suffering through a disastrous putting round on Torrey's bumpygreens, but with a deft lag he secured the par that won the tournament. Nodoubt Earl was pleased.

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